For Curtis Blaydes, style points matter in slow-moving UFC heavyweight division

Curtis Blaydes has won four fights in a row, two of them by knockout and the other two by thoroughly dominant beatdown. During an MMA career that spans 17 pro bouts over 6½ years, he has been bettered by only one opponent. Blaydes is No. 3 among heavyweights in the ESPN rankings.

And yet when he steps into the Octagon on Saturday to face fifth-ranked Derrick Lewis, a victory would propel Blaydes … not an inch closer to a championship fight.

The roadblock standing between Blaydes and UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic is No. 2-ranked Francis Ngannou, and that is a barricade Blaydes has been unable to swerve around despite multiple attempts. They have fought twice, and Ngannou has knocked out Blaydes both times. Their most recent meeting, in November 2018, lasted all of 45 seconds.

Two top heavyweights will take center stage in Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event, with Curtis Blaydes facing Derrick Lewis. Blaydes, who is rated third in ESPN’s heavyweight rankings, has won four straight, while the fifth-ranked Lewis has won three in a row.

UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs. Lewis
• Saturday, Las Vegas
Main card: ESPN2, ESPN+, 10 p.m. ET
Prelims: ESPN2, ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET

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Ngannou will be the next challenger for Miocic. UFC president Dana White made that clear on SportsCenter just days after Miocic’s title defense in August, and last month White told TMZ that Miocic vs. Ngannou is being targeted for March.

There should be no argument with that booking. Ngannou is on a roll that sends chills down the spines of heavyweights the world over. His second conquest of Blaydes started a run of four straight victories — all knockouts, all in the first round, all but one in the first minute. His most recent KO, over previously unbeaten Jairzinho Rozenstruik in May, took just 20 seconds.

Yeah, Blaydes isn’t leapfrogging Ngannou no matter what he does against Lewis this weekend.

Blaydes could even end up being the one leapfrogged.

That’s because there’s new blood at heavyweight. Former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones is preparing to go through with his plan to move up a weight class. Last week he posted on social media photos of himself in the weight room with the caption ”240 feels great.” It looks great on him, too, every added pound, judging by the bulked-up physique in the pictures.

When Jones is ready to enter the Octagon with the big boys, he is not going to be asked to work his way up the heavyweight hierarchy. “Bones” is the sport’s indisputable pound-for-pound king now that Khabib Nurmagomedov is retiring. He warrants a big fight right off the bat. He might very well step directly into a title challenge.

How can Blaydes avoid having Jones cut the queue ahead of him?

He definitely ought not rely on having Dana White in his corner. In Blaydes’ most recent fight, a unanimous-decision win over Alexander Volkov in June, he had 14 takedowns and maintained top control for just under 20 of the bout’s 25 minutes. He landed twice as many significant strikes as Volkov, a top-10 heavyweight and former Bellator champ, and connected at an astounding clip of just under 70% accuracy. But Blaydes tired in the later rounds, and that became the focus of the UFC president’s postfight comments.

“I don’t think you talk the s— that he did this week and come in and perform like that,” White said that night. “Talking about ragdolling people and he’s not getting paid and yada yada he should be getting the title shot. He gassed out at the end of the third round, made it to the fifth and won the fight.” White scoffed at a reporter’s suggestion that Blaydes might just wait in line for his title shot. “I wouldn’t wait around if I was him. I’d stay active,” White said. “When you talk the s– that he talked and perform like he did tonight, you look stupid.”

It’s likely that White’s problems with Blaydes weren’t confined to his fighting style. Notice the four words in the middle of his critique: “he’s not getting paid.” Blaydes has been outspoken about fighter pay and has talked about a union.

By taking a stance unpopular with the UFC brass, Blaydes has put a whole new layer of pressure on himself. Going forward, anything but a brutal finish or all-out beatdown runs the risk of being framed by White as boring or in some way lacking. Blaydes has to perform and, yes, has to ramp up the entertainment.

And that’s doable. He is not the type to turn in a five-second flying-knee KO, a la Jorge Masvidal, but he does have it in him to ragdoll for 25 fun minutes.

The impression Blaydes leaves with fans — and matchmakers — with his performance on Saturday night will go a long way toward determining whether upward mobility is in his near future. Despite his standing at No. 3, with Nos. 1 and 2 expected to meet in just a few months, it is highly unlikely that Blaydes’ next fight would be for the championship. But if he handles Lewis the way he’s handled (almost) all who have come before, Blaydes can at least make it less palatable to have Jones jump the queue. Perhaps Blaydes would be called upon to welcome Jones to the heavyweight division.

With no championship on the line, that matchup might not seem like a flashy enough booking for the Jones debut. But just months ago “Bones” was campaigning for a fight against Ngannou, which would have been a non-title bout. And timing could play in Blaydes’ favor as well. Jones hasn’t competed in nine months, and by the time Miocic and Ngannou have settled their business, and the winner is ready for a new challenge, it could be next summer or even beyond. Miocic has been fighting once a year lately, so if he wins, would Jones want to wait nearly two years in between fights? A Jones fight against Blaydes — or against Lewis, if he wins on Saturday — would keep the new heavyweight active and enliven the division’s hierarchy. If UFC matchmakers feel the need to add some bling, they could even toss an interim title belt into the cage.

Blaydes cannot control UFC matchmaking. If the fight promotion is determined to have Jones fight for the title in his heavyweight debut, that is the fight that will be made no matter what Blaydes does on Saturday. But Blaydes nonetheless has an opportunity in his fight with Lewis, who has more knockouts than any heavyweight in UFC history, to put on the kind of stirring performance that makes fans care about him and want to see him in the biggest fights. For a fighter who so relentlessly thrives on control, that appears to be all he can hope to have within his grasp.

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