Demian Maia vs. Ben Askren headlines UFC Singapore this October 26, 2019 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in Kallang, Singapore.
One sentence summary:
David: Thirty seconds to armbar(attempt)s
Phil: The funky one takes part in a grappler’s delight to prove that he belongs in the UFC
Record: Demian Maia 27-9 | Ben Askren 19-1-1 NC
Odds: Demian Maia +140 | Ben Askren -150
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
David: Maia has led an illustrious career as a blood-free prizefighter. He’s almost a stereotype of the martial-arts-as-discipline archetype. There’s no malice, or need to sell a fight with edgelord racism, and fake machismo. He’s here for his craft, and his craft alone seems to be what truly drives him. No, I don’t want all of my prizefighters to be facepunch Flanders. But I’m here for it. Always will.
Phil: It’s hard to say whether Askren has proved his worth to the UFC. He’s certainly given them talking points: the controversial “win” over Robbie Lawler, and the sudden obliteration at the hands of Masvidal. I guess worth is relative to the UFC, in a different way to a traditional sports league. They don’t really care so much about whether a fighter is the best in the world, but moreso whether he improves their product in some nebulous way. I’m sure Askren came in envisioning himself a champion, but the current results have been… mixed.
David: The jury is still out on Askren. Maybe not on his hackneyed jokes. But when it comes to prizefighting in the UFC, we’ve seen all of 3 minutes, and 25 seconds of pugilism. Thus far he’s got am embarrassing knockout loss, and a questionable submission win (after getting throttled). Either his style will translate, and he’ll be a Jake Shields-type presence, or it won’t, and he’ll somewhere between micro-Rulon Gardner, or Karo Parisyan.
Phil: Demian Maia has to be coming near to the end of his UFC tenure. He’s presented a strange mixture of traits to the UFC: on the one hand he’s been quiet, uncomplaining and willing to fight anyone they put in front of him. On the other, he’s also managed to fight his way to two of the ugliest title performances in recent memory, and his style does not gel well with what the UFC wants its product to look like. Askren is also someone who doesn’t exactly light the cage on fire, but he at least talks a healthy amount of shit. Maia remains someone who has resolutely used the UFC’s carnival sideshow as a vehicle for his own personal martial arts journey. I respect it.
What’s at stake?
David: This fight is a number one contender fight for a number one contender. Askren has the most to gain, and probably the most to lose as well. Maia’s been a staple in two divisions for over 10 years. It’s still hard to believe he’s that much of a veteran.
Phil: That Masvidal KO was so brutal that I can’t see Askren getting too high a booking off a win. The BMF belt is as of now still being contested, but this is certainly not a fight where either man will catch a sniff of it. The best either man could hope (primarily Askren) would be someone like Leon Edwards.
Where do they want it?
Phil: Askren is not a subtle fighter. If we talk about specialists, then Maia is thought of as MMA’s archetypal grappler, but he is honestly far more well-rounded than Askren, one of the most one-dimensional fighters to make his way in an elite division in recent memory. Askren does not have Maia’s pressure footwork, or functional striking, and largely makes his way into his takedown entries by lowering his head, sticking out his arms and running into the other person. Both men in general have made somewhat unconventional games, sacrificing weakness in one area for strength in another. Askren’s ugly takedowns may be just that, but they give him the bodylock without forcing him to drop to his knees. From there he redirects and drags and yanks until the opponent is, if not down, then at least posted on the ground. Then it’s time to strip the posts, and try to set up rides from top position. While Askren is notably less funky than he was as an amateur wrestler, he still has a tendency to reach for some of his weirder positions under duress: looking to latch a grip onto the back of a knee when he’s being single legged in order to funk roll. His weak initial shot, poor striking and tendency to be happy giving up position are all potential flaws against a lockdown grappler of the caliber of Maia, but his comfort in the scramble may afford him routes of escape.
