Curtis Blaydes vs. Junior dos Santos headlines UFC Raleigh this January 25, 2020 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.
One sentence summary
David: Plough Wrestling
Phil: Curtis Blaydes looks to clobber another beloved heavyweight icon on his road back to presumably getting knocked out by Ngannou again.
Record: Curtis Blaydes 12-2-1 | NC Junior dos Santos 21-6
Odds: Curtis Blaydes -250 | Junior dos Santos +230
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Blaydes is your classic case of ‘Well What Did You Expect us to Do?’ UFC-style matchmaking. I don’t ask for much. I didn’t even ask the UFC to take down their inexplicably beloved STEMM song. But I don’t believe it’s too much to ask that the UFC know how to develop their prospects. Granted, the UFC didn’t ‘Bronx’ him (Bronx, verb. To accelerate growth with matchmaking, free of strategy or tactics), but Blaydes has done nothing but win when he’s not facing Francis Ngannou, and his recent run consists of Shamil Abdurakhimov and Justin Willis. Yes, they’re super underrated heavyweights with zero name value. And that’s kind of what moderately bothers me. Blaydes should have higher name value at this point, which makes this matchup a little late, but nonetheless welcome.
Phil: Curtis Blaydes has thus far had his UFC career defined by a singular obstacle. When he first came to the organization, he was that rarest of all things: a genuine blue-chip heavyweight prospect, who showed every sign of being coachable, athletic, and with a reliable base skillset. In his first fight he was thrown against a similarly talented but less credentialed opponent in Francis Ngannou, and was broadly expected to win. He didn’t, and so it was back to the drawing board, and a run of increasingly impressive wins... until he was stopped by Ngannou again. It’s time to rebuild that streak again, albeit with less forgiving matchups. In steps Junior Dos Santos.
David: Dos Santos had a nice run. Literally: that smile is infections. Then he had a not-so-nice run. Literally: those injuries were brutal. As he’s taken the long walk, that last breath of octagon humanity has given him a peace that I think has helped his otherwise crude rhythm. Plus, like...he was always gonna lose to Ngannou.
Phil: JDS was building a serious case as perhaps the greatest heavyweight ever before Cain Velasquez tore his way through a bunch of holes in his game which have never closed up. So he’s settled into a gatekeeper role, beating up on the people he always should have beaten and losing to the people who figure him out. I love the big goof, but he is firmly established as an IQ test fighter at this point, if not the ideal of the type.
What’s at stake?
David: For once, it finally feels like the list of contenders requires a bit of blubber tetris, and that’s maybe a positive. Who knows. That’s the thing about heavyweight: flesh is a flat circle.
Phil: Ngannou is firmly ahead of Blaydes even with a win and god only knows what’s going on at the top of heavyweight. I think they try to run the DC-Miocic rubber match, and try to placate Ngannou in the meantime. Heavyweight has often been defined by being stagnant and full of old people, which makes it a little surprising that it’s this jammed at the moment.
Where do they want it?
David: Blaydes is a fun throwback to those Mark Coleman, Randy Couture, Dan Severn days. I’m just kidding. I didn’t care for those days. Severn might be the least entertaining legend ever. But credit where credit is due: these guys were great fighters (hot take: am I the only one who holds Couture’s raw numbers against him?). Blaydes is in that mold of a dude who is dominant enough in one aspect of the fight game that the rest can be middling to outright mediocre, and it won’t matter. Other than turning Alistair Overeem into a splatter prop from a Naked Gun movie, Blaydes has more or less blue-collared his way to the top. He’s not a dynamic scrambler. Which I wouldn’t expect from any heavyweight really. But more than that, he’s just extremely minimalist, and it works. Minimalism has always seemed like the theme at heavyweight: the less you can do, the better. Blaydes is good at taking people down, throttling them to the cage, and maintaining the pressure. Despite being a heavyweight, his takedowns are incredibly well-timed. One of the reasons why he doesn’t delve into a bag of tricks is that he doesn’t need them. His striking is obviously average, but I do like that he does a good job of feinting strikes. This allows him to expend less energy throwing random bolos simply to keep an opponent primed for a switch. Blaydes is good not because he’s immensely talented. He’s good because heavyweight embraces the right philosophy more than the right pugilism.
