HeavyweightsCurtis Blaydes (10-2) vs. Justin Willis (8-1)
ODDS: Blaydes (-300), Willis (+250)
Blaydes finds himself on the rebound after a loss to Francis Ngannou, but it is a position with which he is familiar. Blaydes came into the UFC in 2016 as a much-hyped prospect and was immediately matched against Ngannou; the conventional wisdom was that Blaydes’ wrestling would be enough to get an overwhelming win, but that was the bout where Ngannou suddenly demonstrated that he had takedown defense and he battered Blaydes until his eye swelled enough to stop the fight. Blaydes spent the ensuing two years proving all the prospect hype correct, as he ran through his competition without much trouble. As his striking continued to improve, battle-tested veterans like Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem had little to offer when Blaydes took them apart in 2018. Given Blaydes’ six-fight unbeaten streak, it was surprising that the UFC decided to book a rematch against a then-skidding Ngannou, and was in fact thought of as a punishment of sorts for the latter having put on two lackluster performances. Naturally, Ngannou knocked out Blaydes in 45 seconds. It was a frustrating loss, but Blaydes just turned 28 in an old division, so he will be fine in the long-term. For his latest comeback, he draws one of the few other younger prospects at heavyweight in Willis.
California’s “Big Pretty” is an absolutely massive man; his first attempt at a UFC debut was called off because Willis actually had complications making it down to 265 pounds, which seems to have been a first. Thanks to that size, the expectation might be that Willis is some sort of huge power puncher, but instead, he has developed a solid and patient counterstriking game. He knocked out Allen Crowder in short order, but besides that, Willis’ UFC tenure has seen him pick apart his foes and mix in wrestling where needed. It might not be the most exciting game, but it has proven effective. In Willis’ most recent appearance, he managed to win a clear decision over Hunt, which represented a huge proof of concept. That earned him this big shot here and the opportunity to steal all of Blaydes’ prospect shine.
Willis is legitimately talented and among the better fighters in the UFC’s cadre of heavyweight signings the last few years, but Blaydes is a force of nature who looks to be the wrong style matchup. It takes some combination of strong wrestling defense and knockout power to stop Blaydes, and while Willis may have some of the first thanks to his massive size, he does not have nearly enough power to scare off Blaydes. Without his opponent lacking a way to disincentivize him, Blaydes should just be able to rely on his wrestling and grind out a win. The pick is Blaydes via decision.
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