Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Oct. 8, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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HOUSTON — Think of Las Vegas as a mixed martial arts empire without a current king.
The valley is home to the world’s largest MMA promotion, the UFC, and a number of its fighters are spread throughout gyms across the city. But none of them have held a coveted UFC championship belt in the past three years.
The most meaningful title in the sport has been exiled from Las Vegas ever since Forrest Griffin lost the light heavyweight crown to Rashad Evans at UFC 92. Griffin’s teammate at Xtreme Couture gym, Gray Maynard, looks to bring a belt back Saturday when he meets Frankie Edgar in a lightweight title fight at UFC 136.
“It’s been a long time, a long road,” Maynard said. “It’s a team thing, so that would be cool.”
Maynard has more ties to Las Vegas than the plethora of fighters who move to the area to train at a top facility. The 32-year old considers Las Vegas his hometown.
Although he was born in Phoenix, Maynard spent the majority of his formative years in the valley. It’s also where he took his first step toward becoming a world-class fighter.
At the behest of his father, Maynard started getting into wrestling as a child. He quickly fell in love with the sport.
Russ Leet, who coached the current UFC star when he was a freshman at Bonanza High, remembers when he first saw Maynard on the mats. Maynard was in sixth grade.
“You could tell then he was just a stud,” Leet said. “He was as tough as nails right from the beginning. Then, he was one of the top wrestlers in the state out here as a freshman.”
A district rezoning in 1995 sent Maynard to Durango High as a sophomore, where he went undefeated in wrestling and won a state championship. Maynard and his family moved to Lakewood, Ohio, for his last two years of high school, but Leet kept in close contact.
Leet watched as Maynard became the high school national champion his senior year and later a three-time All-American at Michigan State University.
“In my eyes, he’s the most prolific wrestler from Nevada ever,” Leet said.
Maynard returned to Las Vegas after graduating from college. It was around the lucrative years of 2003-05, so he had no problem finding work.
Maynard started a job in construction before shifting into a promising career in real estate.
“It was a great job,” Maynard said this year, “but I really had competition in me still.”
Enter Xtreme Couture, where Maynard began to train at an obsessive level. He turned to professional fighting in 2006 and had such elite wrestling that he could compete with most of the more experienced veterans in his 155-pound weight class.
The other aspects of his MMA game, particularly his striking, left much to be desired.
“I remember the very first time I saw him shadowboxing,” said Gil Martinez, Maynard’s boxing coach at Xtreme Couture. “I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, what did I get myself into?”
Martinez didn’t start working with Maynard until early 2008 — ironically their first fight together was Maynard’s first bout with Edgar, which he won via unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night 14 — but has seen radical improvement in his stand-up techniques since.
Martinez credited determination for the way Maynard has become a proficient striker. On many late nights, Martinez would be getting ready to go to bed when his phone rang with Maynard on the other end.
Maynard would usually be watching a specific boxing match and wanted to know what he could learn from it.
“It’s just like he did in wrestling,” Leet said. “He broke down every tape on every guy he wrestled. He’s always been a student. He was driven to be the champion by something. You couldn’t see it, but it was definitely in him.”
Before this fight with Edgar, everyone can see it. Maynard admits to feeling angry.
He fought Edgar for the second time in the main event of UFC 125 this year at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Maynard thought it was his moment after nearly knocking out Edgar in the first round and was ready for the celebration with his friends and family to begin.
But, to Maynard’s surprise, the judges scored the bout a draw after Edgar rallied back to keep the fight close in the final four rounds. Maynard asked a group of reporters rhetorically, “how did I let that happen,” Thursday afternoon.
“For this one, there’s something in him,” Martinez said. “He’s a little upset and maybe feels a little disrespected. We feel, and he certainly feels, that he beat this guy twice. And going into this third fight, he’s the underdog? I think that’s lit a fire under him.”
Maynard is so focused on Edgar this week that he can’t put together more than a few words to describe what it would mean to bring the lightweight belt back to Las Vegas. But others will gladly speak for him.
Its impact can’t be understated, according to Leet. As the current dean of students at Durango and still an active member of the local wrestling community, Leet knows how many local youngsters look up to Maynard. Leet has even seen it in his own two sons, who have known Maynard since they were babies.
“He inspires a lot of kids in this town to go out into sports and wrestle,” Leet said. “A lot of the high school kids now know him and would love to be him.”
Leet will hold a fight party Saturday night for some of Maynard’s closest confidants in the area. He texted Maynard a few words of encouragement this week, but usually doesn’t talk to him for long until after he fights.
Leet plans on having a lot to discuss with Maynard following UFC 136 — namely, congratulating him on bringing a championship back to Las Vegas.
“It would be huge for us to come back with the belt — for Xtreme Couture, for Las Vegas,” Martinez said. “But not just that, this is for Gray. This is what he’s been working his entire life for.”