Royce Gracie doesn’t like to say much, but, when he does, his little means a lot – especially if he happens to be discussing jiu-jitsu, the martial art synonymous with his family name.
Winner of UFC 1, UFC 2 and UFC 4, Gracie’s legacy in mixed martial arts is by now well-documented. He bemused UFC opponents of all sizes in the mid-nineties with jiu-jitsu, drowning them before their heads were even under water, and then did similar, albeit with slightly less success, in Japan in the noughties.
It was all jiu-jitsu. Unapologetically so. Gracie didn’t care much for punches or kicks, nor have to rely on them too much. His jiu-jitsu was, nine times out of ten, good enough to defeat most mixed martial artists at a time when few embraced the mixed element of their art. One trick ponies, many succumbed to Gracie’s peaceful art not only because Royce was a master of it but also because they had absolutely no idea what it was he was doing when sliding to the floor and looking to attack their legs.
Now, in 2017, Gracie is 50 years of age. He had a fight last year, a strange affair with old rival Ken Shamrock, and won in the first round (by strikes no less), but, for the most part, Royce finds himself on the outside looking in. From this position he’s able to see how the sport he helped grow has since flourished and become a proving ground for athletes who train jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, muay-thai and various other arts. The one-dimensional ducks out of water he chewed up and spat out in the nineties are no more and have instead been replaced by mixed martial artists who dabble in a bit of everything and look to multi-task on fight night.
But then there’s Demian Maia.
Maia, 39, has tried to evolve. He has evolved, in fact: his striking, once non-existent, is solid enough to bide time for takedowns, and his general composure in a striking battle, something many jiu-jitsu exponents lack, is also noteworthy. But he is also, despite added feathers to his cap, still a grappler at heart – the very best in the sport, most would say – and will stop at nothing to drag his opponent to the ground and work his magic in the area he feels most comfortable and clinical. It’s Gracie-esque at times, this awareness of his strong suit and desire to take a fight there, but it’s somehow all the more impressive, too, because Maia is essentially relying on a single art to win fights against men who are, for the most part, now adept in all areas of the game.
“His jiu-jitsu is very good,” Gracie told Fighters Only when asked about Maia’s jiu-jitsu pedigree. “I like it. It’s as good as there has ever been in MMA.”
If it wasn’t, Maia, 25-6, wouldn’t get away with relying on it so much. This Saturday (July 29), for example, Maia is considered a very live underdog against UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley not because he possesses a vast array of tools with which to threaten the American but because his jiu-jitsu is so off-the-charts brilliant. That’s all. Woodley, most believe, will be the better striker and the better wrestler on the night; he’s the man most likely to win by knockout; the man most likely to win via ground-and-pound. But, such is the quality of Maia’s jiu-jitsu, few are writing off the Brazilian should the two welterweights end up on the mat at any stage in the fight.
Royce Gracie, the master, a Maia fan, certainly sees opportunities for his countryman should he turn the fight into his kind of fight. Their kind of fight.
“I’m picking Demian Maia to become the new champion,” said Royce. “He’s good enough to neutralise Woodley. He’s a very good grappler; he works the clinch very well.
“I didn’t like Demian’s last fight with (Jorge) Masvidal. He had a bad day but he still did good and got the win. Against Woodley, he will need to be better and I think he will be better.”
Maia’s fight with Masvidal was an example of what happens when a master of one art uses their expertise in this single art to dominate an inferior opponent, yet won’t go so far as to put them out of their misery. Maia, rather than finish Masvidal, travelled with him like a backpack in May, had faith in the judges and just about got away with it – securing a split-decision verdict following three lacklustre rounds. Masvidal, the opponent who wanted to stand strike, didn’t like it. The crowd, who wanted a fight, didn’t like it. Royce Gracie, Maia’s hero, didn’t like it; to him, safety and stalling replaced jiu-jitsu that night.
The win, however, was Maia’s seventh in a row and proved to be his ticket to a title shot, one many feel is long overdue. “Oh, Demian Maia deserves his shot, no doubt,” said Gracie. “He has been working so hard for this. His whole life has been building to this moment. It’s time for him to become UFC champion.”
When Royce Gracie says it’s time, it’s time (apologies Bruce Buffer).