What’s next for Maia, Askren? Careers taking divergent paths

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Demian Maia has still got it. He left no doubt about that Saturday.

The Brazilian jiu-jitsu master beat Ben Askren by submission with a rear-naked choke at 3:54 of the third round in the main event of UFC Fight Night in Singapore. Somehow, quietly, at 41 years old, Maia has put together a three-fight winning streak. His work on the ground against Askren, a former Olympic wrestler, was a thing of beauty.

Two of those wins during Maia’s streak have come by submission. His lone losses since 2014? To elite welterweights Kamaru Usman (the champion), Colby Covington (the No. 1 contender) and Tyron Woodley (the former champ). Maia also owns a split-decision victory over BMF title contender Jorge Masvidal.

Askren’s résumé has not been nearly as good since coming over to the UFC from ONE Championship in 2018. After a disputed submission win over Robbie Lawler in his debut, Askren has now been finished by Masvidal and Maia in back-to-back bouts. “Funky” is one of the best personalities in MMA, but his Octagon performances have yet to match his top-shelf trash talk.

Should Maia get a contender fight next? Or will he continue to be slotted into a gatekeeper role? Where does Askren go from here? Is this it for him in the UFC after coming out of retirement?

Let’s break it down below.

Demian Maia, welterweight

Result: Defeated Ben Askren via third-round submission

Who should be next: Michael Chiesa

Maia proved Saturday he can still beat anyone in the UFC if it comes down to a grappling contest. His Brazilian jiu-jitsu remains at the most elite level — perhaps the best MMA grappling game in the world, even now. Maia was able to reverse takedowns from Askren and sweep him to get into top position when Askren did succeed. Just a sublime performance on the ground.

Afterward, Maia said he only has two fights left in his career and he made a head-scratching callout of Diego Sanchez. There’s certainly some cool, nostalgic aspects about that type of fight. Both have been at this for a long time. But Maia has won three in a row against pretty solid competition. Sanchez just lost to Chiesa at UFC 239. Chiesa makes a lot more sense as Maia’s next opponent.

If Maia truly is done soon, he’ll almost certainly be pigeonholed into a gatekeeper role, which is where he was before Askren in fights against contending hopefuls Anthony Rocco Martin and Lyman Good. Chiesa has won two in a row since moving up from lightweight to welterweight and is better than both of those opponents.

Maia vs. Chiesa would make for an intriguing matchup. Chiesa is a long, rugged, rangy grappler with some power on the feet. A win over Maia would solidify him as a threat at 170 pounds. Meanwhile, if Maia is able to beat Chiesa, 31, then it shows that the Brazilian still has quite a bit left and perhaps another contender fight is in the offing. Either way, the bout would provide plenty of information about where both men are in their careers.

Maia doesn’t have much left to prove. A former title challenger in two divisions, he is bound for the UFC Hall of Fame. He does have plenty of utility still in the welterweight division, though, in terms of gauging where his opponents are.

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Ben Askren says he become overconfident when attempting a reversal that led to his submission loss to Demian Maia. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc.

Ben Askren, welterweight

Result: Lost to Demian Maia via third-round submission

Who should be next: Gunnar Nelson

Askren has been a phenomenon outside the cage since coming over to the UFC in 2018 with a quick wit and keen sense of self-promotion, but his run in the Octagon has been a disappointment. There’s no other way to state it. Askren choked out Lawler at UFC 235 in March after taking a ton of early damage. The Lawler finish is still disputed, because he denied being completely unconscious in an Askren bulldog choke when referee Herb Dean came in to stop it. Askren went on to lose to Masvidal in a record five seconds at UFC 239 in July. And now Maia has beaten Askren with superior ground work.

Before signing with the UFC following a trade with ONE Championship for Demetrious Johnson, Askren made it clear that his one goal was to prove he was the best welterweight in the world. The wrestling specialist was undefeated going into the Masvidal bout. At 35 years old, he has not succeeded in that goal and it’s not clear how much further he wants to go with it. Askren retired previously when he felt like he wouldn’t get the chance to prove he was the best.

If Askren does continue in the UFC — and he gave every indication Saturday that he would — a fascinating opponent for him would be Nelson. In Nelson, Askren would have a similar opponent to Maia, though Nelson is a better, more dynamic striker than Maia and not as good of a grappler. Maia beat Nelson when they met at UFC 194 in 2015. Nelson has lost two in a row and three of his last four, so it would represent a step down in competition for Askren, which he needs to regain his footing.

Askren has succeeded everywhere he has been, from winning two NCAA national wrestling championships at the University of Missouri to making his way to the Olympics as a wrestler to earning welterweight titles in Bellator and ONE Championship. So far, things have gone off track for him in the UFC, and he should get the opportunity to get back on that path toward big fights.

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