If you ask Gray Maynard whether his unbeaten record and five-fight winning streak in the UFC ought to be enough to propel him into the lightweight title contender picture, his answer is a simple one: no.
The former All-American wrestler has quietly built a 9-0-1 record as a professional mixed martial artist and has gained a reputation as one of the UFC's most-feared 155-pound fighters. But a title shot? Not yet.
It's not that he thinks he's physically incapable of hanging with the top dogs in the division. But, as his detractors are often eager to remind him, he's still far from a fan favorite, and he knows it.
"The key is, you've got to have people who are eager to pay to check you out," said Maynard. "After [The Ultimate Fighter], it was a slow development for me. I had to keep learning in the gym. I could strike a little, but not much. Jiu-jitsu, I was OK. So I had to improve on all that. If I keep doing that, I think people will start to say, 'Hey, this guy is good. I want to see him again.' It's coming, but I'm not there yet."
Part of the problem may be Maynard's fighting style. Though he surprised everyone when he put on a boxing clinic against Jim Miller in March, he's spent most of his MMA career getting by on the strength of his wrestling skills. Of his five UFC wins, four have come via decision. He's yet to be in a fight that he didn't completely dominate, but his methodical, workman-like victories haven't exactly excited fans.
But as fans aren't clamoring to watch Maynard in the cage, opponents are dying to meet him in the Octagon either. Not only is he a guy who can beat you, he can also make you look bad in the process. And unfortunately for Roger Huerta, he could be the next victim.
Huerta, who faces the wrath of Maynard at UFC Fight Night 19 on Sept. 16, is said to be more interested in pursuing an acting and modeling career than a fighting one. The bout with Maynard marks the end of his current contract with the UFC, and with it, the final chapter in a contentious relationship between Huerta and his employer.
For Maynard, the fight with Huerta is a perfect opportunity to further show off his improved all-around game. Since making his UFC debut following the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter, he's steadily improved his stand-up skills after making boxing a top priority during his last two and a half years in the gym.
"People can say, 'He can't strike, he doesn't have any hands,'" said Maynard. "Well, I was just getting into the sport back then. It all takes time."
At 30 years old, time is something Maynard still has, though he won't be able to say that for too much longer. At this point, it may not be enough simply to win. He has to find a way to excite fans without assuming needless risks. He needs to become the guy people will pay to see, and he needs to do it soon.
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