Demian Maia vs. Ben Askren: Post-Fight Discussion
Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
Grappling analyst and BJJ black belt Tommy Elliot and I took an in-depth look at Demian Maia, Ben Askren, and the dynamics of their fight before the two met in Singapore this past weekend.
Tom examined how Maia has performed against wrestlers, a brilliant article.
I examined how Ben Askren has incorporated his wrestling into MMA as of late, and the issues with his approach.
Together, we had a brief discussion on how we expected the fight to look.
Well, the fight has happened, and just as Tom predicted, Maia won via third-round RNC. It’s not exactly a victory lap, but please enjoy further discussion from Tom, myself, and other Fight Site analysts.
EG: While we both picked Maia, I can’t say that went exactly the way I was leaning pre-fight, it ended up somewhere in the middle between both of our initial predictions, before analysis. For maybe the first time in his career, Maia didn’t take the initiative in bringing the fight to the ground, picking at Askren with his left hand, jab and left kick, only grappling when Askren took committed shots or completed upper body takedowns. There’s a lot to reflect on, Maia looked shot to pieces, Askren tried to fight like a mixed martial artist, and many of our suspicions were confirmed in terms of the grappling disparity. Where did you want to start?
TE: It looked a little more like the canonical bad kickboxing match that occurs when two grapplers fight than I expected. As you point out, for the first time in his career at age 41 Maia actually tried to deny grappling exchanges and strike. It was a good strategy given that this was the one opponent where his comparative advantage in striking was perhaps greater than his comparative advantage in grappling. Even more surprising than Maia not grappling aggressively was how long Askren took to shoot, especially given the degree to which he was getting tagged on the feet. When he finally did engage the grappling exchanges were nice, even if they looked to be taking placing in slight slow motion. Did I mention both these guys look shot to hell?
EG: Askren looked his normal level of shot, but boy Maia looked downright apathetic. I said it before, but it seemed like it was impossible for him to get into the next gear, everything looked like light sparring. That’s a good indication of a shot fighter. Both men appeared to be feeling their age, which isn’t always the case in MMA. I haven’t really looked into the Tony Martin fight, I wonder if it’s gotten worse than it was there. It didn’t really matter, because although Maia looked atrocious on the backfoot, Askren’s attempts at striking were objectively laughable. He landed some strikes, but honestly his inherent lack of power coupled by novice form (that’s being generous) gave Maia no reason to take him seriously. Am I extremely biased, or did it seem like Maia wasn’t interested in actively defending takedowns, instead just staying ready to exploit positioning once the fight hit the mat? I swear I’ve seen much better wrestling from him in the past year.
TE: He was very assiduous in denying the clinch early, but when Askren got in on a leg he didn’t work as hard as he might have to stay on his feet. It was the right calculation, because Askren was surprisingly unable to maintain top position and get anything done. I had thought pre-fight that if Askren got Maia down cleanly he’d be able to do work, but Maia was unsettling him off the takedown and only once at the end of the first did Ben actually get to let his hands go from the top a little. What surprised me the most was the absence of any sort of bottom game from Askren. Both times Maia swept him and ended up on top, he was able to pass effortlessly. I didn’t expect Ben to have amazing secret BJJ, but I did think he’d be more effective than he was at framing Maia off and getting back to his knees to stand up. That really didn’t happen at all, in both instances where Maia ended up on Askren’s back it was off Ben’s ineffectual turning from bottom mount. Askren just seemed to have little idea how to deal with a strong top player. I have to be honest, I didn’t have a very high opinion of Askren coming into this fight, but after seeing how shopworn Maia looked and how badly he still beat Ben in every phase of the game except takedowns (which Maia didn’t really even try) I struggle to think of UFC welterweights I’d pick him against. Some of the staff were kicking around Mike Perry as a possible next matchup for Askren and I might pick Ben to win that one, but I’d not give him any shot against ranked opposition. As for Maia, this would have been the perfect time to retire, but it seems like he wants to fight out his contract. What do you see next for both guys? Did this fight change how you viewed either of them?
EG: My opinion of Askren didn’t change very much in terms of evaluating his skill-set, but he definitely surprised me in that he switched up his game a good bit. He didn’t wade forward and bend over for awful shot entries off the whistle, he tried to clinch up off striking exchanges and work from there. I believe Askren had one effective shot from space, and it was probably one of the cleanest takedowns he’s had in years. It’s no coincidence that it came after a prolonged period of striking, he was able to partially disguise his movements. You know, like an MMA fighter. 10 years into your MMA career at 35 years old is almost definitely too late to make those changes mean something, but I appreciate that Askren finally saw the ceiling of his usual approach. Maia should retire, but if he’s fighting out his contract, please just have him fight Neil Magny on a loop until he’s finished.
When prompted to talk about this fight post-fact, Callan Gallacher laid out some concepts for us all to consider.
CG: In our previews, Tom was worried about Maia working off of his back. Maia talked post-fight about how he adjusted his bottom game specifically to deal with Askren, that could explain the apparent “apathy” (as Ed said) in defending leg attacks. I also think it is worth mentioning how quickly Askren came apart when what always works for him didn’t work here, how he lacked the ability to adjust to Maia in any meaningful way, was never really able to establish any sort of meaningful control, and how out of his depth he looked in all stages. You have to think about how so many fighters have done a monumentally better job of defending against Maia, and what that says about the sheer lack of defensive grappling capability possessed by Askren. In contrast, look at how Al Iaquinta (a man most probably considered an inferior grappler to Askren) was able to defend against Khabib and Kevin Lee from his back.
Our staff has not been historically high on Ben Askren, but surely there was a silver lining in Askren’s performance? A positive takeaway?
Ryan Wagner finds it within himself to be complimentary of Ben Askren.
RW: Ben's glacial step around throw was cool.
A warrior poet, that Ryan Wagner. The “step around throw” is a reference to the very slow Polish throw variant that Askren completed on Demian Maia. Successful, high amplitude Polish throws have been displayed by Yoel Romero (on Brad Tavares) and Daniel Cormier (on Dan Henderson) in the UFC.
A supporter of the site and all around great guy, Rama Reddy, paid tribute to that sequence of the fight.
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