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UFC London: Blaydes vs. Aspinall preview - The future of heavyweight MMA collides

Get the scoop on the action out of UFC London, headlined by a heavyweight clash of two of youngest contenders in heavyweight MMA in Curtis Blaydes and Tom Aspinall.

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Tom Aspinall celebrating his win over Alexander Volkov at UFC London
Tom Aspinall celebrating his win over Alexander Volkov at UFC London
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

Ever since the UFC began running events almost weekly, it has had an obsession with putting heavyweight fights into prominent positions on the card. Thus, we’ve had several five round fights between the big boys, something fans are rarely interested in. Not when we might be able to get five rounds out of lighter competitors who would be more likely to give us solid entertainment over the course of 25 minutes… if it were to last that long.

This time around for UFC London, there’s no argument: We NEED to see what Curtis Blaydes and Tom Aspinall can do over five rounds. Given there’s an excellent likelihood neither of these guys are at their peak quite yet, this could end up being one of the better Fight Night main events in the history of the UFC. Given the history of musical chairs played with the heavyweight title, it’s plausible both of these men will wear the big gold belt someday.

Even better, it’s not like this is just a top-heavy card. Former title challenger Alexander Gustafsson returns. UK fan favorites Paddy Pimblett and Molly McCann are in prime positions. Plus, two of the most pleasant surprises in recent years in Chris Curtis and Paul Craig are also on the card. While I think it would be foolish to think the card will be as good as the UFC’s stop in London this past March – that was a historically good card – there’s no reason to think this won’t be an awesome card.

For the prelims preview, click here. For an audio preview, click here.

Curtis Blaydes vs. Tom Aspinall, Heavyweight

Where to begin with this fight? With Francis Ngannou having disposed of Ciryl Gane, Aspinall looks like the biggest threat to dethrone the heavy-handed champion. It isn’t that Aspinall has the same type of power as Ngannou – there may not be anyone in the history of MMA who can match Ngannou in that field – but the youthful Englishman has more than enough power to put anyone to sleep. Plus, Aspinall move in such a way that belies his monstrous frame, proving to be as light on his feet as some fighters 100 pounds lighter. The crazy thing is we’ve only seen a fraction of what he can do on the ground… and BJJ is his base. For what it’s worth, what we have seen is pretty damned impressive.

For all the positives about Aspinall, there is still a LOT that is unknown about him. The most common question is how his gas tank looks. While he is undefeated in the UFC, the furthest any of those fights have gone is just over six minutes. On the regional scene, he lost both contests that went beyond that. To be fair, one of those losses was a DQ due to illegal elbows, and the other loss was seven years ago. A lot can change in that time. However, it’s one thing to train to go deep in a fight. It’s another thing to actually go deep in a fight.

Another question is about the level of his competition. Sure, Alexander Volkov is a quality name – he may be the best name Blaydes has claimed – but Volkov hasn’t looked like the same fighter Blaydes beat a couple of years ago. Is Volkov on his way out of the heavyweight elite? If he is, Aspinall’s win over him isn’t nearly as impressive. Blaydes has been consistently fighting the best the heavyweight division has to offer for several years. Plus, Aspinall has been told for quite a while that his farts don’t stink. Could everyone telling him how great he is bring his guard down? Aspinall has been humble enough in his interviews, but even GSP fell prey to hubris.

As for Blaydes, he may offer the type of attack that Aspinall is most vulnerable to: a wrestle-heavy attack. A reasonable case can be made that Blaydes is the greatest heavyweight wrestler in MMA history. Even if it doesn’t appear MMA comes as natural to him as it did for Cain Velasquez in his prime, Blaydes is a more explosive athlete with the most powerful blast double leg takedown seen in the sport. Blaydes hasn’t shown any submission prowess, but if he can get the proper positioning from the top, few can compete with the brutality of his GnP.

Given Blaydes has suffered a loss every time it feels like he’s about to have his breakout moment, there is no shame in losses to Ngannou and Derrick Lewis. Plus, Blaydes is still only 31. In the heavyweight division, that makes him a fresh-faced kid. And as Blaydes showed in his most recent win over Chris Daukaus, he isn’t done improving, making a point to KO the striker on the feet. I’m not foolish to believe Blaydes can compete in a pure boxing match with Aspinall, but given Aspinall will need to be wary of the threat of the takedown, Blaydes can assuredly land some heavy shots.

