Analyzing the grappling game of Demian Maia

Monday, October 07, 2013

Analyzing The Ground Game: Demian Maia The Humble Professor

Demian Maia is a name everyone should know, among the finest practitioners of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu the MMA world has seen to date.

The intricacies and subtle aspects of Demian Maia’s grappling ability sets him a notch above the rest, or in some cases countless notches.

Maia trained Judo in his adolescence, and then took up other martial arts throughout his teen years. He discovered his passion, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, when he was nineteen.

There after Maia earned both a degree in Journalism and a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, within four years and seven months, to be exact.

As of today Demian Maia is a 4th degree black belt in BJJ, and ranks among the elite in the UFC welterweight division.

After six fights Maia entered the UFC, where he has made 16 consecutive appearances.

Wednesday’s contest with Jake Shields will Mark his 17th bout in the Octagon, in just short of six years.

Maia has had his ups and downs. Nate Marquardt was the only opponent to successfully finish Maia. Since then he has only lost to former champion Anderson Silva, current Champion Chris Weidman, and number one contender Mark Munoz.

A careful analysis of Maia’s career reveals amazing growth – a transition from grappling phenom to well rounded mixed martial artist, with one of the most dangerous ground games in the UFC.

The techniques that brought success to this scientist are:
•Improved wrestling/Judo
•Top Control/Guard passing/Submissions
•Back Control/Submissions

Improved wrestling/Judo

From the very beginning, Maia knew that one must be able to impose their skills on the opponent to be successful. A sportsman whose base is elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu must learn to wrestle to re-enforce their game. Maia has shown an ever improving wrestling ability that separates him from the Brazilian herd. Many BJJ-based fighters will rely on their guard game and can be successful for a while. At the top of the sport, Maia has illustrated the importance and need of wrestling ability in MMA for BJJ based competitors.

There area  few points to keep in mind while reading. Maia has the ability to break down his opponents’ base with elevation and extension of their limbs. Second, Maia has an expert control of distance in the wrestling game. Lastly, Maia makes use of his head to aim his takedowns and to flow his movements. The head is the bow of the ship, aiming it for the destination.

Also please note that the analysis is after the gifs below not before.

Relatively early in Maia’s UFC career, he was pitted against Chael P. Sonnen. Sonnen is known for being one of the most grueling and persistent wrestlers in the UFC, among the elite, at both the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. Maia illustrates in perfect form how to throw one of the best wrestlers in the division. Against the fence Maia has an overhook on the left and and underhook on the right which are important to pulling/throwing Sonnen off balance, but the real beauty is in the footwork. Maia pressures Sonnen against the cage then backs up to throw a knee giving Sonnen the idea to drive forward to defend the knees to the body. This is the trap!

When Sonnen pushes in, Maia plants his left leg and hits a beautiful ankle trip with his right leg on Sonnen’s. Notice this is Sonnen’s first step forward off that misdirection and Maia immediately capitalizes on it. To break down the motion, Maia is pulling back and to his right, which is where he wants Sonnen to go. Maia drops his hips, and at the same time sweeps the ankle causing Sonnen to fly over him with minimal effort.

The throw itself is hard to pin down. As it would seem the throw contains elements of the Judo technique Sasae Tsurikomi Ashi, and a lateral drop from wrestling.

Sasae Tsuriikomi Ashi shown here courtesy of and Neil Ohlenkamp.

One can clearly see the similarities in Maia’s throw and Sasae Tsurikomi Ashi. While the grips aren’t the same in MMA and n Judo, the movement of the shoulders in relation to the trip and throw are nearly identical. Obviously Maia drops his hips and rolls as done in a Lateral drop, but this fantastic hybrid throw is quite impressive on such a high level wrestler.

Next, we will take a look at one of the numerous takedowns Maia hit on Jon Fitch in their bout at welterweight. Fitch is the former captain of the Purdue Wrestling team. The fact that Maia was able to take down Fitch pretty much at will was astonishing. Maia’s blast double and his single leg takedowns have steadily climbed in completion rate as his timing, footwork, and overall confidence in his wrestling game has soared.

In this takedown, Maia times his shot right under Fitch, as Fitch attempts to throw his right hand. Fitch notices this and tries to sit back but Maia is too deep. Maia hits a few textbook parts of this technique that seem to fall by the wayside in MMA. Right at the beginning Maia tucks his head, but keeps it tight to Fitch’s hips/body. Maia clinches the leg tight to him, but the key is as he elevates.

Elevation of the leg really forces the hips of the opponent back and down. At the same time as the elevation of the leg, Maia turns the corner on Fitch and he aims with his head. Just as discussed in the shots of Khabib Nurmagomedov, Maia turns the corner, elevates, and sucks the leg in gracefully putting his opponent on his back. This is a shot every grappler should know and know well.

Maia has become quite effective with his takedowns in the clinch, most notably his trips. This will become an ongoing trend with Demian Maia. Trips are really an under utilized takedown and are incredibly versatile in their own right. In a similar fashion, the front kick was a rare sight before Anderson KO’d Vitor Belfort, and now we see front kicks in a vastly larger number of bouts. Maia really likes to bully his opponents, in the clinch, and when he is in on the legs and sweeps their bases right out from under them.

