The welterweight title picture is at somewhat of a standstill. Following a decision victory over number-two ranked Stephen Thompson, in a performance which left little demand for a rematch on behalf of “Wonderboy,” welterweight champion Tyron Woodley has many options.
As a champion, he has made it abundantly clear that his business decisions are exactly that; business decisions. The pervasive mindset in MMA is rooted in a distinction between athletes and fighters; athletes, the common wisdom goes, are calculated and more cautious with their careers, while “fighters” adhere to an anyone-anywhere mentality, scratching the itch many consumers feel for that primal martial spirit.
Such a perspective is too narrow. Viewing fighters solely as gladiators separates them from their individual stories, struggles, successes, and failures, qualities which are inextricably linked to their identities as athletes. When Woodley calls for “money fights," it’s a mission statement. He intends to be paid in a manner befitting a world champion. More than a UFC champion, he, like many fighters, is a husband and father, which makes it difficult not to empathize with his decisions.
During his ruminations on the state of the game during a recent UFC Unfiltered podcast, the champion singled out fellow welterweight elite #DemianMaia for what he saw as a poor career decision in accepting a bout with the surging #JorgeMasvidal.
“I think it’s a great fight, but unfortunately for Maia, he accepted the fight week of me and Wonderboy’s second fight and in my opinion—bad move,” Woodley said. “He should’ve seen how the fight went and if nobody came out the fight hurt and if there was a clear winner and not another draw, then you were already in the position for a shot at a world title. Why would you put yourself up against the worst possible matchup, outside of a title fight, why would you put yourself in that position?
“I don’t want to call him stupid, but damn that was stupid,” Woodley said. “I don’t feel bad for him. You think I’m going to sit here and feel sorry for somebody else? I’ve been in so many 'so called' number one contender fights—there are no number one contender fights.
There’s some truth beneath to this; riding six straight victories, Maia has seemed primed for a welterweight title shot since August of last year, when he choked out Carlos Condit in the first round.
That title opportunity never materialized, and despite Woodley’s insistence, there is little reason to believe that the passage of time alone would have placed Maia in a championship bout.
The aim of self-promotion in MMA is the maximization of one’s brand; ideally, selling your most marketable, ensnaring qualities to as many members of the audience as possible. For men such as #ConorMcGregor and Muhammad Ali long before him, capturing the audience’s imagination is a trivial thing; place either man in front of a microphone and a soundbite is sure to follow. #TyronWoodley never had that sort of natural charisma, but he’s intelligent and is willing to express his opinions firmly, and defiantly, in public.
Not everyone is destined to be a star of McGregor’s magnitude, and that’s fine. Maximizing his brand is a different process for Woodley than for McGregor, and different still for Maia.
Maia is, by all accounts, one of the friendliest and most beloved individuals in the sport. The class and pride with which he represents #BJJ, and his home nation of Brazil, are singular. With limited English skills however, developed as they may have over the years, he has never found success converting these qualities into consumer interest
Where Maia’s promotional niche lies is in the narrative surrounding his Brazilian jiu-jitsu career. One of the most accomplished BJJ players ever to compete in mixed martial arts, Maia’s acumen on the ground is unrivaled. As much criticism as veteran commentator #JoeRogan often receives, he has historically done an incredible job of promoting this specific aspect of Maia’s brand to the fanbase at large.
When he fights, he’s a silent, unassuming technician, the unimaginable gap in skill between himself and his opponents ensuring that any fight which enters his world is sure to go in his favor.
There’s a sense of mysticism around Demian Maia, of a sort which other world championship-level grapplers are usually unable to achieve. He’s a python, an anthropomorphic backpack, a human straight jacket. All of that is to say, Maia’s brand, and thus his appeal, is embodied by specific qualities inherent to his identity as a fighter.
For a fighter who relies on performance in order to generate opportunity, turning down a fight with a fellow contender is a risky play. In the best case scenario, the welterweight title picture plays out in such a way that there is no viable, marketable contender other than Maia, and he is given a title shot by default. In the worst case scenario, he could find his accomplishments swept up in a sea of long-due turnover at the top of the stagnant 170-lbs. division. In the twilight years of his career, Maia’s time is clearly now, and long-game strategies offer more inherent risk for him than for younger fighters.
In discussions of marketing and self-promotion, certain qualities are often mentioned; showmanship, trash talk, bravado, but success is not so formulaic. McGregor’s jeers and one-liners brought him attention because they highlighted the natural charisma which he had always possessed. For most fighters, attempting to impersonate this persona would merely highlight their own lack of that very rare quality.
When assessing a fighter’s career management, their decisions cannot be evaluated in a vacuum. Raising one’s public profile is tantamount to raising one’s income ceiling and championship potential, but few humans are born with the ability to draw a crowd quite like McGregor, or #RondaRousey, or #JonJones.
Maia’s decision to accept such a dangerous fight may seem befuddling at first, but as he continues to roll through fellow contenders with relative ease, his public support continues to grow. Investing in his performances has resonated with fans in a way which verbosity alone would likely not have for the Brazilian great.
For a fighter in no immediate position to be demanding a “money fight”, or even a championship fight, the best booking is the one which helps to sell their personal narrative.
On that end, Demian Maia seems to be doing just fine.