There’s a new player in the UFC’s heavyweight division, and he possesses two valuable commodities for a big man: a durable chin and a strong wrestling base.
Curtis Blaydes showed both at UFC 221 on Saturday night in Perth, Australia. After a pair of right hands from Mark Hunt put the 26-year-old on wobbly legs in the opening frame, Blaydes went to his bread-and-butter to earn a relatively dominant unanimous verdict over “The Super Samoan.” Blaydes finished the night with 10 takedowns landed – the second most ever by a UFC heavyweight in a single bout.
“That was always my game plan. I am not a fool. I had no aspirations of standing and trying to bang with Mark Hunt so he can knock my head off,” Blaydes said at Saturday’s post-fight press conference. “That was always the game plan. I am the better wrestler, why not use it? And I train in Denver, we’re a mile up in the air. There’s no elevation here in Perth, I knew I’d be the better conditioned athlete, I knew wrestling would gas him out a lot faster than standing and banging at his own pace, so I wanted to dictate where we went. On the feet, he’s a lion; on the ground, I’m a shark. I wanted to drag him into deep waters. That’s what I did.”
After scoring the signature victory of his professional career, Blaydes is unbeaten in his last five Octagon appearances, although a win over Adam Milstead at UFC Fight Night 104 was overturned due to a positive marijuana test. His lone defeat? A doctor stoppage loss to recent title challenger Francis Ngannou in his first promotional foray in April 2016. Even then, Blaydes absorbed more punishment than most Ngannou foes have been able to take.
“I debuted against Francis Ngannou. He was the heaviest hitter I’ve ever faced. Ngannou hits harder than Mark Hunt,” Blaydes said. “No disrespect to Mark Hunt. They both hit hard, but Ngannou hits harder. So, I knew I had a chin. I’ve taken shots from everyone. I get hit. I’m a wrestler, I don’t have the best head movement, so I get hit a lot. I know I have a chin. I know I have heart.”
Ngannou’s path in the UFC accelerated more quickly than Blaydes, but the Elevation Fight Team Product appears to have a bright future. His strength – wrestling – was exactly the Achilles heel that led to Ngannou’s downfall against Stipe Miocic at UFC 220. Because the two former foes are relatively fresh faces in the division, Blaydes is confident that he will eventually get a chance to avenge that defeat.
“The Ngannou rematch will happen. I don’t have to force it,” he said. “We’re both among the younger heavyweights in the division right now. I know the UFC is looking to have exciting matchups. It has a storyline. It’s gonna happen.”
While Ngannou probably won’t be next, Blaydes believes he’s earned a matchup with a highly-ranked opponent. And the Illinois native hopes that opportunity comes at UFC 225 in Chicago this June.
“Anyone in the top-five,” Blaydes said. “Cain [Velasquez], Alistair [Overeem], [Fabricio] Werdum. I won’t call anyone out -- I haven’t earned that right. But I do want to get on that Chicago card. I feel like that’s what I want to ask for. I want to feel this. I want my fans screaming my name, booing my opponent.”
Regardless of how things play out in the coming months, Blaydes hopes to be one of the fighters to help usher in a new era in the heavyweight division.
“I feel like every division goes in generational cycles,” Blaydes said. “We had the Frank Mir, Brock Lesnar, Alistair (Overeem), all those guys, they’re all nearing the end, some of them are already gone, the Roy Nelsons and the Josh Barnetts, a couple of them are still hanging around. “But I think it’s time for the next wave to get in there and make names for ourselves.”