The sport of mixed martial arts has evolved through the years to the point where nowadays most professional fighters, especially those at or near the top of the heap, are proficient at mixing together an array of combative styles. But when the sport was young and drawing its athletes from distinct martial arts disciplines, the most intriguing matchups were clashes of specialists.
Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event at the promotion’s Apex facility in Las Vegas promises something of a throwback to a bygone era.
Derrick Lewis has 11 knockouts in the UFC, a record for heavyweights. He’s at his best as a standup fighter, unleashing his heavy hands.
Curtis Blaydes has 59 takedowns, by far the most in division history. He thrives by taking his opponent to the canvas and beating him down.
Of course, neither Blaydes (14-2, 1 NC), who is No. 3 in the ESPN heavyweight rankings, nor the fifth-ranked Lewis (24-7, 1 NC) got to where he is by being entirely one-dimensional. Blaydes has shown improvement with his fists and in his striking defense, and while Lewis is not a big takedown threat, he has shown proficiency in muscling his way back to his feet when necessary. Each man is well-rounded enough to keep the fight in his comfort zone for the most part.
But make no mistake: When these two meet at the center of the Octagon, Blaydes is going to be looking to take Lewis to the canvas and finish him there, while Lewis is going to be trying to send Blaydes crumbling to the floor.
But then what?
Despite both fighters being ranked in the top five among heavyweights, neither is on the verge of a shot at the championship. This fight originally was booked for November, before Blaydes tested positive for COVID-19. Back then, the heavyweight title picture was murky. But since then the UFC has booked champion Stipe Miocic in a March 27 title defense against the No. 2 man in the ESPN rankings, Francis Ngannou. Former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones has been promised first shot at the winner. That puts Blaydes and Lewis in something of a holding pattern — at best.
The winner on Saturday will hold his spot in line. The loser? His status will take a tumble — just like many of those who have been in the cage with either of these big men.
By the numbers
29: Career knockouts for Blaydes and Lewis combined. Lewis has 19 of them among his 24 victories, and Blaydes has 10 KOs among his 14 wins. That is how these two men finish fights. They have just one submission between them — Lewis got it, via armbar, 10 years ago in his fourth pro fight.
53: Percentage of UFC opponent takedown attempts fended off by Lewis, the fifth-worst takedown defense in heavyweight history and the worst among active heavyweights (minimum five fights and 20 attempts by opponents). That sets things up nicely for Blaydes, who has the second-best takedown accuracy (56%) by a qualifying heavyweight in UFC history. He averages 4.9 takedowns per fight, the second most ever in any division.
59:44: Top position time in 12 UFC fights for Blaydes, in minutes and seconds. That is the most in heavyweight history, as is his total control time (which includes standing clinches) of 1:13:28.
1.73: Strikes absorbed per minute in the UFC by Blaydes, the second fewest among active heavyweights, behind Marcos Rogerio de Lima‘s 0.73.
15: UFC victories by Lewis, tying him with Junior dos Santos for third most all time among heavyweights, behind only Andrei Arlovski (19), who also fights on Saturday, and Frank Mir (16). Arlovski, Mir and dos Santos all are former champions.
Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats
Five vs. five
Curtis Blaydes’ most recent results
Win: Alexander Volkov (UD, June 20, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Junior dos Santos (TKO2, Jan. 25, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Shamil Abdurakhimov (TKO2, Sept. 7, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Justin Willis (UD, March 23, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Francis Ngannou (TKO2, Nov. 24, 2018)
Derrick Lewis’ most recent results
Win: Aleksei Oleinik (TKO2, Aug. 8, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Ilir Latifi (UD, Feb. 8, 2020; watch on ESPN+)
Win: Blagoy Ivanov (SD, Nov. 2, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Junior dos Santos (TKO2, March 9, 2019; watch on ESPN+)
Loss: Daniel Cormier (Sub2, Nov. 3, 2018)
And the winner is …
Let’s look at this fight through the lens of Alexander Volkov, who has fought — and lost to — both men. Blaydes took him down 14 times last June and, despite gassing out late, rolled to a lopsided decision win. Lewis, down on the scorecards in October 2018, knocked out Volkov with just over a minute left. That tells us what both of Saturday’s main event fighters are capable of: Blaydes can drown you with relentless pressure, and Lewis can take you out with his last gasp. It’s possible both things will happen in this fight.
The coaches and fighters that ESPN polled for predictions are divided. One is even divided within himself. “I’m so torn on this fight,” said Tyson Chartier, coach of the New England Cartel. “The unemotional side wants to pick Blaydes, because I think he’ll be able to take him down. But I don’t want to cheer against Lewis, and I legitimately think Lewis can get up every time he gets taken down and only has to hit Blaydes once.”
How to watch the fights
Watch the fights on ESPN+. If you don’t have ESPN+, get it here.
There’s also FightCenter, which offers live updates for every UFC card.
Saturday’s fight card
ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis | Heavyweight
Ketlen Vieira vs. Yana Kunitskaya | Women’s bantamweight
Charles Rosa vs. Darrick Minner | Men’s featherweight
Aleksei Oleinik vs. Chris Daukaus | Heavyweight
Phil Hawes vs. Nassourdine Imavov | Middleweight
Andrei Arlovski vs. Tom Aspinall | Heavyweight
ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET
Jared Gordon vs. Danny Chavez | Men’s featherweight
Drakkar Klose vs. Luis Peña | Lightweight
Eddie Wineland vs. John Castañeda | Men’s bantamweight
Julian Erosa vs. Nate Landwehr | Men’s featherweight
Rafael Alves vs. Patrick Sabatini | Men’s featherweight
Shana Dobson vs. Casey O’Neill | Women’s flyweight
Chas Skelly vs. Jamall Emmers | Men’s featherweight
Aiemann Zahabi vs. Drako Rodriguez | Men’s bantamweight
Serghei Spivac vs. Jared Vanderaa | Heavyweight
Four more things to know (from ESPN Stats & Information)
1. Yana Kunitskaya has a 55% significant strike accuracy in the UFC, the fifth best among female fighters all time (minimum five fights and 400 strikes attempted). Her opponent, Ketlen Vieira, is at 37%, the 11th worst significant strike accuracy all time among the qualifying 72 female fighters.
2. Four of Vieira’s UFC wins have come by decision, tying her for second most in women’s bantamweight division history, behind Raquel Pennington (six).
4. Charles Rosa won his last fight — his only bout as lightweight — but has yet to win back-to-back UFC fights as he enters his ninth appearance.