The first quarter of 2021 is a period of clarity for the UFC’s heavyweight division.
With three main events in four weeks, 7 of the top 10 heavyweights will fight in February alone. This is a breath of fresh air for the slew of contenders who have waited in line throughout the Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier era. Among them, you’ll find two of the most stylistically different fighters in the division.
Curtis Blaydes, a burly wrestler, has won 9 of 12 UFC fights en route to earning the #2 spot in the rankings. Despite two losses to #1 contender Francis Ngannou, Blaydes has bulldozed his way through the thick of the 265lb division, conquering names such as Alistair Overeem, Alexander Volkov, and Junior Dos Santos. Dos Santos, a former champion, is widely considered one of the best boxers in the promotion’s heavyweight division. Blaydes impressively knocked him out on the feet, highlighting vast improvements made in the striking realm. Riding the momentum of 2 wins in 2020, the Chicago native looks to earn an opportunity he’s been on the brink of multiple times: A UFC title shot.
Standing in his way is lethal knockout artist Derrick Lewis. With over 75% of his wins coming by knockout, Lewis has consistently proven the ability to change the course of any fight with one punch. Alexander Volkov was dominating Lewis through the first 2 and a half rounds of their fight in 2018, only for Lewis’ right hand to shift the tides, ending the Russian’s night with just 11 seconds left in the bout. Debuting in 2014, “The Black Beast” has been a staple of heavyweight MMA for years now, set to appear in his 7th UFC main event. With 3 straight victories in a calendar year, Lewis is primed for another run at UFC gold.
Advancing through the fray of a wide-open top-5 is one of the most horrifying stylistic matchups in the UFC: Curtis “Razor” Blaydes. With 4 wins in the past 2 years, the 29 year old has blossomed into one of the division’s elite, developing a well-rounded skill set to compliment a terrorizing ground game. Blaydes has landed 59 takedowns, good for the most in UFC heavyweight history. He has controlled top position for nearly an hour (59:44), overwhelming his opponents on the canvas. The Elevation Fight Team product is relentless in his pursuit of dominance. The wrestling credentials are staggering, but Blaydes’ growth as an overall martial artist mustn’t be underlooked.
Curtis Blaydes holds an overall record of 14-2 with 10 wins by (T)KO and 0 via submission. So, how does such a successful wrestler fail to submit anybody? Blaydes doesn’t lock limbs, he smashes faces. He possesses some of the nastiest ground-and-pound I’ve ever seen. Using top control to drive elbows into his target, Blaydes has brutally finished a multitude of foes.
Fighting a knockout artist, the incorporation of multiple takedowns is vital to Blaydes’ success. Lewis possesses a sub-par 52% takedown defense, a weakness Blaydes should seek to exploit.
Watching a Derrick Lewis fight is like letting your girlfriend choose which Netflix show to watch; you never know what you’ll get, but it’ll be entertaining.
The 20-fight UFC veteran possesses a charisma that has captured the love of thousands. Lewis famously telling Joe Rogan that his “balls are hot” following a win is one of the most iconic post-fight interviews of all time. But more capturing than his personality is the ferociousness Lewis brings to the Octagon. Wielding a piston of a right hand, he holds the record for most knockouts in UFC heavyweight history at 11.
Beyond power punching, Lewis’ all-around game has diversified over time, adding a variety of kicks, knees, and higher output ensure success. Despite sporadic losses, the Black Beast has maintained top-10 relevance throughout his UFC tenure and is riding the most impressive streak of his career. Lewis has won 3 straight over Blagoy Ivanov, Ilir Latifi, and Aleksei Oleinik; all of whom operate primarily as grapplers. The grappling department was once a deficiency for the 36-year-old, but persevering through multiple wrestling-heavy attacks is a promising sign leading into his fight with Blaydes. With a significant striking advantage, Lewis’ ability to stay standing is vital.
The margin for error is small in this weekend’s main event, and this classic wrestler versus striker matchup favors the ground specialist.
Prediction: Blaydes via 4th round (T)KO