One UFC lightweight will leave the Octagon as a clear cut contender to the throne this evening as the undefeated Gray Maynard takes on Stockton bad boy Nate Diaz in a 155 pound showdown with serious implications during the main event of UFC Fight Night 20.
Far from strangers, Diaz managed to catch the still developing Maynard in a submission during the pair’s stint on the fifth season of The Ultimate Fighter, long before Maynard had clawed his way near the top of the UFC’s lightweight mountain with a total of six consecutive victories inside of the Octagon fencing.
That’s why FiveOuncesofPain.com made it a point to catch up with head Xtreme Couture submission coach Neil Melanson recently to pick his brain on exactly why this fight will be different this time around for “The Bully”.
Cory Brady for FiveOuncesofPain.com: How long have you personally been working with Gray now?
Neil Melanson: This is the first fight I’ve ever worked with Gray on, so I would say it’s been about six weeks, or maybe just a little bit more, but roughly six weeks.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: So you never really worked with him very much in the past when he had been training there?
Neil Melanson: Right. As far as I know, he’s never really had a grappling coach. He’s just been kind of rolling with Jiu-Jitsu guys. He was never a really big fan of Jiu-Jitsu, and since my style is kind of different, I know Randy [Couture] was really pushing me to train him. I actually approached Gray because I was really interested in him and his potential. I put my heart and soul into what I do and I want to make sure I give it out to the right people. So I’m a little picky in regards to the fighters I want to work with, and Gray was at the top of that list because I felt like I could really help him.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: He has a ton of potential.
Neil Melanson: He’s a giant in that division, that’s for sure.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: Is the fact that he was training for Nate Diaz kind of an obvious reason that he wanted to train with you for this one?
Neil Melanson: Yeah, I think so. Honestly, I pulled him aside and he seemed to be a little hesitant. I could tell that he didn’t seem that interested in learning Jiu-Jitsu until he realized what I was going to be able to do for him. The first day I worked with him I taught him some catch wrestling stuff. I worked with him a couple times on that stuff, and then I grappled him and kind of lit him up a little bit to wake him up to the fact that he’s fighting a guy that’s basically a submission artist. He could be dominating the bout for fourteen minutes and fifty seconds, but if he can get caught in that last ten seconds, so why give Nate that opportunity. After that I was working with him three days a week.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: Well Nate’s a submission artist, sure, but he’s also a submission artist that holds a previous submission victory over Maynard, whether it was official or not.
Neil Melanson: Right, that’s very true. I’m actually a fan of the Diaz brothers. I know a lot of people aren’t. I really like they’re style of fighting, I think they’re tough, and even though they don’t approach the game with the same attitude that I would, every time I’ve met either of them they’ve been nothing but respectful towards me.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: I’m actually a big fan myself because of some of the reasons you mentioned, but at the same time I think the sport needs a little bit of attitude every now and then. But what are some of the ways you’ve been able to see Maynard evolve on the submission and submission defense aspect of things, and why is this fight with Diaz going to be different this time around?
Neil Melanson: I think Gray has evolved in a lot of different ways as a mixed martial artist since that bout. I think his knowledge of the submission grappling game has definitely helped him, but I really think that his boxing ability is going to be a really big factor in this fight and the future, because his boxing has come pretty damn far recently. He actually hits really hard and he really knows how to work the body. Gray’s just a fierce competitor and I’ve tried to teach him my best on how to stay out of certain positions. The way I look at it is: Nate’s going to have to trap him in something. He’s very capable of doing that, but if he can’t catch Gray in something, I don’t see him beating him.
FiveOuncesofPain.com: Do you feel like, with a win over Diaz and a previous win over Frankie Edgar, that Maynard would be in line for a title shot against B.J. Penn?
Neil Melanson: Yeah, and I think that beating Roger [Huerta] put him up there too. I personally feel that Frankie Edgar should get the next title shot, and I’d like to see Gray and Kenny Florian battle it out to see who faces the winner of that one.