Phil: Blaydes is large, well-coached, mentally and physically durable, has good cardio and a great baseline skillset in wrestling. That should be enough to carry him to a title shot, and probably will be if he has a typical heavyweight career, measured as they are in aeons. All you basically have to do is survive long enough. He’s probably the best shot wrestler to hit heavyweight since Lesnar, and perhaps even a bit better than him, with an explosive double leg and an array of high-percentage mat returns and awesome looking slams. Should he get the opponent down, he has a similarly Lesnar-esque ability to flatten them with ground and pound- reference the revolting elbow he hit poor Alistair Overeem with. On the feet, the report card is less glowing: while he understands how to work behind a jab and cross in a mechanical sense, there’s little feel for how strikes interconnect. It telegraphs his shots, which has led him walking into big knees and uppercuts on more than one occasion.
David: In his prime, JDS was a force of actual distance management. That distance management was able to turn into meaningful offense on a dime. These days he does a little less managing. His game hasn’t so much deteriorated as it has adjusted to the withering of his body in conjunction with the evolution of heavyweight. Within these historical forces, JDS has retreated to One and Done style mayhem. Every now and then a rhythm breaks out in his usual jab and stab inertia, but less these days. JDS is a long way from the man who lost to Cain Velasquez and then followed it up with that grown man performance against Mark Hunt, mixing it up with takedowns, firing well time missiles, and showing swagger in the process. Nowadays he’s more like Hunt was in that bout: working less to try to do more, and suffering as a result. Like Hunt, however, that doesn’t make him less dangerous.
Phil: Has JDS gotten better? Worse? Is he the same? The leg kick which he used against Miocic and Ngannou was sort of encouraging as a mid-range tool, but a lot of what we’ve seen from him lately indicates that he no longer has the insane confidence at mid-range that he used to. His approach was simple and unbeatable for most heavyweights: a shoulder feint hid a jab which could be turned into a left hook or body jab, or mixed up with the world’s ugliest overhand. As he’s aged, it appears that he’s leaving the jab behind and gambling more on the big shots. Perhaps he no longer feels like he can survive extended exchanges, or perhaps he’s simply trying to scare people off pushing him back into the doom-zone of the fence, but the JDS of the modern era feels a lot more like a kill-or-die glass cannon.
Insight from past fights
David: Unlike most losses, dos Santos’ defeat against Ngannou felt less like a mere loss, and more like a culmination of his previous fights coming home to roost. I do think Blaydes will have trouble, though. At least early on. Even though his takedowns are well-timed, JDS keeps just enough distance to avoid the simply entry. Still, his offense is not what it used to be, and certainly not enough to grind out a tough win over a prospect in his prime.
Phil: In many ways this is a pretty tough matchup for Blaydes - against Daniel Omielanczuk he was denied the takedowns and was forced into a pedestrian striking matchup. In all I think that was good for his development, but I also suspect that if he’s forced into that matchup against JDS he’s probably going to get walloped. Conversely, it’s hard to think of a JDS fight which hasn’t just been weird and scrappy and ugly lately. Tuivasa? That Lewis atrocity? Blurgh.
David: Has either man been on the Joe Rogan podcast? That’s good for some heat. Or so they say.
Phil: N/A. It’s heavyweight so the variance of individual fights is at its maximum while career trajectories are as slow and inexorable as a glacier.
David: I think the trick for JDS is keep Blaydes from cutting off the cage, but I feel like we’re always saying this. It’s the Tyron Woodley problem all over again. Except where Woodley has the talent, IQ, and acumen to make it work despite its counterintuitive manner, a flaw is a flaw is a flaw with dos Santos. It happens, and it yields negative results. I suspect this is the story of the fight: Curtis Blaydes by TKO, round 2.
Phil: It’s a tough matchup for Blaydes, but he’s shown himself to be extremely coachable and mentally strong. I think his striking, enormous noggin and telegraphed takedowns probably get him into trouble a couple of times, but JDS has just shown himself to be so, so solvable. I would be training Blaydes to push JDS up against the fence on offense, and just run for the hills on defense, as Dos Santos lacks the footwork to either chase or retreat effectively. If Dos Santos were as durable as he used to be, I’d probably pick him anyway, but I just can’t pick him to stand up to consistent offense from a younger, more durable fighter. Curtis Blaydes by TKO, round 3.