After making its mainland China debut in Shanghai in 2017, the Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday takes on Beijing with what should be a fun card: UFC Fight Night 141. The UFC’s first attempts to conquer China, circa 2014, were a bit of a disaster, but just four years later, the country is now firmly where a country like Australia was a few years ago. There is no breakout star yet, but there is now a ton of native talent that can hang around on the roster and put on some entertaining fights. This follows the theme of a lot of recent non-pay-per-view cards -- an enjoying way to spend a few hours but nothing all that essential, save for the top one or two bouts.
Let us move on to the breakdown of UFC Fight Night 141:
HeavyweightsCurtis Blaydes (10-1) vs. Francis Ngannou (11-3)
ODDS: Blaydes (-200), Ngannou (+170)
Is Ngannou broken? The Cameroon native entered 2018 as one of the scariest forces in mixed martial arts, riding a string of brutal finishes -- capped by an all-time frightening knockout of Alistair Overeem -- to a heavyweight title shot at UFC 220, the first pay-per-view of the year. Heading into that fight, there was not a whole lot to go on, since Ngannou’s opponents had a bad habit of quickly getting knocked out, which made the most instructive of Ngannou’s bouts his 2016 encounter with Blaydes. In that fight, which lasted two rounds before a swollen eye forced out Blaydes, Ngannou mostly handled Blaydes’ strong wrestling game, suggesting he could have similar success against champion Stipe Miocic. That he did, at least at first. Miocic’s first few takedown attempts did not really get anywhere, and Ngannou managed to land a few powerful blows. However, as the fight went on, Miocic pressed his wrestling advantage and Ngannou eventually gassed out, turning things into a one-sided slog. Some proclaimed that Ngannou had been exposed as a one-note fraud, but there were also some positives to take from the fight. If nothing else, Ngannou persevered through 25 minutes of adversity while answering some questions about his durability. However, after his subsequent fight against Derrick Lewis, it is hard not to have concern. That fight raised a whole other set of issues, as Ngannou chose to do nothing, essentially handing Lewis an interminable decision win. Whether it was concerns about Lewis’ power or an overreaction to tiring himself out in the Miocic fight, Ngannou simply conserved his energy for a burst that never came, putting on a performance that has left everyone baffled about where his head is at and the direction in which his career is headed. Ngannou seemed set for some sort of bounce-back opponent to at least get his confidence back, but instead, the UFC has gone a completely different route, putting him in a rematch against Blaydes, who is finally hitting his own stride.
Blaydes came into the Ngannou fight as a top heavyweight prospect, and that loss turned out to be a temporary roadblock in the Chicago native’s path up the ladder, as he has done nothing but dominate his opposition since. Blaydes spent the early part of his UFC career as a smothering wrestler who was a bit mechanical on the feet, but he has since become quicker and more effective. His wrestling is still obviously the best part of his game, however, as Blaydes is close to the ideal of what Brock Lesnar should have been -- a massive takedown artist who is not quite a one-hit knockout puncher but can overwhelm his opponent with volume, particularly with some vicious ground-and-pound. Blaydes’ last fight with Alistair Overeem was close to a platonic ideal of a performance and signaled that he was officially a heavyweight contender. Blaydes absorbed a few big shots from Overeem but eventually got things to the ground with an explosive takedown and ended things with some particularly scary elbows from the top. Blaydes should probably be in a title eliminator, but for now, exorcising some old demons with a win over Ngannou will have to do.
It is unclear why the UFC booked this fight. A Blaydes win leaves Ngannou sputtering, while a Ngannou win just kills off a top contender in a thin division. Still, it is an interesting fight on paper, mostly because of the variance in how Ngannou will perform. Was his poor performance against Lewis a sign that Ngannou is now too passive for his own good, or will he overcompensate once again, this time coming out wild and aggressive? Will it just be a weird blip on the radar for a fighter who, up until July, seemed to have a firm grasp on the fight game and improve every time out? Miocic’s success with his wrestling suggests that Blaydes can rely on a similar game plan, but while Blaydes now has a much firmer grasp on the facets of his game than he did in 2016, their first fight did show that Ngannou is capable of powering out of Blaydes’ top game, at least in the early rounds. Blaydes having some early trouble would not be surprising, but his durability should see him through here. Ngannou hit a ton of big punches that swelled Blaydes’ face in their first meeting, but Blaydes kept fighting. Being more elusive this time around, he should not take quite as much damage in the rematch. Unless Ngannou is once again so passive that he gives away rounds, “The Predator” should start to tire, at which point Blaydes’ wrestling can start taking over the fight. In that scenario, Blaydes’ punishing top game should be able to finish things where Miocic could not, even if it is based on volume more than damage. The pick is Blaydes via fourth-round stoppage.
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