On Saturday night the UFC will return to Brazil where UFC Fight Night 119 takes centre stage in Sao Paulo.
The headline fight is a middleweight bout between Lyoto Machida and the number seven ranked Derek Brunson. Machida is making a return to the UFC after almost two and a half years outside the octagon.
Meanwhile, a Demian Maia vs Colby Covington contest will provide the co-main event entertainment on the night.
Demian Maia is a phenomenal athlete and arguably the greatest Brazilian jiu-jitsu artist in the UFC’s history. Yet, he has been overlooked to headline the event by a fighter who is coming off two consecutive defeats, has not fought in twenty-eight months and has failed a drug test in the meantime.
One might have assumed that Maia’s recent record would have been enough to earn the headline slot on the card.
Between May 2014 and August 2016, Maia went on a six-fight win streak which culminated in a first round submission over Carlos Condit. Many, Maia included, believed that this victory over Condit would guarantee a title shot.
However, the UFC did not agree and forced Maia to take a very risky match-up against Jorge ‘Gamebred’ Masvidal.
Other fighters may have cried foul and objected to this as is so often the case. But the Brazilian accepted instructions from the top brass and fought Masvidal. Demian put on a masterclass in BJJ and smothered Gamebred to take a decision victory.
This earned Maia his long-awaited shot at the gold. However, once again the UFC match-makers did not take Maia’s preferences into account, and fixed the fight for less than three months after he defeated Masvidal.
Ultimately, the BJJ black belt was defeated in a five-round co-main event by Tyron ‘The Chosen One’ Woodley.
Despite this one defeat, Demian has shown enough in his welterweight career to demonstrate he can cause problems for any man in the division. He has dedicated himself to the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and managed to develop a game plan to utilise his abilities.
He has been aptly nicknamed ‘The Human Backpack’ due to his ability to stick to his opponent. The age old question is repeatedly thrown at the Brazilian; how can he succeed with such a specialised, grapple based game plan in a sport where striking is so crucial?
This results in Maia repeatedly being written off as an underdog. Yet the veteran fighter comes through time and time again.
His intelligence inside the octagon is matched by his intelligence outside. The journalism graduate conducts himself in a respectful manner and often opts to stay out of the media spotlight.
In the Conor McGregor era of UFC, this has become rare to see. The Sao Paulo native has refused to fall into the trap of self-promotion through slandering his peers.
For example, when Tyron Woodley labelled his decision to accept the fight with Masvidal as ‘stupid’, Maia spurned the opportunity to create a ‘beef’ but instead spoke insightfully and analytically on the champ’s persona.
“It was an unfortunate comment. And, also, I see that pattern in him – he never knows if he wants to be a nice guy, or an arrogant guy, or a guy who promotes himself, or a good guy. He can’t go in one direction. I think this lack of coherence only hurts him. I think that’s why he’s a champion who doesn’t have a lot of charisma.”
Understandably, the UFC is a business and, as such, made the decision that a Machida headline would present a more lucrative card.
Unfortunately for Maia, his many strengths, as outlined above, have also played into the UFCs reluctance to put him in the spotlight.
His grappling based fighting style is not as fan-friendly as the largely striking based styles of the other contenders in the welterweight division, for example Robbie Lawler or Stephen Thompson.
Likewise, his analytical and humble personality will not make the headlines like a Conor McGregor or Michael Bisping.
As Demian Maia reaches the twilight of his career, it remains difficult to see one of the all-time greats not get the recognition he deserves as he returns to his hometown.
Cathal Geeney, Pundit Arena