This move is not complicated. Maia is dominating the clinch with double underhooks and is pressuring Fitch. There is a subtle movement Maia makes in the clinch to set this up. When he gets Fitch against the cage, he actually twists him to the opposite side he plans to trip. Maia elevates and draws Fitch’s left leg forward, which puts most of Fitch’s weight on his back leg, making the trip a simple task.

Here is another prime example of two of Maia’s increased wrestling skills at work. Maia blasts deep into the double leg, Fitch defends the initial shot and is forced to work against the cage. This creates a stalemate most of the time, but Maia makes use of the trip. Fitch has a wide base, with strong legs and over all is defending well, but alone his single leg is weak. Notice how Maia adjusts his feet a bit to the right just before the trip. Maia hooks his right foot behind Fitch’s calf and slides it forward. At the same time Maia aims with his head where he wants Fitch’s body to go, pulling him tighter and turning the corner.

Maia takes the path of least resistance in the wrestling game, and it almost always pays dividends. Against the cage this trip is really underutilized. A lot of fighters in this position will attempt to souplesse their opponent (usually unsuccessfully), or will hold them against the cage. Maia catches Fitch with his feet too close together and pulls his hips into him, while sweeping both of Fitch’s legs with his right leg. Maia takes the path of least resistance in the wrestling game, and it almost always pays dividends.

In Maia’s second fight at welterweight, he was given another top wrestler, Rick Story – the only man who has beaten Johny Hendricks. This fight really illustrated Maia’s tenacity, particularly in pursuit of the takedown. From the start, Story was looking to take off Maia’s head and over committed on a combination, allowing Maia to duck under and blast into Story’s hips. Story being an explosive wrestler defends quite well, almost shucking Maia off against the cage, but Maia persists and converts from a double to a single leg elevating until he can get Story against the fence.

The distance control by Maia is fantastic, he keeps his chin tucked to the leg, and never once lets Story separate. Once against the fence, Maia  big brothers him, technically. There is no doubt it took some strength for Maia to lift Story above his head, but with the leg elevated Maia drives up and in. Look at Story’s foot before Maia picks him up, he is on his ‘tippy toes’. Maia cups the back of Story’s left thigh with his right arm and elevates. Also keep in mind Maia has excellent posture as he drives Story in the air, straightening and extending himself. Right at the end Maia can be seen tying up Story’s legs with his right arm setting up for the pass.

Against Jorge Santiago, a renown BJJ practitioner in his own right, Maia catches Santiago coming in after they exchange punches. When they tie up, Maia takes control with an underhook on the left and starts driving forwars. Santiago attempts to pull out from the clinch, but pulls off to his left, while Maia hooks his right leg on the outside with his own left leg. Here, the difference between a sweep and trip is clear. As Maia drives and steps in with his left leg, he hooks Santiago’s which creates a pulling motion below the center of gravity, and a pushing force above it. The hooking aspect is the key difference – a sweep is usually done with a locked our semi locked out leg. Maia hooks Santiago’s leg and actually wraps his leg around Jorge’s, locking the joint and elevating the leg.

How many time have a pair of fighters been stuck against the fence, with one attacking the back of the other, but to no avail? Maia uses a simple trip to break down Fitch’s base. Fitch is doing everything you can against a world class BJJ player in Demian Maia, but Maia finds a way to extend Fitch’s hips and take him off balance.  This is simple, but is not really taught in wrestling or Judo, because there are no walls, and there are no fences in either sport. The key that might be looked past or overlooked is Maia’s position in relation to Fitch -Maia is off to the side almost perpendicular. Attempting this directly from the back is possible, but far less efficient. The goal of this is not to take the opponent down, instead, the goal is to break the base.

One of Maia’s shortest fights ever was against Dong Hyun Kim. In his first outing at welterweight, Maia had something to prove with the perennial contender and grinder Kim. From the bell Maia pursued the takedown against Kim, and Kim did not seem very prepared for it, or perhaps was confident in his own takedown abilities against Maia. To his surprise, Maia overwhelmed him and took his back standing.

Maia has Kim’s back standing against the cage and lifts him with a weak body lock throw but rather than force the takedown, Maia throws in his left leg on the inside of Kim’s left. Watch closely when Maia Hooks that leg above the knee not below. Kim’s body begins to twist in that direction pulling him off his heavier foot on his right side. When the two men land Maia’s grip and the positioning he has on Kim’s body actually breaks Kim’s ribs. While to some, it may be considered a technicality, but the fact is Maia took down one of the best wrestlers/grinders in the division from the bell and broke his rib with said wrestling. This was only Kim’s second loss, the first being to Carlos Condit.

Top Control/Guard passing/Submissions

In the pursuit of greatness as a grappler and pugilist, Maia has always maintained his loyalty to the basics. Maia is not always the most flashy, but he is not a gritty grinder either. Maia executes the lowest level techniques flawlessly allowing for his more advanced techniques to seem standard. In top control Maia exemplifies this. Most fighters just have no defense for Maia’s control. They can not submit Maia, nor can they sweep him.

