Saturday’s UFC main event is one of the more fascinating matchups we’ve seen thus far in 2019. Two-time, two-division world title challenger, and former Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world champion Demian Maia takes on former two-time NCAA Division I wrestling national champion and freestyle Olympian Ben Askren in Singapore, and it’s anyone’s fight.
This fight would have been much more ideal had it taken place four to five years ago, before the UFC had ended their effective black-balling of Askren, and while both men were still in or near their physical primes. Still, the two grapplers bringing their elite and contrasting styles to the cage to finally face-off against one another is exciting and appears to intrigue even Askren and Maia themselves, if recent interviews are any indication.
In reduced terms, both men have built successful MMA careers by bringing fights to the ground and dominating opponents on the mat. They tend to do this a lot differently than one another, however, so the comparisons pretty much end at, “they’ve both got great MMA takedowns and are excellent mat wrestlers.”
In his younger days, the BJJ black belt Maia managed to out-wrestle many excellent wrestling-based opponents like Chael Sonnon, Jon Fitch, Jake Shields and a host of others. As he’s aged, the grappling wizard has stayed competitive and relevant, but understandably has not been able to best or out-wrestle younger, wrestling-based opposition like Tyron Woodley, Kamaru Usman or Colby Covington.
Askren is no spring chicken at this point in his career, either, but he’s significantly younger than Maia, and also has a much better amateur wrestling résumé than anyone Maia has ever before faced. On the other hand, the wrestlers who have beaten Maia — guys like Woodley, Usman and Covington – all tried to used their wrestling ability to stay off of the ground, instead of putting Maia on the mat.
They tried to keep the submission artist away from them, defended takedowns, and did damage on the feet when they could, as well as taking advantage of bad shots from Maia, getting him turtled up, face-down afterward and riding and doing work with strikes from there. Askren has never before showed any indication that he is interested or much capable of that type of stand-and-strike-first mentality, and so it’s entirely possible that — though he’s a better amateur wrestler than any of those Maia foes — his game plan won’t be as frustrating to Maia because he’ll look to initiate grappling exchanges instead of avoid them.
Maia has usually done well when he stalks, even chases opponents, striking with punches actively before looking for takedowns. He struck effectively on the feet against Woodley, Usman and Covington, but could not get or keep them down.
Maia isn’t likely to get takedowns against Askren, either, and chasing him may not be a great idea. If Maia stays patient on the feet and looks to strike on the outside, mixing in uppercuts with his usual 1-2, he could have a recipe for success, however.
Maia can hit Askren, make him work to get inside, and from there Maia can focus on seeing how good of a position he can get himself to on the ground, even off of his back, if Askren does score takedowns. This type of reserved but active approach that deemphasizes his usual takedown attempt-heavy mentality, could save Maia energy, which he’ll need lots of, especially since he has not shown an ability to keep a pace for five rounds since he hit middle-age.
Maia has historically also pulled half-guards off of failed single-leg takedown attempts. From there, he’s managed to work his way into sweeps, get-ups and takedowns.
If Askren has the right approach and is content to lock Maia up in front headlocks and strike from there, like Usman and Covington did to Maia, he should be safe from that usually dangerous situation.
Askren’s own habits can get him in trouble as well, however. If he stands within reach of Maia with no head movement, arms outstretched, as he often does, he can get hit. If Askren also doesn’t clear the legs of Maia while taking him down, he could get caught in areas on the ground that will be difficult for him to deal with.
Simply standing up from inside Maia’s guard won’t be easy or safe for Askren, who has been swept trying to do the same against lesser grapplers in the past. It sounds strange to say, but it may end up being the case that the man who most successfully and patiently resists the urge to lurch into their usual go-to tendencies will have the best chance at winning.
I believe that the more patient, cautious guy may very well have the advantage in this fight. If Maia runs after Askren and constantly goes for takedowns, he’ll likely fail and tire himself out in the process.
If Askren stands right in front of Maia with no guard or head movement, he’ll get hit, and if he enters takedowns with his usual low posture and settles for any scramble and takedown he can get, he’ll be open to submissions.
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