by Santino Torres / Staff Reporter
Chicago’s very own Curtis ‘Razor’ Blaydes is the number two contender in the world for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight title and prepares to bring his rich background in wrestling and his 14-2, 1 no contest (NC) record in mixed martial arts (MMA) against six-year UFC veteran Derrick Lewis on Saturday, Nov. 28, in the main event for UFC on ESPN: Blaydes vs. Lewis.
Blaydes hails from the historic Bronzeville neighborhood, where he attended De La Salle Institute, the local Catholic high school. Meteors’ head wrestling coach at the time, Dale Burke, said he began to see firsthand how special of a wrestler Blaydes had the potential to become–so special that after Blaydes’ elimination downstate his junior year, Burke told him the subsequent losses would be the last of his high school wrestling career.
“He was competing against kids who’ve been wrestling their entire life, and beating them,” Burke said. “You can see that blast double that he had and that explosiveness, kids weren’t going to stop that. That was his bread and butter. Kids that knew the shot was coming still couldn’t stop it.”
The following year, Blaydes went undefeated in his senior season, capping it off by beating another undefeated wrestler to become the IHSA Wrestling State Champion at the 285 lbs. division. Blaydes describes the accolade as his proudest accomplishment in his athletic career.
“I put so much energy into that,” Blaydes said. “I really wanted it heading into that season. All the media guys were like, ‘Blaydes is a dark horse.’ I was just like, ‘I need to win this.’”
That undefeated senior season earned him a scholarship to wrestle for Northern Illinois University, compiling a 19-2 record as a redshirt freshman. He then transferred to Harper College, where in 2012 he won the National Junior College Athletic Association National Championship in wrestling’s heavyweight division, having only lost once. Later that year, a former high school wrestling teammate convinced Blaydes to begin to focus his attention on mixed martial arts.
“He kept hitting me up like, ‘Bro, you should do boxing. You should do MMA. You should check out my gym.’ They kind of peer-pressured me into it,” Blaydes said. “He comes up to me like a month later. He’s like, ‘We need an amateur fight, we’ll just see how you do.’ I took the fight and won it pretty easily.”
After five amateur MMA victories, he made his professional debut in 2014 at the XFO 51 event that saw him quickly win over Lorenzo Hood in just one minute and 42 seconds. By 2016, after five professional MMA victories in five matches, the UFC came calling.
Blaydes was then booked to make his UFC debut in Zagreb, Croatia, where he faced Francis Ngannou, another rising star in the heavyweight division who packs quite the punch. In his first UFC match, a doctor’s stoppage after the second round gave Blaydes the first loss of his professional MMA career. Cuts are examined by ringside doctors to determine cause, to assess the severity and how to move forward with the contest. With Blaydes’ eye swollen shut from Ngannou’s relentless punching power, the doctor determined Blaydes was unfit to continue the match. Ngannou is the current number one contender for the UFC Heavyweight Championship, with UFC President Dana White already preparing to book a second match between Ngannou and UFC Heavyweight Champion Stipe Miocic for the title, projected to take place in March.
After the fight, Blaydes turned to the coaches at Elevation Fight Team in order to improve on his performance in the octagon, joining the Denver-based team after moving from Chicago. The newfound guidance and training from Elevation coaches such as former UFC mixed martial artist Cody Donovan and Vinnie Lopez allowed Blaydes to win his next five fights (one result was since overturned to a no contest). During this stretch, he gained victories over the likes of submission specialist Aleksei Oleinik and Australian walk-off knockout king Mark Hunt –– on his home turf.
The win over Hunt set the stage for Blaydes to fight in his home city – at Chicago’s United Center – for the June 9, 2018 UFC 225 event against Alistair Overeem, then number two contender for the UFC Heavyweight Championship.
A match that began with a figurative standstill for the first two minutes, Blaydes initiated the action with a missed head kick. As both fighters continued to feel each other out, Blaydes scored a takedown halfway through the first round. He continued to apply the pressure of his weight on Overeem, who ended the round seeking a heel hook, a submission that applies severe torque on the ankle.
In the third round, Blaydes kneed Overeem before catching him with a pair of strikes, forcing him to cover up. After presenting Overeem with a slew of punches, Blaydes used the striking to set up a transition back to the ground, denying Overeem a chance to counterpunch by securing another takedown as the first minute of the third expired.
“I was expecting him to just like, wait, wait, wait, and then put on like a big hook,” Blaydes said. “So, in my head, I was like, ‘let me not give him that opportunity, he wants to be here.’ Let me put him where he doesn’t want to be. He doesn’t want to be on the ground.”
