It may take a mixture of luck, timing and happenstance but heavyweight contender Curtis Blaydes believes there is a scenario in play that could see him challenging for a UFC title by the end of 2020.
Admittedly, many of the scenarios that make up Blaydes’ best-laid plans are outside of his control. The only thing the 29-year-old can control is the first step, which involves him besting Alexander Volkov on Saturday in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in Las Vegas.
“After this weekend when I get my hand raised, I’m expecting [Daniel Cormier] and Stipe [Miocic} to have their trilogy in August and I’ve heard reports they are both expected to retire,” Blaydes told CBS Sports’ “State of Combat” podcast on Wednesday. “That would mean the belt would be vacant and I expect it to be [Francis] Ngannou versus me, sometime in December.”
Not only would his hope for double retirement to both Miocic, the 37-year-old champion who is battling eye issues, and the 41-year-old Cormier need to come true, Blaydes (13-2, 1 NC) would need UFC to have interest in matching him against Ngannou, a man who has knocked him out twice, for a third time.
Lucky for Blaydes, he enters this weekend inside the UFC Apex facility on a three-fight win streak and as the betting favorite to defeat the 6-foot-7 Volkov, a 31-year-old native of Russia who has won five of his six appearances in the Octagon.
Either way, it’s hard to document Blaydes’ steady growth as a UFC fighter without constantly mentioning Ngannou, the feared slugger and No. 1 title contender who remains the only fighter to defeat him as a pro.
“[Ngannou] is just another opponent. I don’t put a lot of emotions into these things because when you do that, you don’t act smart and think about things intelligently,” Blaydes said. “I don’t hate him. He did his job, which was to beat me. He did his job better than I did on those two nights. I respect him and he has had a great career. Kudos to him. It doesn’t hurt my ego, it doesn’t hurt anything.”
With victories over the likes of Aleksei Oleinik, Mark Hunt, Alistair Overeem and former champion Junior dos Santos since joining UFC in 2016, Blaydes currently owns one of the division’s best resumes.
His UFC debut came against Ngannou in a fight Blaydes largely dominated on the ground until Ngannou closed his eye shut to force a doctor’s stoppage. Blaydes rebounded to go unbeaten over his next six fights and met Ngannou a second time in 2018 but lasted just 45 seconds in a dismantling.
Despite the two defeats, Blaydes remains as confident should he one day face Ngannou as he was ahead of each of their fights and believes he has the skills to solve him.
“Nobody ends this game undefeated. If you are in it for long enough, especially at heavyweight, you are going to get caught,” Blaydes said. “[Ngannou] has two losses in the UFC to Stipe and Derrick Lewis. It happens. We were extremely confident going into the last one. I know what to do, we all know what to do. What did Stipe do? He wrestled. I just have to get him on the ground. I know that’s easier said than done but I have already proven I can get him to the ground.
“I don’t view Ngannou as the rest of the world does, which is a big and scary Godzilla. He’s just a man to me.”
Blaydes will likely never see a trilogy without first beating Volkov. He expects his wrestling to play a key role yet remains proud of how well he has evolved as a striker, which was on display in January when he flattened dos Santos with one punch in Round 2.
“We are not even halfway there, this is nowhere near my talent evolution,” Blaydes said. “I still haven’t really added a lot of the kicks into my game. Right now, I mostly rely on my boxing, footwork and wrestling. There are still a lot of jiu-jitsu principles that I am adding. Once I finally get comfortable enough to attack submissions on the regular, that will be my final evolution. That will take years and I’m not in a rush. Everyone is older than me. I’m 29 and I’m going to be here for a long time.
Volkov has largely won his UFC fights on his own terms as a kick boxer who can make opponents pay with clean strikes.
“He’s a long striker who uses kicks and keeps distance. I do the opposite. I like to grapple and close the distance,” Blaydes said. “I don’t think he wants to be on his back and get hit in the face. I don’t think he wants to burn the energy. If he gets back up, he’s only going to be taken down over and over. I think I’m going to win because of my conditioning and my tenacity, also my power. I think I’m stronger than him, as well.”
This card also features some rising talents and veterans looking for one last ride. A couple of those veterans meet up in the preliminary main event as Bobby Green takes on Clay Guida. The two have combined for 89 career MMA fights with Guida’s career starting all the way back in 2003. Green has been fighting since 2008 and holds just a 1-5-1 record since 2014.
Some of those rising talents include featherweight Shane Burgos and welterweight Belal Muhammad. Burgos is in the co-main event against Josh Emmett as both look to rise the 145-pound rankings toward the title. Burgos (13-1) suffered his lone pro defeat in January 2018 to another contender in Calvin Kattar. Muhammad, meanwhile, takes on Lyman Good in an important showdown at 170 pounds. Muhammad has been nothing but action since joining UFC in 2016, amassing a 7-3 record.