The Bottom Line: Strategic Vulnerabilities

By: Todd Martin
Feb 23, 2021

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Wrestling has long bred MMA’s top fighters. The grind of wrestling instills discipline and conditioning like few other sports, and its skill set allows wrestlers to dictate the way a fight goes. Curtis Blaydes, like many before and many after, rode his wrestling to the top ranks of the sport. Yet his wrestling now simultaneously powers his success and holds him back.

Few MMA fighters celebrate their interest in fighting against wrestlers, but that’s precisely what Derrick Lewis did after his win over Blaydes in the UFC Fight Night 185 main event on Saturday in Las Vegas. There’s good reason for that confidence: Lewis’ self-deprecating humor belies how good he is at blocking takedowns, getting back to his feet and countering takedown attempts with hard punches. Throughout his career, Lewis has fought plenty of grapplers, but he has rarely been done in on the ground. Instead, his losses usually come on the feet. Standing with someone as powerful as Lewis is a dangerous game, but it is one that pays off at a much higher percentage than going for takedowns on him.

That past history played out again. Blaydes’ first attempt to close the distance on Lewis and shoot for a takedown was nearly disastrous. Lewis caught him with hard counters that illustrated the dangers of that strategy. Blaydes adjusted and did not belabor the point. Instead, he elected to stand with Lewis for the remainder of the round and dominated to a remarkable degree, outlanding Lewis by better than a 5-to-1 margin in significant strikes.

That Blaydes did that well standing is a reflection of how far he has come as a striker, as was his standing knockout of former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos. The combination of Blaydes’ dominance in the first round and Lewis’ past vulnerability in open exchanges with quicker opponents suggested the Elevation Fight Team rep might have been better off just continuing with the game plan that was working. Instead, Blaydes went back to his bread and butter.

Blaydes went back to his wrestling early in the second round, and it exposed the other issue with trying to take down Lewis. This time, Lewis didn’t land a massive counter. However, he easily brushed off the takedown attempt without Blaydes getting remotely into position to ground him. That’s the problem with Lewis: He’s quite good at timing counters when opponents go for takedowns, and for someone without a grappling pedigree, he also excels at preventing the fight from going to the ground at all. Undeterred, Blaydes not long after went for his ill-fated third takedown attempt. What followed was a conclusion to the fight so violent it was disquieting.

Predictability in MMA has always been a liability. There are specialists who have thrived, but more often than not, fighters who dominate over long periods of time are able to keep opponents guessing by mixing up game plans and capitalizing on weaknesses. The strength of wrestling is not an inherent benefit to grappling over striking; the strength of wrestling is the way it lends itself to varied strategies. Fighters like Jon Jones, Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo did not use their wrestling backgrounds to relentlessly take down every opponent. Rather, they used it to strike at times and to grapple at others.

We saw this most recently with Kamaru Usman. He rose to prominence by relying heavily on his takedowns, but once he reached the top level, he started taking advantage of the work he had done over the years on his striking. Gilbert Burns landed some of his best shots when Usman went for takedowns, so the welterweight champion turned away from his wrestling and knocked out Burns, just as he did to Colby Covington before him. That confidence to pursue a strategic opening against a specific opponent even if it means moving away from your roots has been a hallmark of so many MMA legends.

Blaydes is putting together the tools to be the best heavyweight in the world, and at age 30, he has plenty of time left to rise to the top. To maximize his potential of doing so, he needs to follow the road pursued by all recent UFC heavyweight champions, from Cain Velasquez and Fabricio Werdum to Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier. They all had exceptional strengths, but none of them relentlessly pursued a singular comfort zone at the expense of other openings. Velasquez mauled dos Santos but knocked out Brock Lesnar and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on the feet. Werdum was slick enough to submit Nogueira and Fedor Emelianenko but knocked out Mark Hunt with a flying knee. Miocic continually alternates between approaches.

Wrestling is what got Blaydes to the cusp of fighting for the heavyweight title, and he’d be a fool to abandon it. Still, it’s a strategic vulnerability if opponents know he’s always looking for a takedown regardless of how the fight is going. The fight with Lewis outlined that issue, which will remain a problem for Blaydes unless he adjusts his approach moving forward. MMA does not lend itself to a one-size-fits-all strategy. Wrestling may have gotten Blaydes to this point, but he can’t let it hold him back. Advertisement
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