Crushing wrestler, Curtis Blaydes, will duel with knockout artist, Alexander Volkov, this Saturday (June 20, 2020) at UFC on ESPN 11 inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Blaydes, 29, is already one of the Top 5 Heavyweights in the world.
That’s exceptionally rare in the Heavyweight division, where fighters routinely hit their peak past the age of 35 (and then stick around for another 5-10 years). More than that, Blaydes hasn’t just been winning; he absolutely dominates! I don’t believe that Blaydes has lost a round to anyone except Francis Ngannou in his entire career. Blaydes is a scary concept for the Heavyweight division. His wrestling and conditioning are a major threat on their own, and Blaydes is developing real knockout power as his kickboxing improves. He’s already close to the title, and he’s not going away.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Since joining UFC, Blaydes has consistently shown all the signs of a well-coached, developing kickboxer. He feinted often, tried to establish range with his jab, and did his best to roll after his right hand. His inexperience showed defensively — defense tends to progress slower than offense for up-and-coming fighters — but it was always clear that Blaydes was on the right path.
Against Junior dos Santos, it really all came together, so let’s focus on that bout. From the first bell, Blaydes was very active with his feints, pumping out his shoulder and changing levels often. Simple and low energy, but as a result, dos Santos showed his hand several times by over-committing to wide swings as Blaydes pretended to come forward. In addition, Blaydes landed a nice one-two combination off the level change feint.
Blaydes has an 80-inch reach, and he used it fairly well in that bout. Blaydes doesn’t yet have a particularly snappy jab, but his kicks were effective. At distance, Blaydes was actively showing the jab and using it to dig a right low kick.
In addition, Blaydes showed an increased willingness to switch to Southpaw, where he would punt the mid-section from the open side. Furthermore, Blaydes began using shifting combinations to cover distance. After throwing his right hand, he would switch Southpaw and began jabbing as dos Santos backed up. This set up both powerful left hand swings and shots.
Finally, it takes a bit of experience to be able to recognize a reaction and capitalize. Dos Santos was really searching for his right uppercut, throwing that strike with bad intentions ... and a lot of wind up. Blaydes noticed, and rather than just avoid the punch, sent his right hand directly down the middle and beat his foe to the punch on two separate occasions (GIF).
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 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.
He has a number of different varieties of his mat return. Sometimes, Blaydes will catch the arm and drag his foe down to that side merely by dropping his weight. Often, Blaydes lifts his foe from the chest rather than the traditional waist, which helps prevent them from placing a foot on the mat and preventing the throw.
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 was 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 will be a top contender at Heavyweight for many years to come. Hell, he and Ngannou may fight three more times if Blaydes can notch a win under his belt next time. This bout, however, will determine if Blaydes is going to fight for a title in the next 9 or so months.
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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.