("I’ve been doing this too long to take things for granted. I’ve seen it happen too often where a guy loses and then comes back and wins." Photo courtesy of UFC.com)
By CagePotato.com contributor Elias Cepeda
There’s a fun game you can play with undefeated UFC lightweight Gray Maynard: Ask him to name, let alone talk about, someone he’s beaten. He can’t do it.
It should be easy for the #1 title contender — he’s had just eleven fights in his four-and-a-half year MMA career, and hasn’t lost a single one. He has many more wins to choose from if you include his entire amateur wrestling career that dates back to his childhood.
Still, as he sits during some downtime between training on the Saturday exactly two weeks before he will face UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 125 in Las Vegas, Maynard’s brain freezes when asked about his wins. Gray isn’t difficult to speak with, and his mind is sound. It just works a bit differently than most of ours.
Ask Maynard who he’s lost to and he can rattle ten names off in a row. “People say, ‘oh, you’ve never lost.’ Sure I have. I’ve been in combat sports since I was a kid and have lost lots of times from when I was three all the way through college.”
Gray seems to remember every time he’s come up short on the mats — recalling even grade-school losses with gritted teeth. “They still irk me today,” he says.
Edgar and Maynard have already fought once before, in April of 2008, when “The Bully” dominated the now champion for three rounds, earning a unanimous decision victory. It’s an interesting balance that elite athletes like Maynard have to strike.
On the one hand, he counts simple confidence in oneself as even more important than strategy. “You can adjust a couple small things but you just have to be real confident in what you can do. That’s the best you can do,” he explains. On the other hand, Maynard’s got the obsession with losing and is never content to think of himself as a satisfied winner.
Edgar has looked sharp in shocking the world twice in his last two fights, back to back wins over all-time great BJ Penn, but it is still hard to imagine as an outside observer that he can avoid losing to Maynard in the same way he did last time. If Edgar has improved his footwork, jiu jitsu, wrestling and boxing, Maynard has certainly not appeared to remain stagnant in his development either.
Because of this, it can be easy to take for granted that after the first of January, Gray Maynard will be the new UFC lightweight champion. Maynard himself doesn’t sound worried about his chances against Edgar in talking matter-of-factly about his preparation. That’s the confidence, based on a life revolved around doing the little things every day correctly.
However, Maynard refuses to believe that he’ll have anything other than a brand new fight on his hands at UFC 125 against Edgar. Maynard brushes off the possibility of his being complacent going into the rematch.
“As far as that win, I did get that but it was two and a half years ago. That was over three days after it happened. I know it’s a new fight and I’ve prepared for a new fight. I’ve been doing this too long to take things for granted. I’ve seen it happen too often where a guy loses and then comes back and wins,” Maynard says.
It is clear that Gray sees himself as a blue-collar worker. “I love the challenge, I love to compete,” he says. “I didn’t get into this sport because I saw Chuck Liddell in a club with all kinds of crazy girls around him and thought that looked cool. I saw Matt Hughes with a belt and thought, ‘I can beat that guy, and I’ve never even done it before.’ Then I said to myself,’ who are you? Are you that guy who talks or are you going to try it out and put your money where your mouth is?’ That’s why I’m in this sport. I’ve never asked for an easy fight and I’ve never got one.”
It has been about two years since fans and observers began asking when Maynard would get a title shot. And it has been over a year and about two fights since he became the consensus number one contender.
But despite wins over Edgar, Roger Huerta and Nate Diaz, Maynard had to watch Edgar get the shot before him. Time and again in conversations over the last two years, Maynard has told me that he was content to train and fight and that someday the title shot would come, and that he would be ready then.
But what if it hadn’t? Fighting top-level fighters like Diaz and Kenny Florian is about the biggest risk to one’s status as the top contender as one can take. Maynard admits to getting nervous at times about the prospect of losing one of those fights, and then losing his title shot.
“I mean, stuff pops into your head — we’re all human. The key for me is thinking that it’ll happen and to just keep the goal, what I have to do today instead of what if I win or lose this one. That is thinking too far ahead. I’ve got to focus on every day,” Gray says.
Not living, thinking and training in the moment is the reason for what he seems to consider his biggest failure — not winning an NCAA national title. Maynard stepped on to the wrestling mats with his father Jan, a former Ohio state wrestling champion, at age three.
As he got older Maynard looked up to the mean and brutally effective styles of Tom and Terry Brands. Maynard dedicated himself to wrestling and knew, just knew, that one day he’d become a collegiate national champion.
And though he would become an All-American at Michigan State, Maynard never achieved the singular honor being a national champ. “In college I just concentrated on the NCAA championship — ‘ I’m going to get that.’ And days would fly by where I wasn’t concentrating on making the most of that day. After it all happened, to not have at least one national title…” Gray trails off before continuing.
“It was devastating. I mean, devastating. After that I thought to myself that I needed to re-evaluate what did to see what I did wrong, what happened. Obviously, there were lots of things but that was the main deal — I looked ahead way too far and so didn’t make the most of every day.”
That paradigm shift is how Maynard has stayed focused and improved every day and every fight moving, finally, to a lightweight world title shot. He isn’t exhaling yet, however, at simply being in a world championship fight.
As can be expected for a guy who is upset that he didn’t win “at least one national title,” not even becoming a world champion will satisfy Maynard. “My whole goal isn’t to just have a chance at [the title]. I want to get and I want to hold onto it for a long time,” he says. “I will not be happy until I have [the title] for a couple years.”
Maynard says that he still has about a week of very tough training left before tapering, making weight and resting momentarily before his fight against Edgar. The type of discipline world champion fighters have to keep is without peer.
Fighters have to oscillate between babying themselves — going to bed early, naps, icing injuries and getting sore spots massaged — and tearing their bodies down while pushing themselves to the brink of collapse and worse in training and bouts. Gray, the harsh self-critic, says that one positive characteristic he does have is his “will to win.”
However, as he expands on that trait it becomes clear that his motivation isn’t positive. “To go through a camp, eat smart, lose weight, to do all that and then just not go in there counting on a win, I don’t get it. I expect to win. I don’t understand going through all of this and losing,” he says.
“I love to win. I really hate to lose. The hate is probably more than the love.”