With all that I’ve looked at in this contest, the one thing I firmly decided is I wouldn’t throw money towards one fighter or the other. There’s a reasonable case to be made for either man to win. X-factors don’t really help either. Blaydes tends to fight his best when he has a chip on his shoulder. Given the hype around Aspinall, Blaydes has plenty to be surly about. As for Aspinall, he’ll have the entirety of London behind him. With so many events at the APEX in the last couple of years, it’s easy to forget how much of a difference a live crowd can have. Y’all remember how scary a place Brazil was around 2011-2013? Right now, the UK has that type of vibe. Thus, while I believe I’d pick Blaydes if this fight were on neutral ground, I’m going with the younger fighter to have a breakout moment. Aspinall via TKO of RD2

Jack Hermansson vs. Chris Curtis, Middleweight

Originally scheduled to be Hermansson vs. Darren Till, a late injury to Till allowed Curtis to step in. This is the third time in Curtis’ UFC run that he has stepped in on short notice. Given that he’s won both of those previous fights, is there any reason to doubt him?

Curtis has the advantage of being on the small side at middleweight. That may be confusing for many, but what is meant by that is the longtime regional journeyman won’t have a lot of weight to cut. Throw in the fact he has always been in phenomenal shape and it would be stupid to think his gas tank would be compromised despite the late notice and needing to fly across the Atlantic.

As indicative by his supreme conditioning, Curtis is the consummate pro in every way. That includes his preparation and feel for striking. It’s the type of feel that can only come from years of experience, developing a sense for where his opponent going to be and ensuring Curtis will have an incoming fist waiting to connect with them when they arrive. There are two things that will probably hold Curtis back from breaking into the elite. First, Curtis was never a great wrestling threat, even when he was plying his trade at welterweight. His takedown defense is solid, but it does make his attack one-dimensional. Secondly, while Curtis is a good athlete, he isn’t a great athlete.

To be fair, Hermansson isn’t a great athlete either, but no one is ready to label him an elite middleweight either. That said, Hermansson does have the diverse attack that Curtis lacks, able to initiate effective offense in all facets of the fight. If Hermansson knows his opponent struggles to stop takedowns, he’ll look to take them to the ground. If the Swede has a notable edge in his standup, he’ll be happy to turn the fight into a boxing contest. No one will declare Hermansson to be amongst the best strikers or ground fighters in the game, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who won’t say he isn’t at least very good in both dimensions.

What Hermansson will need to firmly get the fight in his favor is a mixed attack. The chances of him winning a straight kickboxing contest without Curtis being concerned about his takedowns is slim. Given Curtis has been able to stuff all 26 takedown attempts of his opponents in his three UFC fights, that’s a greater chore than what most would think. Plus, while no one doubts the toughness of Hermansson, you can be tough and still have your lights turned out. To be fair to Hermansson, only the hardest hitters in the division have put him away, but the jury is still out whether Curtis belongs there. Even though there is a part of me that feels foolish picking against Curtis – again – it is the logical pick to go with Hermansson given his competent varied attack and more established track record against a higher level of competition. That said, I wouldn’t be throwing money anywhere near this fight. Hermansson via decision

Nikita Krylov vs. Alexander Gustafsson, Light Heavyweight

Those who have followed the sport for a while know how good Gustafsson can be. The three-time title challenger pushed Jon Jones in an all-time classic and did the same thing to Daniel Cormier, coming thisclose to upending two all-time greats for the title. However, those who are new to the sport haven’t seen that version of Gustafsson. Hell, they may not have seen him at all if they don’t go back an watch old fights. Gustafsson hasn’t fought in two years and hasn’t won a fight in over five. Is there any reason to believe we’re going to see a version of Gustafsson that hasn’t been seen in half a decade?

Motivation has been an issue for Gustafsson for the last several years. He got tired of cutting weight and opted to fight at heavyweight in his last appearance. He was quickly submitted in the process by Fabricio Werdum. That may not sound too bad, but it was a 42-year-old version of Werdum and it is Werdum’s only win in almost five years. Thus, my initial instinct would be no, we’re not going to see the vintage Gustafsson.

However, nothing makes the heart long for something more than a long absence. Gustafsson knows he hasn’t displayed the best version of himself in a long time and he’s someone who has cared about his legacy. It may be too late for him to recapture his former glory at the age of 35, but he can still become a top ten fighter in the division if that’s what he wants. His ability to pick apart opponents from the outside was fantastic, the power he was able to produce on what often appeared to be a simplistic jab was incredible. However, I repeat myself, that hasn’t been seen for years.

