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ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – When Demian Maia's telephone rang and he was offered a chance to fight for the Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight title, he didn't jump for joy or go shout it to the rooftops.
Maia was neither stunned nor intimidated. He quickly accepted the bout against Anderson Silva, the world's top-ranked fighter, and set about figuring a way to end Silva's dominance of the 185-pound weight class.
Silva is 10-0 in the UFC and has successfully defended his middleweight title five consecutive times. If he defeats Maia in the main event of UFC 112 on Saturday at Ferrari World, he'll break out of a tie with Matt Hughes and Tito Ortiz and hold the record by himself with six.
Maia is perceived as a sacrificial lamb by some, but Maia is hardly bothered. From the day he signed his first UFC contract, he believed this day was destined to arrive.
"I didn't come to the UFC to fight for the title," Maia said. "I came to the UFC to win the title. And when I got my opportunity, I was very thankful. This is the reason I've done all the hard work, to get this chance and to win this title."
The bout was originally slated to go to Vitor Belfort, who withdrew after having to undergo shoulder surgery. The UFC was in a pickle when Belfort pulled out, because the No. 1 contender, Chael Sonnen, was physically beaten up after his fight with Nate Marquardt at UFC 109 in February and couldn't make it to the post.
It seemed there were no other logical contenders, but UFC president Dana White never hesitated to offer the bout to Maia, despite the fears of some that the bout could turn out similar to the ugly match between Silva and then-No. 1 contender Thales Leites last year at UFC 97 in Montreal.
Leites, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, seemed intimidated by Silva's power and continually flopped onto his back, hoping to lure Silva into his guard. Silva would have none of it, would walk away and force Leites to stand. White ripped Silva following the bout, criticism that stung the proud champion. And while Maia is a jiu-jitsu expert, as well, his standup isn't anywhere in the same league as Silva's.
Many fear a repeat of UFC 97. When asked about it, Silva shrugged and said, "It could be."
White, though, said he believes in Maia.
"Hey," White said, "Demian Maia is not Thales Leites. And jiu-jitsu is part of the game. It's not like I gave him anything, either. Demian Maia earned this fight."
Maia's only loss came at UFC 102 in August, when he was knocked out in 21 seconds by Nate Marquardt. So the strange position White found himself after Belfort withdrew was this:
• He could have chosen Sonnen, who beat Marquardt thoroughly at UFC 109, but who was submitted in the first round by Maia at UFC 95.
• He could have given the bout to Marquardt, despite the pummeling he took from Sonnen, because Marquardt has the most extensive resume of the contenders and the 21-second win over Maia.
• He could have chosen Maia, who has gone 6-1 in the UFC and won Submission of the Night four times. He'd submitted Sonnen in the first, but there was that knockout loss to Marquardt to worry about.
Quick first-round knockouts like the one Marquardt got over Maia are often looped on the highlight reels, but they frequently don't reveal a lot about the relative merits of the men involved. Marquardt caught Maia with one perfectly placed punch, and the bout was over before it started.
When Maia got the gig vs. Silva, he immediately made the promise that no matter what happened, he would not be another Leites.
"The problem is not fighting off your back, the problem is when you're not aggressive," Maia said. "My style has always been aggressive. Maybe in the last fight [a win over Dan Miller at UFC 109], I was less aggressive, but I've always been aggressive and look to win my fights by submission, not by points."
The fight starts on the feet, however, and that's where Silva will have a massive advantage. Maia has average striking at best, while Silva may be the best striker in UFC history.
Maia isn't going to try to slug toe-to-toe with Silva, but neither is he going to shy away.
"Of course, I can't be too aggressive in the stand-up against him, just like he can't be too aggressive against me on the ground," Maia said. "The thing that is important to realize is that I'm going in there to fight. I'm going in there to fight to win."
The odds are long against him, but Maia is not particularly concerned. Maia also has ties to Abu Dhabi, where he won the Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling world championship in 2007. The UFC signed him not long after. Now, he's happened upon the biggest fight of his life and he plans to make the most of it.
"Fighting a guy like Anderson Silva, the best fighter in the world, is like a dream," Maia said. "If you're a competitor, this is the kind of guy you want to challenge yourself against. I have great respect for Anderson and his team, and there are a lot of guys on his team I consider my friends. This is where I wanted to be and this is what I've worked so hard for all my life. I'm ready for this. Believe me when I tell you, I'm ready."
- Demian Maia
- Anderson Silva
- Nate Marquardt