Curtis Blaydes in the last two years has gone from unwitting victim of the 2016-17 Francis Ngannou rampage to legitimate title contender in the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight division. In his first headlining assignment, Blaydes will meet Ngannou in a rematch atop UFC Fight Night 141 on Nov. 24 at Cadillac Arena in Beijing. There, he hopes to avenge his only career setback and stake his claim as the No. 1 contender to heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier’s throne.
Blaydes remembers his first encounter with Ngannou well, as it concluded in between the second and third rounds, with the cageside physician deeming him unfit to continue because of swelling on his right eye.
“I went into that first fight with zero footwork, zero combinations, zero jiu-jitsu [and] no idea how to attack,” Blaydes told Sherdog.com.
Since incurring the first and only loss of his career, Blaydes has been on a bit of a tear. He has won five of his last six fights, including monumental victories over Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem. During that time, Blaydes made the Elevation Fight Team in Denver his permanent training hub. He credits the gym -- it also houses UFC fighters Neil Magny and Drew Dober -- for improving his overall game. Although the 27-year-old has changed since his first outing against Ngannou, he does not see any reason to modify his original game plan when they meet again.
“I’m going to do the exact same thing I did the first time,” Blaydes said, pointing to his desire to push for takedowns, change levels, mix in strikes and dump Ngannou to the ground, where he can apply his ground-and-pound. “There’s nothing really fancy about my game. It’s just effective.”
Blaydes will face a reeling Ngannou whose confidence has been shaken by consecutive losses to Stipe Miocic and Derrick Lewis. Many have questioned whether the onetime No. 1 contender lost a step and others wonder whether he can return to the fearsome form that made him one of the heavyweight division’s most intimidating forces. Blaydes vowed to be prepared for whichever version of Ngannou shows up for their rematch.
“I don’t know [if he is the same fighter anymore],” he said, “and I don’t care.”
Despite the fact that he faces a 6,000-mile journey to China in a matter of weeks, Blaydes shrugged at the hardships associated with travel.
“It doesn’t matter if its Ireland, England, Chicago or some random town in Oklahoma,” he said, “the cage is the cage.”
Ngannou was not Blaydes’ first choice as an opponent. In fact, Blaydes took to social media over the summer to campaign for a matchup with former heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic.
“It just seemed like the most logical [fight],” Blaydes said, “[and] I wanted a fight that would improve my argument for a title shot. The matchups are not hard when you really break them down. You look at who’s ranked, who has a fight and who’s available. The risk-reward factor wasn’t there [for Miocic].”
While a showdown with Miocic never materialized, Blaydes welcomed a second confrontation with Ngannou and the opportunity to avenge his only career misstep.
“I’m happy with it because it’s a [chance for] redemption,” he said. “I’m looking for matchups that I want.”
Blaydes desires opponents with recognizable names that will help raise his profile with the buying public. Another potential bout that was floated was a clash with former Bellator MMA champion Alexander Volkov. The 6-foot-7 Russian finds himself on a six-fight winning streak that includes his fourth-round knockout of Fabricio Werdum at UFC Fight Night 127 in March. Blaydes was not interested. Despite Ngannou being on a two-fight losing streak, Blaydes believes the Cameroonian’s stock remains higher than Volkov’s.
“I would not have been happy with Volkov,” he said. “It doesn’t improve my argument for a title shot.”
The 27-year-old Blaydes re-signed with the UFC for eight more fights in March but admits his desire to secure a title shot in the promotion was born out of frustration.
“About a month and a half ago, I was really on a rant [on social media] about how the UFC isn’t really based off of merit,” he said. “I’ve always felt this way; it’s just [now] I have the platform that people can actually see what I say.”