SB Nation Exclusive: UFC 125's Gray Maynard Talks Title Shot With Frankie Edgar, The WEC Merger And Pettis' Kick

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Gray Maynard speaks with us about his upcoming title shot with Frankie Edgar, why wrestling is dominating MMA, the WEC merger, a possible fight with new WEC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis and, of course, his ninja kick.

With his most recent win over perennial contender Kenny Florian at UFC 118 in August, No. 1 contender and undefeated 10-0 Gray Maynard finds himself in all too familiar territory as he prepares for a rematch with Lightweight Champion, Frankie Edgar. The two met previously in April of 2008, resulting in a dominating performance for Maynard, Edgar's first and only career loss. 'The Bully' more than lived up to his moniker as he was able to stifle and frustrate his noticeably smaller opponent. Now peering down on the rest of their division, each of these fighters have been able to showcase their personal development since their first meeting.

Maynard's recent victory over Kenny Florian more than cemented him as a contender in the UFC's deepest division. While he wasn't able to score a stoppage win, Maynard absolutely dominated Florian in a fight eerily similar to the main event at UFC 64, a fight that saw 'Ken-Flo' take a beating off his back for the better part of five championship rounds. Sherk did it well, but Maynard did it better.

Never satisfied, Maynard can always find holes in his own game. 

"You evolve in every camp, so we've tightened up some stuff with my footwork and jiu jitsu. Just trying to improve all around."

While it would probably be nice to able to use the same gameplan that worked so well against Edgar two years ago, the fight was – after all – years ago.

"The gameplan was to win the first time and it is again. There's obviously a plan but it's still just a fight. Just win in all areas and I should come out on top. I mean, he's still the same guy, just a little bit more crisp. He's shown a bit more jiu jitsu now when he's on his back. More movement, but it's still him."

Edgar seems to have flourished in a new, little used striking style. Rather than using his footwork to set up his right hand, Edgar comes in and out of striking range and is content to just get his hands out there, utilizing his head movement and being a difficult target for power shots.

"I box with a lot of pros and a couple of them do, in fact, do that. Not as much power with a lot of movement. It's just one style. He's smaller so I don't know if he has a lot of power. It's kind of more like amateur boxing with the points." 

Something interesting to keep an eye out for in this fight will be how Edgar deals with a striker who will put a bit more heat on him. Did Edgar adapt so much in his fights with BJ Penn that he may now have a tough time fighting someone who doesn't have a more lackadaisical boxing style?

"That's a good observation. I think the guys he's fought after me — Sherk and Penn — were a 'come forward' style that liked being on the inside. They didn't have a lot of coming in and out with head movement. I think he's gotten away with a lot of stuff that he does with these certain guys." 

"I think he's going to try to do the in and out thing, try to get me on my back a couple times. I think he believes he can go the entire time without getting slower, wearing me out. He wants to try to lock up rounds one through three just with the 'hit and move' and then open up in rounds four and five. That's not what's going to happen, for sure."

Frankie Edgar's high work rate may be his biggest asset. Considering his smaller size, his ability to maintain a pretty high pace is much of the reason I believe he's walked away with two wins over BJ Penn.

"I don't worry about his work rate. Not at all. If you look at the fight and see what kind of work he did it was all foot movement. He did a great job with that but there was no pressure on him. He never had pressure put on him. He can stand out wherever he wants and the other guys just stand there. Sherk and Penn. He didn't demonstrate any scrambles in those fights. He's got good cardio, but we all do. I'm not BJ Penn. I believe in my work and I'm going to go five rounds and make him work." 

"The problem with him could be if he tries to hit and move, but that's not even much of a concern. I spar with pros that have that movement and who are just as crisp. I see a good fight, but I believe in me."

This is an interesting situation from a mental standpoint. Maynard already has a convincing victory over Edgar, so how does he keep from getting ahead of himself. Does the fact that this fight is for the strap keep him grounded? Does seeing Edgar hoist the belt bother him?

"It's just easy for me. It was a win and I moved on. Learn from it and move on. If it had been a loss I would have dwelled on it a bit, but it was a win a few years ago. For me it's a completely new fight."

"I mean, the belt is awesome. My goal is to be on top of the world. I just know it'll come. It's not if, it's when. January 1st. Then I have to hold on to it. It never ends. You just can't stress about stuff. There are always new goals, ups and downs. You just have to keep an even keel and enjoy every day. If I do what it takes my goals will come."

It isn't as if Maynard doesn't have enough friends with championship pedigrees surrounding him. His former college wrestling teammate — Rashad Evans — is a former Light Heavyweight Champion and his mentor is Randy Couture. There should be plenty of strong influences with words of wisdom.

"Yea, obviously it's great to be the champ, Rashad will tell you that. Again, that's not what I'm in this to do. I'm not in this to get all the stuff that goes along with being champion. My whole goal is to be the best I can be in this sport. Obviously the cash and the belt are great, but when you've done this your whole life everything else becomes obsolete. I was in a sport for a long time where there was no money, but we all worked just as hard as any other sport out there, probably harder. We trained our asses off and wanted it bad as hell. Now there's more cash but my mindset is still all about my goal - being on top. Learning every day, evolving. That's what I love to do. Whatever comes will come. I just enjoy this sport. That's what I love."

