One of the Heavyweight division’s brightest young athletes, Curtis Blaydes, will go to war with former strap-hanger, Junior dos Santos, this Saturday (Jan. 25, 2020) at UFC Fight Night 166 inside PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Every time I go to write about Curtis Blaydes, the first fact that immediately jumps out is his age. He’s seven wins into his UFC career, ranked inside the top five, and is a genuine title threat, and Blaydes is still just 28 years old. There are other divisions where that would be pretty standard, but at Heavyweight, he’s anywhere from 5-15 years younger than all of his peers.
The best is yet to come from Blaydes, and he’s already damn good. The crushing wrestler isn’t going anywhere soon, so let’s take a closer look at his skill set.
Blaydes’ kickboxing remains a work in progress, and I mean that genuinely, not as a polite code for “It’s bad!” The wrestler is well-trained and does a lot of things correctly in his attempts to strike technically. For example, 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. As a result, he still looks a bit stiff in his movements, as he has yet to really relax while kickboxing in the Octagon.
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 does tend to relax more as the fight wears on. Against Alistair Overeem, for example, 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.
In truth, Kamaru Usman went through a similar growth pattern. While executing good technique, Usman would still move with a certain tenseness. It improved little by little, and now Usman is not to be taken lightly on the feet. Though Blaydes did not stand with Shamil Abdurakhimov all that much in his most recent bout, Blaydes still looked more comfortable sticking the jab and feinting level changes from the first bell, a positive sign for his progress.
The clinch is enough of a wrestling position that Blaydes never looks uncomfortable or unwilling to strike. Given the opportunity, Blaydes will jam his foe into the fence and go to work with small, punishing shots. As his opponent attempts to break away, Blaydes will look to snap off one final knee or unfurl a long right hand to catch his foe on the break.
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.
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). The most common way to stand at Heavyweight — a technique dos Santos does well — is to turn away, stand, and fight hands. Due to the size of these men, it is not easy to pick them up and put them back down with authority repeatedly, but Blaydes does so expertly. His mat returns are somewhat unique, and the topic of this week’s technique highlight.
CURTIS BLAYDES FOF VIDEO
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. Blaydes is a patient man, willing to wait for a real opening before delivering major damage (GIF).
It only takes one clear pathway for Blaydes to destroy a face, as Overeem found it in the third round after not absorbing much damage in the opening two rounds.
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.
Blaydes is an excellent Heavyweight already, and he’s going to be around the upper echelon of the division for a long time to come. At this point, he’s more than proven himself superior to non-top 10 opposition. Blaydes has earned another opportunity at making a title run, and taking out “JDS” is a big step toward that goal.
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.