Make no mistake. Curtis ‘Razor’ Blaydes could become the most dominant heavyweight champion of the ’20s.
Curtis Blaydes: Heavyweights Worst-Kept Secret
It is a terrible situation for any fighter to find themselves in. Damned to a never-ending cycle of collecting convincing wins over ranked competition, generating sufficient momentum to propel yourself to title contention, only to be violently stopped by the same foe just before you realise your championship dreams. Such a cycle was evident during Joseph Benavidez’s attempts to claim the UFC flyweight title across 2011-2013, easing past solid opponents (including Jussier Formiga and Ian McCall) before falling twice at the final hurdle to Demetrious Johnson. More recently, this same cycle has plagued the career of rising heavyweight star, Curtis Blaydes.
Without a particular nemesis, Blaydes would hold a perfect 13-0 record and most likely have had at least two cracks at securing heavyweight gold. Unfortunately for the Illinois native, Blaydes made the mistake of existing during the same timeline of the ‘The Predator’, Francis N’Gannou. Typically, there are only so many times that a fighter can rebuild their career. Cleaning out a division’s roster following consecutive stoppage losses to the same opponent eventually leads to the fans, organisation or self-admission forcing the fighter to accept their miserable role as a ‘what-could-have-been’.The exception? The heavyweight division. Entirely consisting of paper-thin quality ensures that there is a steady stream of fresh faces for the small pool of above-average fighters to carve out extraordinarily long careers. Look no further than Andrei Arlovski’s longevity, a UFC career that started in 2000 and has shown no sign of ending soon, fighting as recently as 13 May 2020. With Blaydes set to headline the UFC on ESPN card on 20 June 2020 against Alexander Volkov, success is crucial for Blaydes career cycle. A victory on Saturday would allow Blaydes to avenge past defeats against number two ranked contender, N’Gannou, or even better, to side-step his perennial stumbling block and earn his shot at the heavyweight title post-Miocic and Cormier trilogy.
Standing at an imposing 6’4”, Curtis ‘Razor’ Blaydes, is a 248lb wrestling machine born out of Naperville, Illinois. Off the back of dominating high school competition, highlighted by a memorable senior year amassing a perfect 44-0 record and a state title, Blaydes received a full wrestling scholarship at Northern Illinois University. Compiling a 19-2 record as a redshirt freshman, Blaydes’ transfer to Harper College the following year brought only more success as he secured an NCJAA (National Junior College Athletic Association) national championship. Deciding to put his education on hold, Blaydes transitioned to mixed martial arts and racked up a perfect 8-0 amateur record before making a move up to the professional leagues in 2014.
Blaydes’ was called up to the UFC in only his sixth professional fight, having finished all of the previous within the distance across a range of regional promotions (XFO, RFA, etc.). Unfortunately, his debut was against the unknown Francis N’Gannou. Admirably performing before a doctor’s stoppage after the second round due to an eye injury, Blaydes set off on a five-fight tear-up against unknowns (Cody East), journeymen (Daniel Omielańczuk) and name-brand veterans (Alexey Oleinik, Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem). The emphatic destruction of Overeem on the mat via crushing elbows had fans salivating at what seemed like a heavyweight mauler who could not just break opponents down, but also win in style. Then, unlike lightning, N’Gannou struck twice. Finished in forty-seconds by The Predator, Blaydes has since found himself in a strange situation. Returning to the octagon with decisive wins over ranked contenders (Justin Willis, Shamil Abdurakhimov, Junior Dos Santos), Blaydes meets the requirements to challenge for the title bar the one (technically, two) black mark against his otherwise pristine resume.
Curtis Blaydes’ development into a well-rounded mixed martial artist since his wrestling-centric beginning was most evident during his most recent performance against Junior Dos Santos (JDS). Blaydes is not known as a dynamic scrambler, but instead is a classic workhorse wrestler who shoots well-timed single leg and double leg takedowns before delivering a gruelling ground and pound stemming from a dominant top game. Heading the billing for UFC on ESPN+, Blaydes flipped the script and beat former champion JDS at his own game, applying calculated offensive striking alongside the threat of wrestling to secure a TKO stoppage in the second round.
