By Shawn W. Smith
When jiu-Jitsu ace Damian Maia meets wrestler extraordinaire Jon Fitch at Saturday’s UFC 156 in Las Vegas, it will be a battle of redemption, respect, and relevancy.
Both Fitch and Maia have competed in the main event of pay-per-views before, put together impressive winning streaks, and fought for world championships. They each came within one fight of holding the belt, which has eluded them.
But as close as they seemingly came to capturing a UFC title, neither proved himself to be of championship calibre. At UFC 87 in August 2008, Jon Fitch put his seven-fight UFC undefeated streak on the line against welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Contrary to the popular opinion as it stands now, at the time fans were clamouring to see Fitch challenge for the world championship. His mix of grit and wrestling ability seemed as though they might prove dangerous to GSP.
Of course, that’s not how things went. St-Pierre kept the bout on the feet and blasted Fitch repeatedly throughout the bout towards a unanimous decision. Credit was given to the challenger for his toughness, but he offered little offence against the dominant Canadian champion.
The aftermath photos told the true story as Fitch looked a beaten man, covered in bruises and cuts.
Things were much the same for Maia. At middleweight, he challenged Anderson Silva for the UFC championship at UFC 112 in April 2010 and had many believing he could pull off an upset. He was one of the most prominent grapplers in the sport and we had seen Silva fall to defeat in the past via submission to lesser-calibre fighters.
Much like Fitch, Maia had little to offer in his title opportunity. Lacklustre takedown attempts combined with a lack of striking skills made Maia easy pickings for the champion, who proceeded to embarrass the challenger for 25 minutes in the UFC’s first trip to Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. The event was supposed to be a major happening for the company as they broke ground in a new territory. Instead, the event has become a black eye of sorts due to the disappointing main event.
Now the two former title challengers sit in limbo. No one is clamouring to see either fight for a championship, despite both having re-established themselves as potential contenders. Since his loss to St-Pierre, Fitch has gone 6-1-1 without finishing any of those opponents. Most recently, Fitch had an entertaining and respectable effort against young Erick Silva at October’s UFC 153 in Brazil, while Maia has strung two quick victories together since a drop to welterweight.
The two can now be considered veterans of the sport, with Maia being 35 and Fitch only three weeks shy of the same age. Saturday’s bout presents one last opportunity for the winner to establish himself as a championship threat. Fitch has long called for another opportunity at the championship and a win on Saturday will be a huge step in making that dream come to fruition. Maia as well has something to prove after a dismal performance against Silva in his first and only world title opportunity.
This bout presents a chance for redemption. A win will push one of these fighters towards a world title shot, while the loser will likely be forced into gatekeeper status for the remainder of their careers.
It may sound cheesy, but it’s true that history only remembers champions. These two combatants need to strike while the iron is hot, and make the most of this opportunity before this ever growing sport passes them by.
Shawn W. Smith is the senior writer at MMASucka.com and has contributed to Train Hard, Fight Easy and Fighters Only magazines. Follow him on Twitter @shawn_w_smith.