NOTE: This article was originally written for the November 28th booking of Blaydes vs. Lewis, which was delayed due to Blaydes’ positive COVID-19 test. The two men are now slated to face off in the main event of UFC Vegas 19 on Saturday, February 20th.
UFC heavyweight contender Curtis Blaydes is closing in on his first title shot. If he defeats fan-favorite Derrick Lewis in the main event at UFC VEGAS 15 on November 28th, he’ll be riding a five-fight winning streak with his only two losses in the division coming to the fearsome Francis Ngannou.
Close to a pure wrestler when he first debuted in the UFC, Curtis Blaydes has worked hard to round out his game - notably putting away former champion Junior dos Santos on the feet. He’s best when he gains dominant ground control positions and creates space to tee off, as seen in his gruesome butchering of heavyweight legend Alistair Overeem. The threat of his wrestling attack opens up opportunities on the feet, and of course takedowns are necessary to begin working on top. So, how does Curtis Blaydes take fights to the ground?
In this article we’ll take a look at Blaydes’ tendencies in creating proactive shot opportunities, as well as the situations in which he shoots reactively. The Wrestling Breakdown and Wrestling for MMA series has covered many athletes who employ systems to get to their A-game, and Blaydes is no exception.
How Curtis Blaydes draws out offense
Even in earlier stages of Blaydes’ career, his main look on the feint was to show the 1-2, feint out the 1-2 and shoot under the attempted counter or under the raised guard in response.
This took him far, but he did run into trouble with more punishing counterpunchers like Mark Hunt and Francis Ngannou. His work at Elevation Fight Team seemed to focus on developing his control of entries - namely making sure that he wasn’t just standing in front of his opponent while working.
We started to see Blaydes playing with his entries, stepping in and out of range while applying that feinting 1-2 game. This is a marvelous strategy for a heavyweight. No one his size at this weight class is as mobile on their feet, and heavyweights are much more prone to swinging big counters to punish entries rather than using their feet or an active guard to nullify the attack.
Take a look at some of Blaydes’ handiwork.
Last week’s Joey Davis breakdown highlighted the importance of level manipulation. Showing level changes encourages your opponents to drop their hands, to lower their level with you (and subsequently rise back up into their stance), or to attempt to counter what they think is an entry. To use video game terminology, there is “recovery time” for most of these responses.
Blaydes is prepared to make his move once he gets the look he wants. So when his opponent plants their feet, starts to swing back, or moves their guard, the opening is there. None of this works without the takedowns themselves - Blaydes has tremendous drive behind his double leg. He typically shoots high on the hips, either running his feet and turning the corner for a finish or blocking one of the retreating legs for a trip finish. He doesn’t need a very deep entry to make his shots count.
Essentially all Blaydes needs to do is pressure, offer some safe offense and keep his eyes open for lapses in stance. Blaydes’ ability to hop out of the pocket, rock back with his guard up, and more recently shift or step off at an angle, allows him to stay ready to shoot while avoiding damage.
As his opponents wear down, Blaydes can lead more often and needs a little less tact to get them planted and exposed. They become more desperate to land a big counter, and a simple jab-level change is usually enough to get in on the hips. Even when his execution on these strategies is flawed, Blaydes is tremendously durable and very difficult to scare off, meaning he can still wade through the fire and get what he wants.
The smaller details of this approach have really evolved over time. Check out Blaydes’ entries vs. Volkov in his most recent performance.
It’s not just in-and-out jabbing anymore, Blaydes was actively setting up the single leg entry with his footwork. By circling toward Volkov’s rear leg, he forced Volkov to turn toward him and step across with his lead leg. Volkov attempted to counter jab with him, taking his hands away from any potential early takedown defense, and his lead leg was planted and aligned for Blaydes to snatch up.
As Blaydes improved as an offensive striker, his opportunities for takedowns grew. Volkov often froze against Blaydes’ entries, unsure of whether to counterstrike or prepare to wrestle. This allowed Blaydes to get off his combinations and land power. Immediately after a big successful combination, Blaydes will come right back in. His opponent is eager to “get it back” and land something of their own, and that’s when Blaydes hits his entry.
A logical response for a Blaydes opponent is to turn the tables and pressure him, to lead the dance with their own offense. Unfortunately, there are not many heavyweights that can lead with enough measurement or accuracy to avoid opening themselves up for reactive takedowns.
It’s important to give credit to the defense of Curtis Blaydes as well. His head movement and positioning might not always be pretty, but he avoids strikes and keeps himself prepared to shoot when the moment is right. Even in seemingly sloppy exchanges, Blaydes is laying groundwork for takedowns. Here against Volkov you can see the consistent ducks and dips built into his defense - which easily mask the ensuing level change.
MMA fans and pundits often discuss the way “the threat of wrestling” can set up striking. More often than not, they do not explain what they mean by that. The truth is, it differs case-by-case. It’s a direct product of their process. For Curtis Blaydes, it’s the same as his takedown game - he’s able to play with entries, feint and draw out his opponent’s offense. When they load up on a strike or miss, instead of shooting, he can hit them.
Blaydes’ process did not allow him to take down Junior dos Santos, but it opened up plenty of opportunities to punch him in the face.
UFC on ESPN: Blaydes vs. Lewis
What does all of this mean for Blaydes’ upcoming fight against the fearsome Derrick Lewis?
Lewis has gained notoriety for his power, his skills on the mic, and for his ability to “just stand up” when taken down. I worked hard to dispel that myth in this breakdown of Lewis’ getup game, but no one listens to me.
In said breakdown, I point out the fact that against opponents with actual means of back control, either with wrestling rides or putting in hooks, Lewis’ method of “bridge and roll, base and stand” is much less effective. However, even if Lewis can consistently get up from underneath the massive and skilled Curtis Blaydes, he is not enough of an operator on the backfoot or as a defensive wrestler to stop him from taking him down repeatedly.
This does not mean it’s impossible for Lewis to land power on the feet inbetween those stages. However, if Lewis is looking to counter entries and punish Blaydes, that plays right into that strategy of drawing out offense for counter striking and counter wrestling.
Blaydes vs. Lewis may well be a showcase matchup for the next heavyweight contender, but the ever-present danger of Derrick Lewis makes it a match worth making.