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The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Jan. 25 touched down in Raleigh, North Carolina, to pit its third- and fourth-ranked heavyweights against one another. Former “Baddest Man on the Planet” Junior dos Santos faced fast-rising contender Curtis Blaydes in the UFC Fight Night 166 main event, with the winner conceivably landing on the shortlist for a crack at Stipe Miocic’s heavyweight throne.
We thought we knew what to expect. Dos Santos was going to try and box off Blaydes’ ears, utilizing his footwork and timing to avoid the wrestler’s smothering grappling offense while getting off a few concussive blows fired as single shots. Blaydes was going to use his striking as a vehicle to chase the takedown, and if he got on top of dos Santos, he would reign down elbows on the Brazilian until the referee intervened. It was a classic striker-versus-grappler storyline that has been recycled and remixed since the days of Royce Gracie and Gerard Gordeau.
The first round played out basically in line with this script. Blaydes attempted four takedowns and dos Santos stuffed each one, with the two big men trading punches and leg kicks in between shots. Blaydes’ relentless pressure and surprisingly versatile striking was enough to win the round on all three judges’ scorecards, and the two men reset for the second stanza. The bell rang to signal a resumption of the action, and 75 seconds later, it was done. Blaydes shot for a fifth and sixth takedown and was turned away on both attempts, utilizing the momentum from the shots to load up on power punches. He landed a monster right hand that put dos Santos on skates, then volleyed with punches and knees until referee Dan Miragliotta had seen enough. The wrestler stopped the striker inside seven minutes and declared he was ready for a shot at gold.
Blaydes has now won eight of his 11 UFC bouts, his lone blemishes resulting from two stoppage losses to Francis Ngannou and a no-contest due to a positive test for cannabis. At 28 years old, he is the youngest contender in the heavyweight division’s Top 10 and has steadily been making his way through the old guard of heavyweight elite, with wins over Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem and now dos Santos on his resume. While Blaydes undoubtedly possesses the skills and dexterity to give Miocic problems, there is reason to think the UFC will be reluctant to grant him the title shot for which he called in his post-fight Octagon interview with Daniel Cormier. The reasons for this are threefold.
The most conspicuous obstacle is the aforementioned Cormier, who dropped the title to Miocic in August and has since campaigned for a rematch—which would double as his swan song from professional competition. With “DC” having won his first encounter with Miocic back in July 2018, the UFC has stated its intention to set up the trilogy, though the champion has been recalcitrant, ostensibly out of spite for Cormier’s pursuit of Brock Lesnar when he wore the belt. Despite this, conventional wisdom says that Miocic-Cormier 3 will happen. Outside a nonsensical crossover bout with boxing’s lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury or a long-awaited superfight against UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, it’s the most lucrative fight on Miocic’s horizon; and it’s most definitely higher on the UFC’s list of priorities than Miocic-Blaydes.
Which brings us to the second big obstacle to Blaydes’ title campaign: Ngannou. “The Predator” has twice beaten Blaydes decisively, first in the latter’s August 2016 promotional debut and again in their rematch 14 months ago, when he scored a technical knockout in just 45 seconds. He also just happens to be one place ahead of Blaydes in the official rankings and is himself coming off three straight first round stoppage-victories. If Blaydes is to get his shot before Ngannou gets his second (the Frenchman fought for the title in 2018), “The Predator” needs to lose his March 28 showdown with Jairzinho Rozenstruik—something oddsmakers regard as unlikely.
The final reason Blaydes will likely spend the coming months treading water is more fundamental than the men ranked ahead of him: The UFC doesn’t seem particularly interested in promoting him as a legitimate title contender. Blaydes lacks charisma. He seems uncomfortable in front of a camera, he has a speech impediment and he has a proud reliance on his grappling prowess, at least until his showing against dos Santos. These factors in the “entertainment era” are antithetical to the UFC’s promotional philosophy, which is less and less about meritocracy and more and more about personalities and market demographics.
Blaydes climbed into title contention 18 months ago. After decimating Alistair Overeem at UFC 225, he was regarded by many as having a claim to the winner of Miocic-Cormier, which went down at UFC 226. Then Lesnar entered the Octagon to promote a bout with a newly minted champion in Cormier, and that thought disappeared. In an interview with MMAJunkie several months before he lost his stay-busy bout against Ngannou and was relegated to the back of the queue, Blaydes weighed in on the subject:
“I’m willing to wait, because I have this feeling that the UFC … they don’t really want me to have the belt because I don’t have the most exciting … my style isn’t the most fan-friendly, so I feel they would take every opportunity to not give me a title shot because they know my wrestling is the X-factor. If I have to, I will just take a guy down and ground-and-pound him for three rounds, which— they’re right—is not the most exciting version of fighting, but it is the most effective, especially going against the heavyweights I have to go against. So me taking another opponent and me winning, I don’t think they would even care about that. I feel like even if I called out Stipe and I won, they would probably give it to Cain Velasquez or, who knows, maybe even Jon Jones or maybe Junior dos Santos. There’s so many other guys that I know the UFC would rather have as champion of the heavyweights.”
The situation Blaydes described back then bears a striking similarity to his present circumstances. His choices are to sit on the shelf and hope the title picture sorts itself out in his favor—through some unlikely combination of Ngannou losing, Cormier retiring and Jones and Fury staying put—or he can call out some lower-ranked heavyweights to stay active. Blaydes’ situation is unenviable but hardly fatal. He is just entering his physical prime and conceivably has another decade of competition ahead of him. It’s likely we will see him in a title fight in the next few years, and he has the skills to capture and defend the mantle. However, you can’t help but identify with Blaydes’ 2018 fatalism and wonder whether forcing fighters into these kinds of no-win situations is the only way of doing things.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.