In the fight against Rick Story, Maia has pushed Story to the cage and has him on his butt; however, Story is in position to ‘wall walk’ and slide up the fence with his back. To foil Story’s plans of returning to his feet Maia ,hooks under Story’s left leg and elevates it and pulls him from cage so he has no friction to resist. Maia holds Story in place with his left hand for the duration of the technique. This keeps Story for creating space and escaping from Maia’s top pressure. As Maia pulls Story off the fence, he turns the corner and Story finds himself flat on his back with Maia on top.

This technique is not very complicated, and has evolved from having to deal with fighters against a fence, a situation nonexistent in both BJJ and wrestling. If more fighters used this technique, there would be far less stalling against the fence.


Towards the end of their bout, Maia and Santiago are pretty gassed, but Maia stays in control. To make the pass easier Maia contorts Santiago’s body so that he curls inwards to his left allowing Maia to break Santiago’s half-guard. On the topic of contorting of the body; Maia with his right arm is forcing Santiago’s head down and to the side maintaining control of the left side of Santiago’s upper body. At the same time Maia grinds his instep into Santiago’s knee, flattening it out, opening the guard allowing the full transition to side control.


Earlier we discussed the beautiful throw by Maia on Chael Sonnen. Now we will take a look at the set and choke Maia hit on The Gangster from Oregon.  Following from one image to the other, we can see Maia actually lands with his right leg over the right arm and shoulder of Sonnen. This sets up the mounted triangle transition perfectly. While Maia sets his hips, notice he maintains complete control over Sonnen’s right arm the entire time. This allows Maia to control his back and keeps Sonnen from rolling him over or sweeping him in the transition. Also watch Maia’s distance control – he never lets Sonnen have an inch, driving his abdomen into Sonnen’s face until he is ready to roll and even then he is clinging incredibly tight to Sonnen.

The triangle is picture perfect, Maia has it locked over the ankle not the foot right from the start, and cups the back of Sonnen’s head tightening the choke. Remember, Maia is all about the fundamentals and his fundamentals are top notch in all cases.

Back Control/Submissions


Maia’s Back control is among the best ever in MMA history. Here, Maia has Fitch’s back against the cage and is breaking him down working towards a choke. The body-triangle from the back, which is underutilized in MMA, is implemented quite well here by Maia. On Fitch’s back, Maia drives his hips constantly into Fitch and stays heavy on his base. Another lacking technique that is used here is Maia’s wrist control from the back, which is textbook wrestling for flattening your opponent out. Shooting under the left arm Maia reaches through grabbing the top of the wrist. This pulls backwards the wrist of his opponent to an unnatural angle allowing Maia to limit Fitch’s defense. Maia also gets him with some hammer fists.

Against Kendall Grove, Maia had his first encounter in MMA with a really tall and lanky fellow. Maia had howeve had however tapped out the guant Gabriel ‘Napao’ Gonzaga out in a BJJ tournament. Maia dominated Grove from bell to bell with his incredible top game. From the start, Maia has wrist control and is working to flatten Grove out. Maia floats on the back mount so he does not get rolled over as Grove transitions from being semi-mounted to giving up his back. Maia balances on Grove as he turtles and hips into him, but Grove does a forward roll. A number of opponents have tried to use the same technique to get out of back mount, and were generally sadly disappointed. When the flip begins, Maia tucks with the roll and abandons the back mount for a moment to reestablish back control. Maia stays tight to the hips with his head pointed where he wants to go, and reaches over Grove’s left shoulder, dropping his hips and pulling Grove to his left, and back down to the mat. Back control is established again and Maia goes to town.


One of the more violent chokes in UFC history, Maia sets it up with his dominant back mount where he drives his hips into Story’s. The way Maia twists Story’s body first should be noticed. Not only is the neck and and upper body being twisted because of the choke, but Maia forces Story’s hips the other direction with his back mount. With Maia’s right leg he is pinning Story’s leg to the mat. With Maia’s left leg, he stretches and elevates Story’s left leg, causing his upper and lower ends of his body to contort. Story’s head goes one way, his abdomen another, and below his hips another. A beautiful example of how deadly Maia is on the back.

As we approach Maia’s main event bout with Jake Shields, who is touted as one of the best American black belts in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, we will see what Maia can do. This will not be the first black belt Maia has gone to battle with. Maia will be facing one of the best grinders in the UFC’s welterweight division. After this weekend’s main event, we will see how Maia handles Jakes grinding style, but expect Maia to grind Shields. Maia has shown the beauty in BJJ is not about the flashy moves, it’s about the perfection of fundamentals. The basics are what makes a fighter great, and Maia’s undying allegiance to them has made him a staple on the UFC roster, and an amazing ambassador for our sport.

Here’s to hoping we see more Demian Maias in the future.

About the author: Casey Hartsfield (UG user name Caseharts) runs Check out the Facebook, and follow Case on Twitter!