One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Jake Shields, who squares off with Demian Maia at UFC Fight Night 29 in Barueri, Brazil, on Oct. 9.

Both men go into this fight holding a respectable position in the UFC welterweight division. Shields fought for the title only to be shut down by yet another dominant performance from Georges St-Pierre in April 2011 at UFC 129. He was then finished in under a minute in his return fight against Jake Ellenberger, who is now vying for the next shot at the longtime champion. Demian Maia, meanwhile, entered the UFC back in 2007 as a highly touted Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert and got off to a good start, managing to submit his first five opponents before receiving a title shot in the middleweight division and coming unglued against then-longtime champion Anderson Silva in Abu Dhabi in a bizarre contest.

Now both men are working their way back towards a title shot. After toiling around in the middleweight division for a while longer, Maia has shifted his attention to the 170-pound weight class, where he has decimated the competition thus far. It is still a relatively fresh challenge for Maia, who only dropped to welterweight in 2012. Shields is trying to work his way back into contention after rebounding from those losses with a few wins, albeit his Ed Herman fight was overturned due to a failed drug test.

Once the dust settles on this one, one man will emerge as a solid top-five contender and the other will be left wondering just where they can go next, soul-searching so as to regain any momentum they might have previously had.

The Breakdown

Maia is not only a great Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu fighter, but he is also now developing his fight game into that of an all-around competent mixed martial artist. Previously, we saw him enter the cage and simply work for the takedown immediately without much interest in engaging in the customary early stand-up exchanges. Nowadays, however, Maia feels much more relaxed on the feet and is happy to let his punches and kicks flow naturally into a takedown so he can look to finish the fight from there.

Maia’s stand-up is certainly not at a high level as of yet, but it is continually improving to the point that he is competitive with top-level fighters on the feet and doesn’t feel the immediate need or pressure to dive for a takedown. As such, the Maia of today is better equipped to impose himself on his opponent with unpredictability than the version of Maia who first entered the UFC. This evolution has been steady, but has provided him the skill set which will no doubt make his opponent uneasy.

Shields, meanwhile, is a perennial contender who has fought a who’s who in MMA over the last few years since entering the UFC and faced the best of the best when outside the UFC competing in Strikeforce. He holds notable wins over Dan Henderson, Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami, all outside the UFC, and most recently managed to get the nod over Tyron Woodley, who himself was looking to be on a surge towards the top of the division.

The Strategy

In reality, the two fighters’ skill sets are very closely matched. They are definitely cut from the same cloth, as it were.

Shields is much longer in the tooth when it comes to MMA and has fought the very best in the world for many years, coming out on the better side more often than not. In doing so, you cannot underestimate his ability to pull off a win when he is not given much of a chance. His stand-up style is not exactly well-refined, but it gets the job done more often than not, or at least gives him a platform to get the fight into his comfort zone.

In this fight, Shields will need to rely on his striking being just good enough to get past the current version of Maia, who despite making improvements in this area is still not as fluent as other fighters that Shields has fought—and beat—in the recent past.

We have seen Maia out-Fitch Jon Fitch in the recent past, and that should serve as a warning sign for Shields. He must try to avoid Maia pushing him against the cage and controlling his position. Distance will be key for Shields in this fight.

Although Shields is a well-respected grappler himself, it would be best to stay away from his own bread and butter because as it happens, this is also the realm of Maia, whose past results would dictate that he is better placed to win such a fight.

Shields has a tough task ahead of him in facing a constantly evolving Maia, to the point we cannot state with any certainty how Maia will look come fight night. All we can say is that traditionally Maia’s weakness has been his limited stand-up skills. Given Shields is now a 14-year veteran in the sport, you would hope and expect his stand-up ability has grown sufficiently in that time to keep the Brazilian at bay by utilizing kicks to force Maia to work from distance.

Photo: Jake Shields (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.