There’s no doubting Krlyov’s physical abilities at this point, or any point for that matter. He’s always been one of the better athletes in the division with more than functional power and an aggressive submission game. What was holding him back from becoming an elite fighter was his mental miscues. It looked like he had overcome those with methodical wins over Ovince Saint Preux and Johnny Walker. Then he ends up on the mat with Paul Craig and all the good will he developed in that stage suddenly evaporates when he decides to play in Craig’s guard.

When it comes down to it, this fight sucks to predict. Gustafsson is a HUGE wild card and now that it’s apparent Krylov is still susceptible to brain farts, it doesn’t feel like there is a truly dependable facet to rely on for this contest. Given Krylov is the fighter whom we’ve seen most recently who is capable of winning a fight against a higher level of competition, I feel most comfortable picking him to win, but I wouldn’t throw a measly cent towards this contest if I were a betting man. Krylov via decision

Paul Craig vs. Volkan Oezdemir, Light Heavyweight

There weren’t very many fans who would have predicted Craig would ever go six fights without a loss within the confines of the UFC, but here we are with that as a reality. It’s not like we misevaluated his physical gifts; he’s still a subpar athlete. He has improved his striking, but not by any gigantic strides that would have been largely unforeseen. No, it’s mostly been underestimating his fight IQ. To be fair, he gave us all plenty of ammunition to doubt that after he spammed spinning back fists against Alonzo Menifield.

We’ve always known Craig was a submission specialist. There may not be any person on the roster more comfortable at operating off their back than Craig. He’s nabbed more than a few triangle chokes and armbars from that spot. What has kept Craig from suffering another loss since his bout with Menifield has been his ability to get the fight where he’s at his best and avoiding where he’s vulnerable. That means avoiding the pocket, staying on the outside until he can clinch up, and drag the fight to the mat. If that means a trip or pulling guard, it doesn’t matter.

Oezdemir would be happy if the fight were to only take place in the pocket. The former title challenger is one of the more powerful strikers in the division. The issue for him has been getting fights to stay in the pocket as his attack is simplistic: combination boxing supplemented with low kicks. Takedowns are rare, submissions even more rare. Oezdemir’s strategy has long been about accentuating where he’s best, but being largely one-dimensional has stunted him when it comes to fighting the elite of the division.

While having doubts about Craig has bitten pretty much everyone in the ass over the last few years, it’s only logical to believe the wild ride has to come to an end at some point. While many had the same types of doubts about Glover Teixeira picking up the title, he more ways to win fights than Craig. And while Oezdemir is at his best in the pocket, he isn’t helpless in the clinch. He’s proven he can produce ridiculous amounts of power from a short space. Throw in that the fight begins standing, Oezdemir has some solid takedown defense, and Oezdemir isn’t prideful about his ground game as some of Craig’s past opponents have been, and it looks like this is the end of his streak. Oezdemir via TKO of RD2

  • There’s no denying Paddy Pimblett has the personality to be a huge star. He’s proven that several times over. What we don’t know is if he has the fighting talent. We’re unlikely to find out anything new against Jordan Leavitt. I hate to disrespect Leavitt, but there’s no denying the UFC put this contest together with the idea of Pimblett delivering another victory in front of his countrymen. Leavitt is one of the more one-dimensional fighters on the roster, owning an incredibly dangerous submission game that opponents are reluctant to engage in. It has opened up his striking somewhat as Leavitt’s opponents have been reluctant to get to close to them, lest he grab a hold of them and drag them to the mat. Pimblett’s bread and butter is supposed to be his wrestling and grappling, so it will be interesting if Pimblett ends up playing hot lava with regards to going to the mat with Leavitt. Pimblett does have some power – we saw that in his UFC debut – but it’s still unknown if he can comfortably rely on his striking to win a fight. I suppose we’re about to find out. Pimblett via decision
  • Long a darling of the hardcore MMA fanbase, Molly McCann appears to be on the verge of a breakout. The gritty brawler had the performance of her life in her last appearance against Luana Carolina, securing the win with a spinning back elbow the last time the UFC came to London. Even before that highlight reel finish, McCann had a reputation as an entertaining striker, but there weren’t many who thought she’d progress beyond being a mid-card action fighter. Well, having added the occasional takedown to her arsenal and now brimming with an undeniable boost in confidence, everyone is taking a closer look at the native of Liverpool. However, even if she absolutely demolishes Hannah Goldy, there probably won’t be a major change in opinion about her as Goldy appears to be fodder for McCann. It isn’t that Goldy is without talent. There are few in the division who are better at combination punching. However, she’s undersized for flyweight, scoring a negative three on the ape index while already being on the short side. Lacking the wrestling skills to change things up doesn’t help. McCann should have her way with Goldy while still being able to put on an entertaining contest. McCann via decision