Top-notch wrestler, Curtis Blaydes, will throw down opposite rising knockout artist, Chris Daukaus, this Saturday (March 26, 2022) at UFC Columbus inside Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Blaydes is the forgotten man at Heavyweight.
Despite being ranked inside the Top 5, Blaydes is rarely talked about as a potential title contender. Even more relevant than his ranking, Blaydes actually matches up really well with all the hot upstarts in the division. Ciryl Gane, Tom Aspinall, Tai Tuivasa — Blaydes has an excellent shot at making each of them look far more average on the strength of his suffocating wrestling. Style match ups don’t matter if the fights are never booked, however. To regain some relevancy, Blaydes has to win emphatically here and get back in the mix with top-ranked contenders.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Blaydes hasn’t become a knockout artist over night, but the wrestler has consistently improved his offensive kickboxing year after year.
His best striking performance yet came against Junior dos Santos, where it really all came together. 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. Blaydes also 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.
More recently, Blaydes showed the same improved level change into one-two combination against Alexander Volkov. He genuinely landed the better punches early in the fight, but he was unwilling to let the fight play out there, as he continually drove into shots. He used a lot of energy as a result, but he clearly showed an ability to strike with the Russian.
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.
At this point, Blaydes’ issues on the feet are primarily defensive. His movement is nice, and he flows into his offense well enough. However, he seemingly cannot help but to duck down into strikes. When caught off-guard or when shooting without setup, Blaydes drops his head directly into the perfect spot for his opponents to attack with uppercuts and knees.
The prime example of this came vs. Derrick Lewis, who absolutely ended Blaydes with a picture-perfect uppercut. Alistair Overeem and Jairzinho Rozenstruik found good success with knees up the middle to counter the same movement, but the “Black Beast” loss really strings. Prior to the uppercut, Blaydes was torching Lewis’ lead leg and picking him apart with one-two combinations.
Lewis was waiting for that one moment of sloppiness, and he found it.
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 out-matches 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. 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. 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. The most common way to stand at Heavyweight is to turn away, stand, and fight hands — the Derrick Lewis special! 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 several 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.
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 ... and the Brazilian is no longer on UFC’s roster. 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, a serious threat to anyone in the division with maybe the sole exception of Francis Ngannou. In order for the 31-year-old wrestler to really build momentum, however, he has to beat Daukaus up — an uneventful decision win is unlikely to move him up the ladder all that much.
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.
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