Crushing wrestler, Curtis Blaydes, will take on fast-finisher, Tom Aspinall, this Saturday (July 23, 2022) at UFC London 2 inside O2 Arena in London, England.
Blaydes’ last performance — a second-round main event knockout win over Chris Daukaus — was a victory he’s built toward for years. His technical progression on the feet has been slow but steady, and all that improvement paid off. Finally, Blaydes looked truly comfortable in the stand up, moving around at range and using the full extent of his abilities. Indeed, the takedown specialist didn’t need to wrestle, ending a Top 10-ranked opponent quickly with hands alone.
If Blaydes can retain that comfort and choose when to wrestle smartly, he’s a dangerous opponent for every Heavyweight on the roster. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Blaydes has an 80-inch reach, great athleticism and a solid team behind him — it shouldn’t be a surprise that the 31-year-old is starting to hit his stride. Two of his four most recent wins came via strikes, a testament to his improvement.
The Junior dos Santos bout marked the first time Blaydes’ stand up 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. 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.
Blaydes’ latest win over Daukaus demonstrated many of the same tools, like low kicks, brief stance changes, and movement at distance. The most noticeable improvement was Blaydes’ jab, however. Again, with his size, reach, and those lunchboxes Blaydes calls fists, his jab doesn’t have to be lightning quick or overly complicated.
Whenever he poked Daukaus in the nose with the jab, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt clearly didn’t like it. The finishing sequence itself had little to do with the jab though. Instead, Blaydes showed his timing and range advantage to beat Daukaus to the punch in a trade of crosses (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.
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 versus 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.
Maybe this bout vs. Aspinall will create some interesting grappling exchanges?
Blaydes is a nightmare match up for most of the division’s top fighters. With Francis Ngannou recovering from surgery, Blaydes has a golden opportunity here to likely secure an interim title shot by taking out the division’s sharpest new contender. Otherwise, a third fight with “The Predator” is still a long way out, though there remains the chance that Ngannou abandons the promotion entirely.
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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