Translation: To roll with Maia is to put one’s championship aspirations severely at risk.
Even former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva opted not to play around with Maia on the ground during their April 2010 title bout. Silva’s fight plan turned out to be correct as he retained his 185-pound belt with a difficult-to-watch (read: boring) unanimous decision.
Avoiding a grappling match with Maia has been the prevailing thought since the jiu-jitsu expert made his professional MMA debut in September 2001. But that longstanding prefight strategy will end Wednesday night in Barueri, Brazil as Jake Shields has tossed that mantra out the window. The former Strikeforce middleweight champion is in dire need of a win over a highly ranked contender and insists he will take down Maia and submit him in their UFC welterweight main-event showdown.
And Shields isn’t just talking smack as a way to build up the fight; he’s dead serious. This is a style matchup that Shields — who’s also a high-level submission expert — is certain his overall jiu-jitsu skills are tailor-made to negate anything Maia tosses his way.
According to Shields, the biggest difference between his jiu-jitsu and Maia’s is inclusion of wrestling. That, Shield says, will be the deciding factor. Maia has never faced a fighter inside the Octagon who combines jiu-jitsu and wrestling quite the way Shields does.
“I have a little better wrestling,” Shields told ESPN.com. “My style is more suited for MMA.”
This is a very dangerous fight for each man, but especially for Maia. He enters this bout ranked fifth among 170-pound fighters by ESPN.com. Maia has yet to lose a welterweight fight, going 3-0 since joining the division in July 2012.
Life inside the Octagon has been challenging for Shields, who is 3-2 (one no contest) during his time with the promotion. But a victory over Maia will get folks talking positively about him again. Maia, on the other hand, has a lot more at stake. He wants a title shot and victory in his native Brazil puts him in position to begin campaigning for it.
“A victory maybe gives me a chance to fight for the title,” Maia told ESPN.com. “Even though Jake isn’t ranked in the top 10 right now, he was the Strikeforce champion and he’s fought for the UFC [welterweight] title.
“Everybody in the mixed martial arts community knows how tough he is and how good an athlete he is. And they know how tough of a test he is for me.”
It’s Shields’ aggressive style of jiu-jitsu that makes him such a difficult test for Maia. It seems strange to envision any opponent posing a serious threat on the ground to the man recognized as the UFC’s best submission artist, but even Maia acknowledges that Shields brings a unique set of grappling skills to the table.
“I have so many years of competing in jiu-jitsu,” Maia said. “I have so many championships; maybe this will give me the advantage. But this is MMA, it’s not just the sport of jiu-jitsu, so I can’t allow him to surprise me.
“It’s good to have an opponent who wants to do jiu-jitsu with me, but at the same time he is someone who is more skilled and experienced than most others I have fought before [in MMA]. This is a very tough fight for me, because he is a guy who won’t avoid the ground game with me.”
While jiu-jitsu is getting much of the attention leading into this fight, Shields is prepared to unveil his Plan B if the grappling game isn’t working in his favor. Every MMA bout starts on the feet, and Shields has worked vigorously to lift his standup skills. There have been times when he has looked uncomfortable throwing a simple jab inside the cage. Even his footwork has appeared amateurish, but Shields has never lost faith in his ability to improve with each sparring session.
The improvements are visible, putting Shields in a place where confidence has kicked in. Shields enters Wednesday’s night fight expecting to have an advantage in the striking department. And if needed, he intends to taunt Maia with his improved boxing.
“I want to make this a jiu-jitsu fight; we’re the best two jiu-jitsu guys at 170, but we carry a lot of good standup as well,” Shields said. “He’s good on his feet too, but I think I have a slight edge there. I do want to make this a jiu-jitsu fight, but I am willing to stand with him as well.”
Maia also has worked hard to improve his striking, but he isn’t under the illusion that area of MMA will play too big of a role Wednesday night. This will be a grappling battle; Maia and Shields expect nothing less.
“It will be the core of this fight,” Maia said. “We both know jiu-jitsu and know it will be a big part of the fight at some point. So we both must be fully prepared. We both use submissions to win fights. That’s why [jiu-jitsu] will be so important.
“The standup will happen at some point or at many points in this fight, but it will be mainly a grappling match. It’s our main weapon.”
Maia-Shields will be a grappling match with some wrestling and striking thrown in for good measure. Various high-level submission attempts will be on display, until one man eventually taps. This fight will be fun to watch, for as long as it lasts.