When Demian Maia is able to take his opposition down, it’s a like watching a magic amulet turn bright blue before unlocking some secrets to the universe. When he can’t, it’s like watching some dude trying to start a stubborn lawn mower. Saturday night in Chile, we got the latter. There was the 40-year-old Maia shooting on Kamaru Usman again and again (and again), and the damn thing wouldn’t start. You could practically hear Maia mumbling “well you son of a bitch” under his breath.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been quite such a mundane affair if Maia weren’t in the main event of a Fight Night against a fighter widely known as the Man Nobody Wants to Face. This was one of those match-ups that had the look of a flotation device all along; if Maia hadn’t stepped in for the injured Santiago Ponzinibbio, the new market of Santiago, Chile wouldn’t have had an event. If Maia hadn’t turned so many able-bodied men into pretzels over the years, we wouldn’t have accepted him as a viable replacement. If Usman wasn’t Usman, the most dodged fighter since Deebo, waiting up until well past midnight (on the East Coast) would have felt a little more daunting.
As it were, there was just enough fascination to tune in. Maia did his level best to get the fight to his realm, and Usman smartly made himself unbudgeable. Once in a while, Maia would lie on his back with his ankles turned to heaven, inviting Usman to perhaps lie down with him to have his oxygen supply cut off. A couple of times Usman actually did accompany Maia to the ground, but it was just to hammerfist his feet or punch away at his buttocks, things that register as offense well right of the decimal in a ten-point must system. If what we witnessed was a changing of the guard on Saturday night, it was an ear-popping yawn of a changing of the guard, one of those yawns that produces tears. Even just typing that feels like data entry work, nothing more than a record for posterity.
It didn’t help that Usman proclaimed afterwards that he may have broken his right hand early in the fight, before divulging that he thought he may have broken his left hand, too. Hitting the top of Maia’s ever-burrowing cranium takes a harsh toll. Perhaps in lieu or a performance of the night bonus, the UFC could have at least given Usman a t-shirt that reads, “I went all the way to Chile and all I got was two broken hands” — because it’s unclear if he got himself a contender’s spot after the thankless task of beating Maia. That, if nothing else, should have been the big picture goal.
Not that Usman necessarily tried there, either. When presented the microphone, he said he would leave it up to his management to determine whom he would next face. He did say that current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley was an easier fight than Maia, which are (probably) fighting words, while also tossing out the idea of facing the winner of Darren Till vs. Stephen Thompson. Any of those fights would be compelling. So would running back the idea of the Ponzinibbio fight.
In other words, all the same options he had before he stepped in there to try and solve Maia on short notice and got his hands mangled. Did it advance anything? Probably, at least on some level. Usman is now 8-0 in the UFC, with six decisions. This was the first time he got a full five rounds in, which only serves to benefit him going forward on his title quest.
The grind is real.
And let’s face it, to beat Demian Maia is to smudge a beautiful landscape. It’s to curse in the cathedral, and to stick by the claim that all babies are ugly. There’s no pretty way to handle Maia, who is a relentless optimist at heart. The only man to finish him was Nate Marquardt all the way back at UFC 102 in Portland. That was a one-punch affair that Marquardt afterwards said felt anticlimactic, because he was anticipating a dogfight. Maia is a confounding fighter with no quit in him. He makes it easy to coo when describing his prowess on the mat, yet the opposite is also true — when the jitz is shut down, it’s 15-to-25 minutes of existential quandary. It’s televised frustration.
And so it was on Saturday night, too. This time it was Usman who stood in there, taking not only Maia’s best shot but also his spot in the pecking order. It wasn’t a thing of beauty so much as a thing that happened. Sorry, not sorry. Usman got his hand raised by being a stubborn lawn mower.
You’re welcome, Chile?