It wasn’t until Overeem attempted to break Blaydes’ posture that Blaydes got the chance to implement his ability to ground and pound, which is when a fighter imposes their will on a grounded opponent. Blaydes landed six elbows before referee Dan Miragliotta ended the match as Overeem began bleeding from his forehead profusely. The elbows gave Blaydes his sixth win in a row and was one of two fighters that evening to be named for Performance of the Night.
“Curtis put his hands on Alistair’s biceps and pinched his elbows very tight. What this does is it tells Alistair that Curtis is in control in the top position,” Donovan said of the finish. “In order for Alistair to break Curtis’ posture, Alistair has to pummel his hands back inside, and Curtis just times that. Then he’s supposed to put his hands back in, but the first elbow hurt Alistair.”
After a second loss to Ngannou, followed by wins over the big-mouthed Justin Willis and Shamil Abdurakhimov, Blaydes was slated for a Jan. 25 match against legendary former UFC Heavyweight Champion Junior dos Santos. The match saw dos Santos effectively defending takedown attempts from Blaydes in the early going. When the second round began, Blaydes turned to his striking.
“We can all see the progression that he’s made in developing those other [aspects of] mixed martial arts,” Burke said of his state champion wrestler. “[dos Santos] is a striker, and Curtis ends up using the striking to knock him out.”
Junior dos Santos attempted to set up his signature uppercut, but Blaydes countered with a well-timed right hook that forced a rattled dos Santos to cover up. After an onslaught of strikes from Blaydes followed, referee Miragliotta had seen enough, declaring Blaydes the winner by TKO.
In his last fight against Alexander Volkov at UFC on ESPN 11, Blaydes set the record for most takedowns in a UFC Heavyweight match, recording 14 takedowns in the main event of the evening.
“He sets that shot up and gets them down,” Burke said. “His stance, motion, being quick on his feet, being able to take angles, and that double-leg, that’s wrestling 101. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Blaydes was in total control coming out of the first two rounds, spending just under 90% of the time controlling the ground and scoring eight takedowns while landing 44 significant strikes out of a total of 64.
“I was very happy with how dynamic Curtis’ stand-up game was,” Donovan said. “I was really happy with how he mixed together his feints and his level changes and his striking. I thought he was very successful in those longer ranges.”
But as the fight progressed, Blaydes began to tire, having gone 25 minutes for the first time in his MMA career, while Volkov hoped that it would be enough time to utilize his striking in an effort to salvage a victory.
With 50 seconds left to go in the fourth round, referee Herb Dean, having already warned the fighters, halted the fight and ordered Blaydes and Volkov to reset due to inactivity. This allowed for Volkov to eventually score a takedown against Blaydes as the final seconds of the fourth began to dwindle. In the final two rounds, Volkov outstruck Blaydes, 104-32, with 18 of those strikes proving to be significant.
“I was not happy with basically anything that happened on the ground,” Donovan said. “My fear was that Volkov was going to be able to use his long legs to close his guard and be able to kind of suck Curtis in and take away Curtis’ ability to posture and do damage.”
In the end, Blaydes had emerged victorious, having done enough in the eyes of all three judges to secure the win. Out of a total 116 strikes, Blaydes landed 69 significant ones, more than twice the number of Volkov’s. Blaydes also had nearly 20 minutes of ground control, which was almost 80% of the entire fight. The performance clinched Blaydes’ fourth victory in a row.
Blaydes is currently preparing to battle the charismatic Derrick Lewis, adored by fans for his witty one-liners during interviews, such as his remark after his comeback victory against Volkov, after which he indicated his “balls was hot” after removing his trunks live. The 35-year-old heavy hitter is currently the number four contender for the UFC Heavyweight Championship with a 24-7, 1 NC record.
With Blaydes having fought strikers such as Hunt, Overeem, and dos Santos, Donovan believes Blaydes will not be seeing anything different in the upcoming fight against Lewis, which is slated for Saturday, Nov. 28 with the preliminaries on ESPN+ starting at 6pm and the main card starting at 9pm on ESPN 2.
“This is a fight that Curtis has fought before,” Donovan said. “[Lewis] kind of stalls and baits submissions, allows people to attack the arms. He’s got some decent escapes and he’s got power. We know that Derrick is thinking about Curtis’ wrestling and we’re not going to avoid that.”
Curtis Blaydes’ performance as a fighter has established him as a true UFC Heavyweight Championship contender. For Blaydes, the key to winning that elusive championship belt is to live in the now.
“If you’re not present in the now, you’re not doing the things you have to do,” Blaydes said. “This goes for anything. It doesn’t even have to be about getting the belt or getting the win. [Whether it’s] a wedding, a birthday, a promotion, you have to be in the now.”