UFC Beijing: Curtis Blaydes Has Big Opportunity Against Francis Ngannou

Curtis Blaydes could earn himself a title shot at UFC Beijing against former foe Francis Ngannou, but the Cameroonian is seeking his own redemption on Saturday.

When it was announced that Curtis Blaydes would be facing Francis Ngannou for the second time, it was nearly simultaneous with the announcement that fellow top contenders Alexander Volkov and Derrick Lewis were also matched up with each other.  With both contenders now out of the running and the heavyweight champion verbally committed to retirement early next year, rising star Blaydes may be locking in a title shot if he can vanquish his former foe at UFC Beijing.

Curtis “Razor” Blaydes’ journey in the UFC is one that simply took time to get off the ground.  Before either man was as highly regarded as they are now, he lost to Francis Ngannou in his UFC debut after suffering an eye poke that forced the doctor to end the fight between rounds.  He notched his first Octagon win four months later, but had his subsequent victory overturned after testing positive for marijuana.  Now several years later, he has finally seemed to hit his stride at the perfect time as he’s put together a four fight win-streak that includes wins over veterans such as Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem.

While his placement in Beijing on Fight Pass may be overlooked on the calendar, the circumstances of the last few months may leave him as the biggest benefactor.  Originally, Blaydes was competing with Alexander Volkov to get the next shot at the heavyweight title.  Volkov was upset in emphatic fashion by Derrick Lewis, and Lewis was subsequently halted by Cormier in a bid for the belt.  With Cormier stating that he will be retiring next March, there are now frequent questions on what will happen to the heavyweight strap he currently wears.  Barring a major shake-up, many are figuring that Blaydes could be facing former champion Stipe Miocic for the vacant title sometime next year.

To fulfill his end of the scenario, however, Blaydes must avenge his loss to Francis Ngannou.  The Cameroonian emphatically punched his ticket into title contention with the knockout of the year last December, but went on to be dominated for five rounds against then-champion Miocic in a bout that saw him gas out early and offer virtually no resistance for the rest of the match.  In July, he was scheduled to finally face rival Derrick Lewis in a bout that many considered a guaranteed action-packed bout.  Instead, Ngannou put on what can only be described as a disappointing showing as he avoided engaging with Lewis for the entire fifteen minutes.  Though both men were heavily criticized, Lewis was granted clemency on account of a back injury and still being the more active of the two.

The performance led to many speculating that Ngannou was suffering mentally from the way he had been handled by Miocic and that it led to hesitation on his part when he entered the cage in July.  He admitted as much himself following the bout, but it has now left many wondering if the the former knockout artist can still reach the same heights against elite competition.

Stylistically, the biggest question is whether or not Ngannou will commit to his strikes as he did throughout his UFC run.  If he does show hesitation, it could end up having disastrous consequences for him against the young and dangerous Blaydes.  Ngannou is scheduled for a full 25 minutes but should look to be the aggressor early as a long fight doesn’t favor him.  His best route to victory is to keep the fight in the center of the Octagon and at mid-range where he can force Blaydes to work his way inside or shoot from further away where Ngannou has more time to defend the takedown.

While many speculate that Blaydes is getting Ngannou at the right time, a disciplined attack remains the key to victory.  Similar to his fight with Overeem, Blaydes should look to mix up his attack with takedowns and getting the fight to the mat where he poses the greatest threat.  While he is a powerful and explosive heavyweight in his own right, he must not get overconfident and trade punches in the pocket with Ngannou.  Furthermore, staying on top of Ngannou and landing a steady stream of ground-and-pound will also help him to conserve energy for the full 25 minutes.

Blaydes will be in title contention with a victory, without question.  Should Ngannou return to form, it would provide him with the jumpstart he desperately needs to fuel another title run.  It should be noted that Ngannou does remain on the short list for a title shot with a victory given the current landscape of the division.  While it would be unexpected for the UFC to pencil him in against Miocic or another fighter for the vacant title, the promotion could elect to make the move should the schedule need a championship bout to take place as we saw happen earlier this year.