David: UFC fans haven’t been able to see what makes Askren tick since he’s been absolutely blitzed in both of his fights. At first, nothing stands out except the blue collar frame of a man you assume is less a premier athlete, and more someone who is a member of the ‘Intellectual’ Dark Web fan club. But for the most part, he kind of noodles forward, flicking a jab, brushing with kicks, and launching awkward projections in the direction of his opponent. It’s all meant to close the distance with one of the better top games in the sport. It’s still a crude process. You can still the residue of his wrestling career highlighted in his MMA fights. His unorthodox movement doesn’t translate as well as you’d think. We’ve seen fights where those counterintuitive scrambles turn into modest trouble. It only takes one punch off a reversal to turn an eccentric scramble into a nightmare. But even top control that has the form of a Jackson Pollock is still top control. That’s what Askren brings: raw, confident, top control that can turn into a long night, or a short nap (from a choke). He also seems to generate way more power than you’d expect, which I think comes from his confidence on the ground as opposed to on the feet, where he’s clearly exposed.
Phil: Askren’s weakness primarily comes in his initial shot, and Maia has something similar, although he sacrifices something different. Whereas Askren comes in bending at the waist and ensures that he’s never shooting from his knees, Maia is more than willing to shoot a low single, coming up on his knees and trying to turn the corner or even sweep from guard. It transfers risk from the shot itself to the transition afterwards, and while Maia is less likely to get clubbed by strikes as he comes in, he’s also more vulnerable to getting sprawled and snapped down by powerful wrestlers who simply don’t let him come around and attack his second and third phase. Despite this, he’s a monstrous top position player and lethal top position threat, inarguably the more immediately dangerous grappler of the two, and a profoundly underrated takedown threat in his own right. The main problems have been that this is a fairly energy-inefficient series and the aging Maia has started to gas late in fights.
David: What makes Maia such a refined fighter is something Askren displays too: complete dedication to taking the fight where it needs to be in order for him to win and dominate. Unfortunately he’s flirted briefly with “hey maybe I can knock this guy out” phase that grapplers inevitably experience from being overcoached or told to be “well-rounded” at the cost of sabotaging strengths, but it’s been brief, and never prolonged. I think Maia’s problem is not that he’s ever philosophically torn, but strategically uncertain. He’s developed a decent overall skillset that he’s just comfortable enough to throw various strikes with conviction, and that stalls some of his ability to adjust quicker than he might want. Outside of that, we all know what makes Maia special. Rather than play in the mud with mad scrambles, and exchanging reversals with superior athletes, he just beats people with basics. It’s tempting to reinvent the wheel with flying reverse armbars and fence-bouncing flying roundhouse kicks. Sometimes it’s better just to keep the wheel rolling.
Insight from past fights?
David: Maia has faced a lot of wrestlers, but his resume against them is more mixed than it is against premiere strikers. That’s the one thing that worries me about this matchup from Maia’s perspective. The drawback to being basic is that you can’t take advantage of dynamic moments. Ray Borg is an excellent grappler. That’s why Demetrious Johnson had to catch him in literal midair. Askren’s own fundamentals are strong enough that I could see him winning a decision. It kind of sucks that Shinya Aoki was a shell of his former self, because I think we could have learned a lot in that fight if Aoki didn’t immediately retreat after two seconds of ground and pound. Granted, Aoki was an eccentric, hyper-flexible guard threat type grappler, which is very unlike Maia, but still.
Phil: Maia was expected to beat Anthony Rocco Martin, and did, but it was genuinely concerning how tired he was in the third round of that fight. Askren may not be in the prime of his career himself, and his latest fights have been… uh… brief, but there is at least anecdotal evidence from sparring partners like Woodley that he’s still pretty tireless.
David: A dumb ref who doesn’t recognize jiu jitsu positioning.
Phil: What a weird matchup this is. How physically faded is either man? We’ve never seen Askren against another good grappler. Like… at all! Maybe Maia just instantly takes him down and subs him.
David: I hate picking against Maia. He’s the better overall fighter. But I don’t believe his instincts will serve him in this fight. If he wants a shot on the ground, he needs to take it there immediately, and try to work ground magic for the full round. Anytime spent messing around the fight, and maintaining the rhythm of a pop song with the usual chorus and verse mix will be doom (IMO). Ben Askren by Decision.
Phil: People who know a lot more than me about grappling have been picking Maia fairly confidently, and I can definitely see it: Askren has given up some weird takedowns in his career, and is an inexpressibly terrible striker. Should Maia get significant top control, Askren may just be utterly checkmated. However, Askren should also be able to survive early scares, and honestly I just don’t trust Maia’s cardio to hold up in a long, physical fight over 25. Ben Askren by unanimous decision.