Blaydes has always used the jab as a range-finding weapon throughout his UFC tenure. Early in the bout, Blaydes pushes out a long jab, utilising his 80″ reach to gauge the distance between himself and JDS. It is a simple method of distance management that will be used later in the bout to calculate the area needed to be covered to enter the striking range. Blaydes is not exceptionally fleet-footed and cannot rely upon a natural speed to evade explosive advances from opponents. Therefore, using the jab to establish the punching distance is a crucial element of Blaydes’ strategy to out-think and out-manoeuvre more naturally gifted strikers.
During the first minute of the fight, JDS was unable to land any of his desired counter punches as Blaydes switched up his offensive output. By consistently changing levels by bending at the knee and faking takedowns, Blaydes could identify changes in JDS’ guard and crucially, to spot if JDS’ right hand would drop in order to defend a takedown. A pressing level change by Blaydes caused JDS to move backwards, yet mix up his feet in the process. By retracting his front foot first, it left JDS in a perilous narrow stance as he would have been unable to generate any power to fire defensive shots if Blaydes had decided to attack.
Through carefully experimenting the range between both fighters, Blaydes sat on the back-foot to entice JDS to explode forward. Moving with the right straight that JDS threw, Blaydes minimised the damage taken and immediately pumped out a jab to recalculate the range. With JDS lingering in the pocket momentarily, Blaydes shot for a single leg and drove JDS back against the cage. Within fifteen seconds, Blaydes’ intelligently used feints and level changes to assess JDS’ movement, bait him into close range and create the opening for a takedown attempt without the threat of return strikes.
The impact of Blaydes’ consistent use of feints is evident in the reactions it baits out of JDS. Despite wafting out a limp jab feint that stopped a few inches before JDS’ face, it spooks JDS out of his defensive shell and forces him to throw a loaded uppercut to keep Blaydes out of takedown range. Although the punch received a positive reaction from the fans and commentary team, Blaydes successfully goaded JDS into expending unnecessary energy and revealing his preferred counter to future takedown attempts.
Blaydes’ attempts at a handful of takedowns throughout the first round, although failing to secure any, were enough to create doubt in JDS’ mind. Unable to distinguish between a fake level change or takedown attempt, JDS had to maintain defensive attention on scrambling and thus was ill-prepared to evade or counter any incoming strikes. The fluid co-ordination between feints and striking is illuminated when Blaydes’ rose out of a level change with a jab, positioning JDS’ stationary head before landing an unanswered straight right.
JDS’ fixation on stuffing the takedown is further exhibited by Blaydes’ fake leg grab that provokes an immediate reaction from JDS as he pulls his front leg back and dips at the hips.
By masking his offence, in turn creating a cognitive strain and slowing JDS’ counter striking ability, it allows Blaydes to outstrike a fighter that is otherwise far more talented on the feet. To further torture JDS, Blaydes added an extra element to the mix – body kicks. Whilst the kicks appear laboured, it is enough to drop JDS’ hands and create an opening for Blaydes to fire in a more significant straight right. For such a dominant wrestler, the nuances to Blaydes’ set-ups are a scary addition to his skillset.
Blaydes’ awareness must not be understated. Near the close of the first round, Blaydes recognises that JDS, who plodded on the back foot for much of the round, has suddenly pressed forward and loaded up his right hand for a classic Marge Simpson uppercut. Whilst in real time it looks like Blaydes was fortunate for the punch to miss his chin by a whisker, upon further review it is a short jab by Blaydes which throws off the arc of JDS’ uppercut. Though a high-risk defensive decision, counter striking JDS’ erratic attacks brings further rewards than avoiding immediate contact. Doubt is also created in JDS mind as he has to weigh up whether he should risk another power shot if he will be clipped first in the process.
Following all of the groundwork laid down by Blaydes throughout the first round, he can harvest his just reward in the second. Dipping into yet another level change, causing JDS to drop his hands in anticipation of a takedown, Blaydes takes advantage and fires a loaded 1-4 on JDS’ exposed chin. Wobbled by the right hook, the contest was effectively finished as Blaydes threw unanswered knees from the clinch before a referee stoppage.
Blaydes’ showing was a mature performance in which he revealed his coachability (sticking to his gameplan), and a more fluid stand-up that incorporated the threat of takedowns to open holes in the opponent’s defence. Blaydes is a monster of a fighter, continually improving as he rounds off his skillset further. The heavyweight division, once the laughing stock of the UFC, may have a hidden pound-for-pound gem lurking in the shadows.
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