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UFC Raleigh preview, ‘Blaydes vs Dos Santos’ predictions

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UFC 166 - Open Workouts Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Former UFC heavyweight champion, Junior dos Santos, turns 36 this month and will try to turn back the clock against a younger, more powerful wrestler in the form of 28 year-old Curtis Blaydes. Their heavyweight showdown headlines the UFC Fight Night 166 mixed martial arts (MMA) event, taking place this Sat. night (Jan. 25, 2020) inside PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.

In the UFC Raleigh co-headliner, former lightweight stars Raphael dos Anjos and Michael Chiesa will look to prove they belong in the welterweight title conversation — at the expense of each other — with an impressive showing this weekend in the “Tar Heel State,” something that may come much easier without the brutal cut down to 155 pounds. To be honest, Dos Anjos vs. Chiesa could very easily be an ESPN+ main event (like this).

Before we get to the main and co-main event breakdown, be sure to check out the complete UFC Raleigh preliminary card breakdown, expertly deconstructed by the jet-setting Patrick Stumberg here and here. Fighter-turned-writer-turned-fighter again, Andrew Richardson, did most of the heavy lifting on the rest of the main card right here. For the latest odds and betting lines click here.

265 lbs.: Curtis Blaydes vs. Junior Dos Santos

Curtis “Razor” Blaydes

Record: 12-2, 1 NC | Age: 28 | Betting line: -250
Wins: 9 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 3 DEC | Losses: 2 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 0 DEC
Height: 6’4“ | Reach: 80” | Stance: Orthodox
Striking accuracy: 328 of 640 (51%) | Takedown attempts: 45 of 86 (54%)
Current Ranking: No. 3 | Last fight: TKO win over Shamil Abdurakhimov

Junior “Cigano” Dos Santos

Record: 21-6 | Age: 35 | Betting line: +210
Wins: 15 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 5 DEC | Losses: 4 KO/TKO, 1 SUB, 1 DEC
Height: 6’4“ | Reach: 77” | Stance: Orthodox
Striking accuracy: 1068 of 2204 (48%) | Takedown attempts: 5 of 9 (56%)
Current Ranking: No. 4 | Last fight: TKO loss to Francis Ngannou

Curtis Blaydes has been such a terrifying force at 265 pounds that comparisons to Khabib Nurmagomedov have started to trickle in, and while on the surface that may seem overly generous, consider that “Razor” has scored a whopping 30 takedowns over the last two years across a span of six fights. In addition, the former collegiate wrestling standout does more than just smother and cover his opponents, racking up three violent technical knockout finishes along the way, including his UFC 225 bloodbath against Alistair Overeem. Blaydes has not been perfect, mind you, going down in flames opposite Francis Ngannou, but “The Predator” has the kind of power than can fell a rhino, so it’s something to consider when we talk about the big picture. Blaydes has serviceable striking but when he does let his hands go, it’s usually to set up the takedown. This fight will be no different than any other in that “Razor” will try to cut through his opponent’s offense, drag the action to the floor, and unleash hell.

It’s no secret that everyone competing in the 265-pound weight class can pack a wallop, one of the benefits of being so damn heavy, but unlike most heavyweight power punchers, Dos Santos is actually a skilled boxer, which is why barroom brawlers like Derrick Lewis and Tai Tuivasa have been put on their asses. Something that gets lost in all those striking battles is “Cigano’s” ability to stay upright. Most of his fights play out on the feet, but even a prime Cain Velasquez whiffed on 11 of his 13 takedown attempts. UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, himself an accomplished wrestler, was an anemic 1-18 in takedowns when they battled at UFC Phoenix. Blaydes had it pretty easy in most of his fights, as portly power punchers like Justin Willis and Mark Hunt are ill-equipped to keep their backs off the ground. Dos Santos is also one of the few heavyweights who can match Blaydes in cardio, going all five rounds in winning performances against Blagoy Ivanov and Ben Rothwell. His chin is not what it used to be, which is to be expected after so many wars, but “Cigano” remains as dangerous as ever.

I hate to use those stupid cliches like “classic battle of striker vs. grappler” but sometimes they are unavoidable. We have one of the division’s most prolific wrestlers going head-to-head with one of the hardest heavyweights to take down. That said, persistence is usually the key and even if Blaydes can’t score the single, he can certainly push Dos Santos into the cage and work from there. I’m sure “Razor” is hoping he gets the same referee who let Holly Holm bearhug Raquel Pennington for 15 minutes at UFC 246 because every moment he’s not clinched or tied up or shooting for a takedown, he’s in mortal danger. I know the easy pick is Blaydes by ground-and-pound, reflected by the betting odds — and his ability to score at will against most of the division — but Dos Santos is about as stubborn as they come and just when you think he’s washed up, he turns around and pulls off another big win. I think he’s being overlooked here, not just by the fans but by Blaydes as well, and when the fleet-footed Brazilian starts shucking off takedowns, “Razor” is going to find out what happens to fighters who don’t have a Plan B.

