TUF 18 Finale: So Close Yet So Far

TUF 18 Finale: So Close Yet So Far

Why Gray Maynard is unlikely to ever capture UFC gold

 With UFC lightweight veteran Gray Maynard facing Nate Diaz for the third time this weekend at the TUF 18 finale, we are reminded of the highs and lows of Maynard’s UFC tenure and we speculate as to which he will have more of in his future. Regardless of whether Maynard experiences mostly peaks or valleys going forward, he has been a solid addition to the UFC 155 lb division for almost 7 years and that in and of itself is an accomplishment. With the absurd amount of talent populating the UFC Lightweight division nowadays and a new contender popping up seemingly every other week, there is bound to be some guys who will be pushed out of the top 10 by the younger, newer, breed of fighter, and Gray Maynard is dangerously close to becoming one of those guys. Here is what has led him to this precarious position.

Close but no cigar

Back in late 2007 it was Maynard who was among the new breed fighting to make a name for themselves and signaling the arrival of a new caliber of talent. Armed with impressive wrestling credentials and top coaches Gray was off and running in the UFC racking up win after win and it was not long before people started mentioning the words “Gray Maynard” and “title shot” in the same sentence. By the time 2011 had rolled around Gray was simply on fire, having notched convincing wins over no less than 7 tough contenders in a row, one of which (Frankie Edgar) was now holding the belt. On New Year’s Day in 2011 the stage was set for Gray to finally claim the top spot. Four years of hard work, huge expectations, and a ton of momentum would finally manifest itself in Gray becoming the champion! Only that didn’t happen. After not one but two incredibly competitive title bouts in which he had the champ hurt multiple times Gray found himself exhausted, KO’d for the first time ever, and without the belt. On top of all that, feeling let down by his coaches Gray left his longtime gym Xtreme Couture. I’d imagine this was a huge disappointment and an abrupt end to a four year ascent toward the top.

Burn Out

After coming so painfully close to cashing in on a lifetime worth of combat sports experience we can only try to imagine the feelings of “what now” associated with such a an experience. As if life for an average mixed martial artist wasn’t hard enough, Gray now had the time to feel the effects of the whirlwind of hype that previously surrounded him, the pressure of huge expectations, the nagging injuries, and the loss of his passion for MMA that came from training in a gym as competitive and brutally hardcore as Xtreme Couture was.  And it wasn’t just Gray who felt this way about the gym, according to Mac Danzig XC was an extremely high pressure environment. Describing it more as a place where talented fighters beat the snot out of each other than a place to receive high level instruction. The brutality of his fights with Edgar, the anti climactic end to his title hunt, and the uncertainty that came with leaving his longtime home gym seems to have taken a definite toll on Gray and in the high stakes world of MMA it will be hard to come back from that.

Times They Are a Changing

Right around the time Gray was set to re-inject himself into the upper levels of the UFC LW class there was a possible silver lining to be seen in looking at the LW division. With Edgar losing his title and leaving the division and former LW king BJ Penn now also gone to welterweight, two of the biggest obstacles to Gray reaching the top were now a non issue. After stopping at Nova Uniao in Brazil to train down there for a bit Gray planted a flag at the renowned AmericanKickboxingAcademy in San JoseCalifornia and had a new home. With a great team behind him again and with Edgar and Penn both out of the way it looked like Gray could possibly pick up where he left off not too far from the title. But if an uninspiring, split decision, win against Clay Guida put a damper on things for Gray, getting blown out by newly established LW badass TJ Grant was devastating. This kind of set back coupled with the emergence of a slew of frightening young UFC LW fighters is the possible final nail in the coffin for Gray’s title hopes. It is unfortunate and a hard pill to swallow but MMA can be a cruel, cruel, beast.

The Bright Side

Even if Gray never reaches his ultimate goal of winning the LW title, the outlook isn’t all bad. It is never an easy or smooth transition when a fighter is simultaneously exiting their prime and the title picture, but others have shown that there is life after being a top contender. There seems to almost always be a rocky transition involving a few losses and/or bad performances but for the few fighters who are still good enough to generate interest, there remains a rewarding career even outside of the title hunt, especially in the UFC. Guys like Urijah Faber, Rashad Evans, Chael Sonnen, Matt Hughes, Rich Franklin and others have shown that if you can find another niche, another driving motivation besides the belt you can do very well. Some guys shift focus to intriguing style match ups, some look to avenge losses, some guys start to go strictly for the finish, and they all go for the big money matchups. In some cases this shift in focus causes fighters to do well enough again to maybe even get another title shot or number one contender fight.

Conclusion

All of the above factors do not bode well for Maynard’s chances at being champ. The odds are certainly stacked against Gray ever holding UFC gold and as time goes by they will only get worse. But even if Gray eventually retires without ever having reached the top he can take comfort in the fact that he came a hell of a lot closer than 99 percent of fighters who ever put on a pair of fingerless gloves. Or maybe he can’t take comfort in that fact and will regret it for the rest of his life, either way he is and was a hell of a fighter and should be proud of what he accomplished.