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When this card was first finalized, it looked like a highlight of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first-quarter schedule, owing to a strong four fights atop the bill. Over the ensuing month and a half, two of those fights were undone: A co-main event between Frankie Edgar and Cory Sandhagen was effectively off once “The Answer” stepped in to headline a December show in South Korea, while a late injury to Josh Emmett scrapped an interesting confrontation with fellow surging featherweight Arnold Allen. The top two fights are still the clear highlights—particularly an excellent co-headliner between Rafael dos Anjos and Michael Chiesa—but beyond them, there is not much meat on the bone. As always, there is enough fun young talent to keep things interesting for those with the time to watch the entire affair, but in general, UFC Fight Night 166 on Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina, looks like a two-fight card.
Now to the UFC Fight Night “Blaydes vs. Dos Santos” preview:
HeavyweightsCurtis Blaydes (12-2) vs. Junior dos Santos (21-6)
ODDS: Blaydes (-245), dos Santos (+205)
It feels like it is only a matter of time before Blaydes becomes the UFC’s heavyweight champion. Part of that is simply his youth—at 28 years old, he is a relative neophyte in an old division—but Blaydes has mostly lived up to his considerable hype at every point during his time on the UFC roster. The Chicago native might already be in the championship picture if not for the existence of Francis Ngannou, the only man to stop Blaydes thus far. Blaydes was actually favored in their first fight due to his strong wrestling background, but the American managed to impress even in a loss, eating a ton of abuse from one of the most powerful hitters in the sport and continuing to fight until the doctor stepped in. From there, Blaydes continued to round out his game and looked poised to avenge that loss in late 2018, but Ngannou once again scored a finish and kept him on the fringes of the title picture. Outside of Ngannou, nobody has been able to stop Blaydes from getting his pressure game going, and things get absolutely frightening once he does. Blaydes’ earlier style earned some comparisons to Brock Lesnar, as he was mauling opponents and scoring stoppages through volume rather than one-shot power. However, he has evolved into a devastating ground-and-pound artist, and it took seconds for him to bust open Alistair Overeem’s face in their 2018 pairing. Blaydes’ striking defense can still be exploited, which may become a concern whenever his chin starts to show some cracks, but otherwise, it really does just feel like we are biding time until Blaydes takes over the division. Now, a former champion in dos Santos stands in his path.
A 2017 loss to current champion Stipe Miocic may have closed the door on dos Santos’ title pursuits, but “Cigano” remains a worthy gatekeeper to the elite of the division. In a weight class full of fighters who mostly get by on power and toughness, dos Santos can actually box, so while competitors like Blagoy Ivanov, Tai Tuivasa and Derrick Lewis can have moments of success, the Brazilian has consistently managed to take over and usually dispatch opponents with shallower styles. There are flaws in dos Santos’ approach—he often backs himself into bad situations and is not particularly adaptive in poor style matchups—but surprisingly few opponents have shown the combination of dedicated aggression and one-shot power to make him pay for those issues. Unfortunately, Ngannou was one of them, as dos Santos’ last fight was a quick knockout at the hands of the Cameroonian. A huge opportunity to get back on the comeback trail presents itself here.
Given that this is a heavyweight fight, anything can happen, but this looks like a style matchup tailor-made for Blaydes to continue his momentum. Blaydes may take a bit to feel things out, but once he decides to start moving forward, this should all be one-way traffic. Blaydes is open to be hit, but nobody short of Ngannou has managed to knock him out, and dos Santos is not particularly effective moving backwards. As a result, the American should be able to get the fight against the fence and start working for takedowns, at which point things will solidly be in his favor. All this is without factoring in dos Santos’ recent health woes, as he had to pull out of a fight in November with a bacterial infection that nearly cost him his leg. The pick is Blaydes via second-round stoppage.
Continue Reading » Dos Anjos vs. Chiesa