OKLAHOMA CITY – Breaking from the pack in the UFC's loaded lightweight division is no easy task.
There is the established top tier, guys like champion B.J. Penn, Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, and Clay Guida, all of whom can headline a fight card.
Underneath them is a gaggle of evenly matched fighters trying to muscle their way into the mix. Guys like former champion Sean Sherk, Frank Edgar, Joe Lauzon, Tyson Griffin, and a handful of others all bring big game. And they all have at least one loss to another name in the pack at some point or another, which has kept them from building enough momentum to reach the top.
One fighter, though, looks poised to make the jump. Gray Maynard continued his unbeaten run through the UFC in the co-main event of Ultimate Fight Night 19 on Wednesday night, winning a split decision over Roger Huerta at the Cox Convention Center. Scores were two 30-27s for Maynard and 29-28 Huerta; Yahoo! Sports had it at 29-28 Maynard.
"I can't get caught up in that talk," said Maynard. "I just try to concentrate on my plan day in and day out in the gym, and it comes to you."
Wednesday night's victory puts Maynard, a former college wrestling standout at Michigan State, at 8-0 with one no-contest. Since joining the UFC full time following his appearance on "The Ultimate Fighter 5", Maynard has six straight wins, including Edgar's only career loss.
He knows his sort of streak is rare in the UFC's lightweight division, but he vows not to let it get to his head.
"Being undefeated is not something that's a goal of mine, or something I base my career on," said Maynard, who trains at Extreme Couture in Las Vegas. "I started wrestling at the age of 3. From the time I was 12, all I wanted was to the win the NCAA title. I came up short and it was the biggest disappointment of my life. I know losing is a part of being an athlete and I'm not going to get wrapped up in having an undefeated record.
"After that, as soon as I turned pro, I decided not to get so wrapped up in the end result. I decided to put more emphasis on the process, in getting things right each day and getting better."
That said, Maynard feels he has earned the right for a crack at one of the division's elite.
"Yeah, definitely," he said. "I've always asked to fight the best guys. I asked for Edgar, I asked to fight Sean Sherk. I'm not going to ask for a specific opponent, but I want to fight one of the top guys."
It is a wish he may soon get.
"With a win over Roger Huerta, Gray will get his chance to break through," UFC president Dana White said earlier in the evening. "With the guys he's beat and the way he's won, he's earned his chance."
Fighting a manic battler like Huerta pushed Maynard, who bases much of his game plan around his wrestling, out of his comfort zone. Maynard had some trouble finding his rhythm in a close first round.
"Every time I hit him, his arms starting going like this [waves his arms around wildly]," said Maynard. "Every time I hit him, he'd do two or three of those, I was like, 'Whoa.' He was trying to turn it into a crazy war. He's tough."
But Maynard managed to adjust and find his timing in round two.
"He does a lot of things," said Maynard. "He puts his head down and tries to hit. I was cautious. I'm not going to go in and shoot, shoot, shoot. I'm going to hang out, hit, hit, and move. I know he could squirm and scramble, that's why I had to play the game of 'stop him and scramble.' "
By Round 3, Maynard had the fight under control, including a deep Kimura for which Huerta (20-3-1), who has only been stopped once in his career, refused to tap.
"I had it in deep," Maynard said. "I heard his arm popping. I said to the referee 'Holy [expletive], do you hear that?' I thought it was going to break. I'm glad it didn't break and that's a good ref [Herb Dean] in there, he made the right call [letting the match continue]."
The Maynard-Huerta match also demonstrated how quick the tide can turn in the UFC, as Huerta made his exit from the company. Two years ago, Huerta appeared well on his way to becoming the UFC's next big thing. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in May 2007, and won a thrilling match against Clay Guida six months later in what many consider 2007's fight of the year.
But things fell apart from there. Huerta asked for time off after the Guida fight to finish his college degree, then made big demands for his next contract. When he returned to the cage for the last two fights of his current deal, he seemed to lack the spark that made him such a fan favorite on the way up, losing at UFC 87 to Florian before last night's loss. Huerta is taking leave from the sport to try his hand at acting and was not at the post-fight press conference.