The dominance of wrestling in MMA is undeniable at this point. Not since Royce Gracie has such a prowess in one particular martial art allowed a fighter greater odds of success in the octagon. If Maynard wins the Lightweight title on Jan. 1, the UFC would have two champions with less than 12 professional MMA fights, the other being Heavyweight Champion Cain Velasquez. How much does the strong wrestling base play a factor in that relatively quick success in transitioning into MMA?

"We work so hard in wrestling. If people just gave it a chance and knew what we did all the way from being a kid through college and even past that. If they only know how much guys give up with no money, no nothing. This is easy for us to come over here into MMA with all kinds of opportunities to make money. Working out is easier for us. That's what we've been doing twice a day, everyday for our entire lives. I feel that a guy who comes into the sport to get after it in every discipline is going to go far pretty quickly. The gap between the top guys is closing. It's going to be very close. This isn't a sport right now where a jiu jitsu guy is fighting a boxer. It's at a spot where everyone is good in all aspects. Wrestling is a great sport because it teaches you how to work hard and reach your goals. If you apply that to boxing and jiu jitsu or anything else, you're going to learn much quicker than most."

Speaking of Randy, is he really thinking about hanging it up? Couture tweeted last week about the possibility of finally stepping away from the sport as a fighter.

"I can't imagine being in this sport at 46 years old. I don't know. It's hard to pass up pay days after where he's gotten. People don't understand. You work your ass off for so long and then you get to the peak of your pay and you're only there for two or three years. You have to take advantage of it. I mean, he's 46 years old. Whatever he chooses, it'll be up to him. I'm behind him 100% either way."

I hadn't spoken to Gray since the announcement of the WEC merger, and being in the odd situation he's in right now of possibly fighting its Lightweight Champion I wondered how receptive he would be to the whole thing.

"I'm pumped about it. Competition. It just goes to prove that 155 is the toughest weight class in the world. Period. There's no easy scraps, no easy nothing. I've been going through the top guys and people are going to have to learn to love it. This is just more competition for me."

I couldn't help but think there had to at least be some jealousy among the UFC's lightweights. Along with trying to keep your job in arguably the most stacked division in all of MMA, UFC lightweights now find themselves on even shorter leashes. While some veteran lightweights have already been pushed out through the process of natural selection, the newcomers from the WEC have finally reached the pinnacle — fighting for an organization that wouldn't have them only months ago.

"It's not about just having the chance to fight in the UFC, it's about staying there. It'll all get smoothed out. People who need to stay, will stay, the ones who need to go, will go. Again, if your goal is just to be in the UFC, you're probably not going to stay. If your goal is to get in, stay and have the belt, you'll do well. That's how I think of it."

I don't think anyone who watched the main event at WEC 53 between Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis would doubt those two deserve a chance to be in the UFC.

"For the Belt?"

I don't know about that.

"Those guys deserve to be in the UFC. There's a lot of good guys like Donald Cerone, Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis. You've got a lot of good guys but they haven't beaten the proven fighters. Still, it'll all pan out. I'm not a guy who says this merger won't work. Time will tell. We'll see who stays and who goes. It's a great division. If you're trying to come in you need to make sure you work your butt off. It's deep waters. You better know how to swim."

Maynard had a bit of a vested interested in the aforementioned fight between Henderson and Pettis. He could be fighting Pettis sometime next year. Is it just a bit insane to anyone else that Pettis' first fight in the UFC is going to be for the title? With Maynard having to go through guys like Frankie Edgar, Jim Miller, Nate Diaz and Kenny Florian, I really hoped Gray shared my thinking.

"From a business stand point I can understand where they're going. For me? I don't really care who I fight. I got a strap coming up on Jan 1. If and when I do get past that, it's whoever they choose for me. I don't care. Who did he go through to get to that fight? Also, the change of venues, change of crowds? The odds are stacked against him. For me, I don't care who it is. I still have a job to do. They tell me who it is and I say 'fine, let's do the contract.' I'm not the type of guy who talks about what is or isn't fair. It's a job." 

How would that fight go down? Would Pettis be able to pull off those ninja moves in the UFC against someone like Maynard?

"I heard about the kick. I don't have cable, though. I haven't seen it. I heard about it. Interesting kick. I heard it was out of the matrix or something." 

After giving a long, strange and what I can only assume to be a unhelpful description of the kick, Maynard only had one word.

"Nice."

I could feel his overwhelming excitement through my cell phone. You try explaining that kick to someone using only words and without the aid of a dry erase board.

"I need to check out that whole fight."

Funny, especially after the commentators made a point to say that both Maynard and Edgar must have been watching that fight with their noses only inches from the TV screen.

"It's awesome but I kind of keep to myself. If I miss a fight and hear it's good I'll have to check it out. If I don't, oh well. I'll definitely have to check it out, but right now I'm just worrying about myself."

 

Gray Maynard fights Frankie Edgar for the UFC Lightweight Championship at UFC 125 on Saturday, Jan. 1.

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