MMA Interviews

Hungry and Energized, UFC Lightweight Contender Gray Maynard ‘Loving Life Right Now’

Gray Maynard (James Law/HeavyMMA)

Former lightweight challenger talks about the evolution of his training

The road to a UFC championship is a tedious and grinding process. Most fighters work their entire careers and never earn their shot, while those who are fortunate enough to run the gauntlet past the divisional elite understand it is an opportunity that may never come again.

Gray Maynard spent his entire 2011 with the lightweight title just beyond his reach. After two classic scraps with Frankie Edgar, in both of which Maynard appeared to be within moments of claiming the throne, “The Bully” ultimately walked away empty handed. It was a year of extremes for the former Michigan State University wrestling standout.

For someone as goal-oriented and driven as Maynard, failing to claim the lightweight title was disappointing enough. But when injury and inner-camp turmoil piled on, it became a situation where he was forced into a decision to break, bend or change the game. With a world of potential and so many avenues yet to travel, Maynard embraced his newfound freedom and set about on a journey of personal evolution. In addition to seeking new tools and further developing his fighting skills, Maynard was also looking to regain the happiness and love for fighting that once came effortlessly.

To jump-start the process, Maynard traveled to Brazil’s Nova Uniao camp, where he helped featherweight champion Jose Aldo prepare for his UFC 142 title defense against Chad Mendes. The time in Rio de Janeiro proved to be educational as Maynard earned his blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu from coach Andre Pederneiras and forged newfound friendships with the likes of Aldo and bantamweight contender-on-the-rise Renan Barao. The trip to Brazil not only broadened Maynard’s horizons, but provided validation that there was still so much to learn.

“My time in Brazil was eye-opening,” Maynard told HeavyMMA. “A lot of their mixed martial artists start with absolutely nothing and come from serious poverty. When I say that, I’m not talking about families falling on tough times. I’m talking about kids who come from the favellas with nothing but the shirts on their backs, and they dedicate their lives to becoming professional fighters with the hope they will find success and financial stability from it.

“Another thing I found surprising was how close the team is. Their camp is very organized. The coaches and athletes are all open to evolving and learning. I don’t know if this is the case everywhere in Brazil, but at Nova Uniao it’s like a family. Coach Andre Pederneiras is a father figure to a lot of those guys. They would do anything for him, and all he asks is if you are going to be there, you train hard. It got me going every day, and for a guy who gets so much respect, he has zero ego.

“He truly wants to learn from everybody, and he’s extremely smart. Andre has actual fighting experience, and he knows what is really going on in there. He knows there isn’t one person who knows everything, and he’s evolved over time and brought those methods to his students. He knows how to train his fighters hard, but smart at the same time.”

Upon his return to the States, Maynard remained in motion as he uprooted from his home in Las Vegas and relocated to Northern California. He began spending time with Jon Fitch and company at the American Kickboxing Academy, and word spread quickly that Maynard had officially joined the team in San Jose. While Maynard was indeed training and found a good fit with the squad at AKA, his plan to keep all options open prevented him from making a permanent home at the camp. The Academy’s head coach, Javier Mendez, found no conflict in Maynard’s decision and his encouragement and understanding was something Maynard greatly appreciated.

“AKA is a great gym, and Javier Mendez told me the door is open any time I want to train,” Maynard said. “He understands no one should tell an athlete he can’t fly out to another gym to learn or train somewhere else if it’s going to help him improve, and I appreciate that about him. He knows when I’m there I’m going to work my ass off, but if I get an invite to go back to Brazil or over to another gym, why wouldn’t I go? If it is going to make me a better overall fighter and be a great opportunity to develop, then it makes no sense for me to pass it up.

“But just like Coach Pederneiras, Javier has actual fighting experience. Coaches who have fought and been through that life operate differently. They know what it is like to be punched and kicked, and that puts ego out the door. They want you to learn because they understand they don’t know everything. When they fought, they went to get help from wherever they could and want the same for you.

“There are a lot of good fighters at AKA, and they have been one of the top gyms in MMA for a long time. They operate with a team mentality, and the time I’ve spent there has been great. Some of the best fighters in the sport, not to mention some of the best wrestlers, are there and they go hard when they train. I’ve known DC (Daniel Cormier) since high school. He’s always loved the sport of wrestling, and he still does. He can teach, and runs a great practice. It’s a hard session, and we don’t call him Daniel Cormier – we call him Daniel Gable because he runs such a monster practice.”

