'I'm the best MMA wrestler': Curtis Blaydes on what makes him a fearsome takedown threat

Elias CepedaYahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports
Curtis Blaydes (L) says that two things make him a fearsome takedown threat in the UFC cage. (Getty Images)
Curtis Blaydes (L) says that two things make him a fearsome takedown threat in the UFC cage. (Getty Images)

In his UFC debut, back in 2016, heavyweight Curtis Blaydes lost to Francis Ngannou after a doctor’s stoppage. By late 2018, Blaydes had accumulated a six-fight lossless streak and Ngannou had just lost two-straight.

Still, the surging Blaydes signed to rematch the stalled Ngannou. Blaydes would get caught, early, and lose for a second time to the top contender.

From the outside, Blaydes taking the second fight with his rival at the point he did made no sense. Ahead of his UFC 242 main card bout against Shamil Abdurakhimov, however, Blaydes insists that he does not regret that rematch or its timing.

Regret fighting Ngannou when he was on a two-fight winning losing streak and you’d won 5-6 straight?

“No. I wanted that fight. I asked for that fight. I believed I could win that fight and I still believe I can, one day,” he tells Yahoo Sports.

Blaydes has not lost much in his professional MMA career. In fact, his only two defeats are to Ngannou.

Still, he says it wasn’t hard for him to rebound, psychologically, after the last loss and for a specific reason. “No, but it would’ve been had my father and brother not been there,” he reveals.

“It really helped having them there.”

That 2018 fight took place in Beijing, China, and it turned out to be especially helpful that Blaydes’ brother and father made the long trip with him. “We had a long talk about it while walking along the Great Wall. One of those father-son type things, and I got over it,” he continues.

Given that Blaydes made a successful return to competition last March with a win over Justin Willis, it is easy to believe that he did indeed mentally recover well from his previous loss. The elder Blaydes’ philosophical debriefing with his son seems to have had its desired effect.

“Just him talking about knowing that I’d done the best I could do at the time, that my dad was proud of me, that he knew I gave it my all,” Blaydes recounts.

“It happens. When you’re fighting the best of the best — and Ngannou is definitely in that one percent of fighters — when you’re going against guys like that, it happens. Last year, [Daniel Cormier] and Stipe [Miocic] fought and Stipe got knocked out. There’s no shame in getting beat by someone like DC.”

Blaydes once again travels across the globe this week to fight another elite heavyweight in Shamil Abdurakhimov (20-4). Like Blaydes, Abdurakhimov is a strong grappler, and he’s also beaten the likes of Andrei Arlovski and Walt Harris.

Still, when asked to specifically evaluate his opponent’s wrestling skills, the American is confident that his own are far superior. “I think he’s an alright wrestler,” Blaydes allows.

“I may not be the best pure wrestler in MMA but I’m the best MMA wrestler. I use my wrestling the most aggressively. I’m always looking to shoot, always. Once your hands go up, I’m looking to get to your hips, and what makes that scarier is that you know I’m going to pull the trigger, but you don’t know when. I disguise it but I use it a lot.”

Blaydes doesn’t only believe that he sets up his takedowns well, he believes he’s become the record-holder for most takedowns in UFC heavyweight division history in just over three years in large part because of his mindset and conditioning. Blaydes knows his advantages in a fight, and will always do everything he can to use them in competition.

“A lot of the other wrestlers, even Stipe and DC, neither of them wanted to use their wrestling. If I was in that fight, I don’t care how good a wrestler you are, I’m, not going to not use my best weapon. My hands are good, but I’ve been wrestling since I was 14 years old,” he reasons.

Curtis Blaydes (R) and Justin Willis during UFC Fight Night on March 23, 2019 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports)
Curtis Blaydes (R) and Justin Willis during UFC Fight Night on March 23, 2019 at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee. (Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports)

“The two biggest reasons I stick a lot of takedowns are 1. I don’t like getting hit in the face. That alone gives me major incentive to put you on your butt. And, 2. My confidence in my shot is such that I know if I get my hands on the back of your kneecaps or thighs, if I get my head on your belly button, you’re going down. If I don’t get it the first or second time, I’m going to get it the third time. A lot of other guys don’t want to use their wrestling because it is fatiguing. If you don’t spar like that — constantly shooting and re-shooting — you’re going to get fatigued in the fight if you try to wrestle. I use my wrestling every day so I’m conditioned to that grind. I want to be the Khabib [Nurmagomedov] of my division and grind guys until they don’t want to be in there anymore because they know they’re going to spend five rounds on the bottom.”

Blaydes also understands that his relentless wrestling offense also has the potential to assist him on the feet with striking as even great stand-up strikers tend to freeze up, so to speak, when confronted with the prospect of being dragged to the ground.

“Exactly, that’s it. The threat is always there,” he details.

“Without a doubt I’m going to pull the trigger and make my opponents scared to use knees and kicks. They don’t want to sit down on that back foot and put power into hooks and crosses because they know if you miss, you’re going down and it will be a long time before you’re getting up. And, when you do get up, you’re going to be tired. The next round, you’re thinking about how you can’t go back to the ground so you stop moving your feet and being offensive. The vibe of the fight chances. My opponents lose their aggression. In turn, that makes me more aggressive. I could feel this in my fight with Alistair [Overeem]. After the first takedown he was less aggressive.”

Blaydes’ confidence in his wrestling and ability to wear down opponents is based in large part on his own skills and plenty of empirical evidence. That’s also the case with his self-assured feeling about competing and winning on the road.

Saturday he’ll be fighting much nearer the home nation of his opponent than to his own. Still, Blaydes is far from daunted by the task.

In fact, he says that he has always relished the opportunity to beat opponents on or near their own turf. “It doesn’t matter to me at all,” he insists.

“I went to Australia and fought Mark Hunt. He’s not Australian but I think Australians vibe with him more than me. Actually I prefer that. In high school I enjoyed going to other high schools and beating others in their home. I came into your home, your school, your place, and I beat you in front of your people. It’s about breaking spirits of opponents when they’re in front of their home audiences.”

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