Curtis Blaydes was 21 when he began training mixed martial arts. He said he “worked out with one of my homies and did everything” early in his fighting career at a UFC gym in Chicago.
There was, he said, no organized plan that would help him learn the sport. He had no distinctive coach. He didn’t have a jiu-jitsu coach.
“There was no schedule, there was no direction and basically I just messed it up,” Blaydes told Yahoo Sports.
Still, Blaydes made it to the UFC in only his sixth professional fight, just four years after he first dipped his toe in MMA waters. He lost that fight by KO to future Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou, but the repercussions of that would change the course of his life.
He made the decision to move to Denver to join Elevation MMA to be on an elite team and get the kind of coaching he had been missing up to this point in his career. He did what he did with his wrestling skills and athleticism.
On Saturday, Blaydes faces a formidable challenge when he takes on sixth-ranked heavyweight Tom Aspinall in the UFC London main event. Fourth-placed Blaydes fights a guy below him in the street, but he shrugs like it’s no big deal.
This is a confident man, a man who will become a legitimate contender in no time.
He stopped Alistair Overeem at UFC 225 and won a performance-of-the-night bonus despite not actually being fully developed. He was like a star baseball player who should have been in Double-A but was in the majors out of necessity, trying to live off his physical ability alone.
Overeem is one of the great forwards in MMA history and Blaydes couldn’t have matched him earlier in his career because he didn’t get the coaching he needed.
“If I was trying to stand and bat with Alistair, I didn’t have the skill or acumen at that point in my career,” Blaydes said. “I was still learning and growing. I didn’t learn to punch properly and I didn’t learn jiu-jitsu until I moved to Denver [to join Elevation MMA] in 2016.”
In Aspinall, he faces a highly athletic opponent who knows all aspects of the game. Blaydes raved about Aspinall’s athletic ability, calling him “an absolute monster”.
Blaydes is a giant of a male, standing 6ft 4 and weighing approximately 260 pounds. Because of his size, his own athleticism is often overlooked, but there are few athletes better than Blaydes in the division.
He is extremely agile and his speed often surprises opponents. He doesn’t worry about how he’s perceived and doesn’t let a lack of recognition for his athletic ability offend him. It’s something he said he’d prove fight after fight.
“I definitely think people underestimate my athleticism to this day,” said Blaydes. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how athletic you have to be to get takedowns. They don’t understand, and I don’t care if they don’t understand. If they want to underestimate my speed and strength, it will be at their expense.”
Blaydes has ended 11 of his 16 wins with a 16-3 record, while Aspinall has ended all of his wins with a 12-2 record. However, Blaydes will fight the style he feels best for and won’t let the crowd’s bloodlust sway him from his plan.
He said his plan in general is to use the strategy that works and leads to a profit every time, not the one that leads to increased popularity.
“My hands are fast and they’ve always been fast and I’ve always been athletic,” said Blaydes. “But then again, I’ve always known that I could stand and punch someone and the chances would be 60-40 that I’m going to win. But if I beat them, the odds are 80-20 in my favor.
“I know the fans prefer it if we take the risk and bang it on our feet, but if I had taken those risks early in my career I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now.”
A win would boost Blaydes’ chances of a title shot, but the contenders ahead – champion Ngannou and Nos. 1-3 Ciryl Gane, Stipe Miocic and Tai Tuivasa – are impressive.
He knows he can’t stagnate because the division is better than ever.
“It’s the best mix of youth and different styles we’ve ever had [at heavyweight]’ said Blaydes. “One to six is the strongest I’ve ever experienced.”
Aspinall takes sixth place. A win over him on the road would mean something for Blaydes. He thinks it might be a short night.
“If you look at heavyweight history, it’s not often that you see a fight go five full rounds,” he said. “He’s never been to the fourth round, I think, and he’s a chasing-the-goal guy. And when one guy is chasing a finish, that opens the door for the other guy to finish too. So I don’t know exactly how the fight will end, but it probably won’t go past five rounds.”