In addition to spending time at AKA, Maynard began hitting gyms around the Bay Area to get in work. He found the variety to be a welcome change, and one of the largest alterations to his training has come from adding legendary strength and conditioning team the Marinovich brothers to his regiment. Known for their cutting edge approach, Maynard has been amazed by not only their methods, but the immediate results he’s experienced in a short amount of time.

“I’m currently doing strength and conditioning with the Marinovich brothers,” Maynard said. “They are known for being on a different level and they are truly on their own playing field. I’ve been doing the same things for a long time, and it’s great to switch things up and not only that, but to feel the results and see the improvements in less than a month of working with them. It’s crazy. They’ve trained professional athletes from every sport and have been in their field for a long time. They know their area of expertise, and it has really clicked with me. Their methods are precise, organized and calculated. It’s unbelievable.

“Last year, I hit a plateau – I really did. Now it’s time to learn, and there is a lot of work to do. It’s not like I changed camps and it’s suddenly I’m leaps and bounds ahead of where I was. I have a lot to learn, but I’m excited and inspired again to do it. As far as jiu-jitsu and Muay Thai, those things are just scratching the surface. There are so many other aspects and elements to refine or develop, like nutrition, sleep and recovery, which directly affect your performance. At the end of the day, those areas are relatively untouched and there is still so much to learn.

“I’m at a point in my career where I’m assessing everything I’ve learned. Obviously I’ve picked up a ton of useful information along the way, but I’ve also learned a great deal about what you shouldn’t do. It’s an awesome thing when you know who you are, how to train and what works best for you. I’ve been through it all and how you get to the top is realizing what you can and can’t do.”

With the next chapter in his life officially underway thanks to the announcement of a June collision with Clay Guida, the page in his career turned, as well. Both Maynard and Guida have been staples in the title contention picture for some time, but their respective losses pushed them back into the pack. The winner of their main event bout at UFC on FX 4 in Atlantic City, N.J., will keep one of them in the hunt amidst the dog-eat-dog world of the UFC’s 155-pound division.

“The fight between Clay and I actually came out as a rumor a long time ago,” Maynard said. “Someone put it out there we were going to fight in Montreal, and even though it wasn’t true, it drew solid attention. The UFC saw this, and Joe Silva thought it was a great fight – so they made it happen.

“Since it has been out there, I’ve pretty much been gearing up for him for a while now. Guida has good takedowns, but I feel that is my area and what he lacks as a true athlete he makes up for in heart and toughness. Clay is well known for his cardio, but he also likes to mix it up and throw hands. He has a good chin, great heart and it’s a fun fight.

“The lightweight division is like a drama. It is like a good soap opera that draws you in because it’s not built up off bulls**t hype. There is no fake build-up where guys are talking a bunch of s**t in order to get fan’s attention. It’s all in the actual fights people are seeing, and it is the most competitive weight class in the UFC, hands down. The skill and heart displayed in our division is without comparison. We go out there, put it all on the line and get after it from bell to bell.”

While everything may be changing for Maynard, his ambition to become the lightweight champion has remained a fixture. After surviving last year’s roller coaster and getting pushed down the mountain, he’s ready to resume the climb. The necessary adjustments have been made, the evolution continues and Maynard’s newfound happiness is a crucial element in the process. Even though his immediate focus falls on Guida and the quest to improve, there is a place in his mind where Edgar still dwells – and it’s a chapter he looks forward to closing some day, once and for all.

“I’m living day to day and loving life right now,” Maynard said. “I’m living my dream and I’m happy again. I’m training hard, going all over the Bay Area, and there is a lot of knowledge up here. It’s been a great experience and I’ve learned a lot so far. I’ve picked up new techniques, different looks and my game is definitely evolving.

“All I want to do is continue to grow and develop, and I’m having a great time doing it. There is so much out there to learn. I’m hungry and excited to soak it all up, add new elements to my game and improve the areas I would consider my strengths. I want to keep evolving, and that is what it’s going to take for me to become the fighter I want to be. I want to be a champion, and I’m going to do whatever it takes for that to happen.

“The title has always been the goal. I would love to have the belt and somewhere along the line, get another fight with Edgar. We are 1-1-1 and we need to settle it once and for all. It has to happen eventually, and after that fight we can both be done. We can walk away knowing it’s over and that we gave MMA fans some great fights to look back on.”

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