Prediction: Dos Santos def. Blaydes by technical knockout

170 lbs.: Raphael dos Anjos vs. Michael Chiesa

Raphael dos Anjos

Record: 30-12 | Age: 35 | Betting line: -260
Wins: 5 KO/TKO, 10 SUB, 15 DEC | Losses: 3 KO/TKO, 0 SUB, 9 DEC
Height: 5’8“ | Reach: 70” | Stance: Southpaw
Striking accuracy: 1387 of 3025 (46%) | Takedown attempts: 45 of 124 (40%)
Current Ranking: No. 5 | Last fight: Unanimous decision loss to Leon Edwards

Michael “Maverick” Chiesa

Record: 16-4 | Age: 32 | Betting line: +220
Wins: 0 KO/TKO, 11 SUB, 5 DEC | Losses: 1 KO/TKO, 3 SUB, 0 DEC
Height: 6’1“ | Reach: 75” | Stance: Southpaw
Striking accuracy: 203 of 531 (38%) | Takedown attempts: 17 of 48 (44%)
Current Ranking: Unranked | Last fight: Unanimous decision win over Diego Sanchez

Prior to losing his lightweight title to Eddie Alvarez in July 2016, Rafael Dos Anjos was on a 10-1 run at 155 pounds with a loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov sandwiched in between five-fight win streaks. That he would consider a loss to Tony Ferguson — one of the world’s best lightweights — reason enough to transition to welterweight should tell you just how much the Brazilian hated cutting weight, but I think it was more mental than physical and Dos Anjos, for all his success, does not belong at 170 pounds. Never was that more apparent than in his losses to Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington, and even Leon Edwards, where he simply did not have the physicality to hang with those wrestle-heavy bruisers. There is a marked difference between a lightweight who doesn’t cut weight and a natural welterweight who diets down to the 170-pound limit. Dos Anjos is proficient in all areas of MMA, going toe-to-toe with some of the best fighters in every discipline with enough cardio to make him dangerous for all five rounds, something Kevin Lee learned the hard way in the fourth frame of their 2019 affair.

Like Dos Anjos, Chiesa migrated from the lightweight division after too many grueling weight cuts, but unlike Dos Anjos, his most recent scale fail also cost him dearly inside the cage. “Maverick” was never able to get anything going at 155 pounds despite showing early promise as winner of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 15. Complicating matters is the fact that Chiesa has zero knockouts in 20 trips to the cage. Not even a TKO by way of cut or opponent injury ... something, anything. On his feet, defense is a liability which leads to some pretty aggressive grappling exchanges and they’ve certainly proved successful. On the other hand, pushing around Carlos Condit and Diego Sanchez were feats to be admired back in 2010. “The Natural Born Killer” has lost five straight with three submissions and “The Nightmare” — a natural lightweight — has a losing record dating back to his 155-pound title fight against BJ Penn. Before I can anoint Chiesa a bona fide welterweight title contender, I will need to see more, starting with his UFC Raleigh co-main event this weekend in the “Tar Heel State.”

This is a tricky fight to call and it’s a lot closer than the betting lines would suggest. Dos Anjos is the kind of stylistic match up that on paper, would be a nightmare for Chiesa. The Brazilian has powerful punches and a strong wrestling game and he likes to move forward with pressure early and often. At the same time, Dos Anjos can be flustered by the same attack and more than once we’ve seen the former champ pressed against the cage or dragged to the floor with that bewildered look unbecoming a fighter with his grappling credentials. Chiesa has scored a takedown against everyone he’s faced in UFC with the exception of Kevin Lee, who ruined him in the first round. I would expect this bout to continue that trend with Dos Anjos getting put on his butt enough times to both neutralize his striking and break his fighting spirit. If I hadn’t already seen it happen against other persistent grapplers, I wouldn't have believed it, but the blueprint for beating the Brazilian is practically a neon sign and something the “Maverick” team has undoubtedly planned for.

Prediction: Chiesa def. Dos Anjos by unanimous decision

Remember to check out the rest of our main card predictions HERE.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 166 fight card on Saturday (CLICK HERE), starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” undercard bouts at 5 p.m. ET, followed by the ESPN+ main card start time at 8 p.m. ET.

For much more on this weekend’s UFC Raleigh card click here.