Dominating wrestler, Curtis Blaydes, will square off with hard-hitting Frenchman, Francis Ngannou, for the second time this Saturday (Nov. 24, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 141 inside Cadillac Arena in Beijing, China.
When a 25-year-old Curtis Blaydes made his Octagon debut against Francis Ngannou (then 1-0 in UFC), I don’t think anyone realized just how quickly these two would climb to the division’s top-tier. They were recognized as great prospects, sure, but just two years later, Ngannou has already challenged for the title, and Blaydes is very close. Last time around, Blaydes had half his current fights and was stranded on the feet with a more experienced striker. There’s a chance he’s again unable to land consistent takedowns, but if that happens, Blaydes is much better prepared.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Curtis Blaydes really wants to be a technical striker. Most everything he does is — at least on paper — the correct thing to do. Blaydes uses the jab to start nearly every combination and pumps it at range. He feints with both hands. Anytime Blaydes ends a combination with his right hand, he rolls afterward.
In short, the 27-year-old wrestler has all the fundamentals pretty much down. At Heavyweight though, there’s a unique element of risk that does not exist for smaller men. Even for a man with Blaydes’ iron beard, a single mistake can end the fight, and that’s why Heavyweights take longer than most to actually get comfortable in the cage.
Again, Blaydes is just 12 fights deep into his career. He’s on the right path, but he isn’t at the destination just yet.
As it stands, Blaydes is still an effective striker. The jab is his main distance tool. It is not a spectacular jab, blindingly fast or deceptively hidden. However, given his 80 inch reach, it doesn’t have to be to land with solid consistency at Heavyweight. Blaydes does feint actively, which helps his landing percentage. He also tends to step too deep into the jab, a habit which Mark Hunt violently countered. At times, Blaydes will follow the jab with a punishingly hard low kick, simple but very effective strategy.
Blaydes’ inexperience often leaves him a little stiff while striking, at least until he relaxes into the fight. This was very noticeable in his last bout with Alistair Overeem, as Blaydes retracted his hands back to his face before fully extending in the first round. As a result, he didn’t hit Overeem from range much, and Overeem was able to time a few choice crosses/knees. By the second and third round, however, Blaydes gained confidence and comfort, and that 80 inch reach unfurled in the form of a long right hand that snapped Overeem’s head back a couple times.
The clinch is enough of a wrestling position that Blaydes never looks uncomfortable or unwilling to strike. In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze how Blaydes’ lands from close range, often on the exit of the clinch.
Every once in a while, Blaydes abandons the goal of being a perfectly technical boxer. Usually, that happens when he gets hit hard, stuns his opponent, or sees a foe covering on the fence. When Blaydes bites down and throws, he is able to do big damage with looping shots like hooks and uppercuts.
At some point in the next couple years, my prediction is that Blaydes has one of those fights where everything clicks, and he looks like a great kickboxer. He’s still in his fourth year as a professional, so there’s plenty of time.
A junior college wrestling champion and state champion in high school, Blaydes has some solid wrestling credentials. Inside the cage, he’s an athletic 255-pounder who actually knows how to change levels and drive forward — meaning he far outmatches most of the division even without having to use any advance techniques.
Let’s circle back to the jab, which sets up all of Blaydes’ double legs. Whenever Blaydes shoots, he offers forward a pump feint first, a similar movement to the jab. He only needs his opponent’s hands to hover high for a fraction of a second, enough time for him to drop down and meet their hips (GIF).
Once in on the hips, Blaydes drives and lifts tremendously well (GIF). He does a great job of adjusting for his opponent’s sprawl and hips, finishing the takedown as needed. At times, he can simply blast through easily. If his opponent offers more resistance, Blaydes will run through a couple steps before trying to power through the finish.
If met with very powerful hips like Francis Ngannou, Blaydes does a great job of cutting angles or adding in a trip mid-drive (GIF). Overeem is similarly powerful, but Blaydes did a great job of either timing the shot perfectly or forcing him into the fence to square his hips up.
Also important are Blaydes’ excellent mat returns (GIF). This was most noticeable against Hunt, who repeatedly tried to turn and stand to escape Blaydes’ top control. Instead, Blaydes did a great job of keeping his hands clasped, allowing him to return Hunt with a lift or trip. In one situation, he controlled the far wrist and applied steady downward pressure, eventually forcing Hunt back to the mat.
In top position, Blaydes’ desire to fight technically remains. He does not often jump into the guard with a big punch or do anything to reckless. Instead, Blaydes is all about the elbows, often from guard. It’s simple work: frame the face, drop an elbow, repeat. That damage adds up though, and if Blaydes can create a little bit of extra space, those elbows can turn into knockout blows.
In truth, I haven’t seen much in the way of offensive jiu-jitsu from Blaydes in terms of submissions. Positionally, he advanced past Mark Hunt’s guard and managed to take his back, a task surprisingly difficult given Hunt’s squat figure. Back on the regional scene, Blaydes did win a fight by arm triangle choke. His head position is not great, but Blaydes also put his foe to sleep, so you cannot question the results!
Defensively, Blaydes’ maintains such tight pressure that it’s hard to see anyone short of Fabricio Werdum being able to threaten him from the guard. Overeem managed to elevate and attack with the heel hook a couple times, but Blaydes did a nice job hand-fighting to prevent too much pressure on his ligaments.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.