Curtis Blaydes was already 21 when he first began to train in mixed martial arts. He was, he said, working at a UFC Gym in Chicago “with one of my homies, doing whatever” at the beginning of his fight career.
There was, he said, no organized plan to help him learn the sport. He had no striking coach. He had no jiu-jitsu coach.
“There was no schedule, there was no direction and basically, I was just BS’ing it,” Blaydes told Yahoo Sports.
Despite that, Blaydes made it to the UFC in his just sixth pro fight, only four years after he first dipped his toe in the MMA waters. He lost that bout by knockout to future heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou, but the impact of it would change the course of his life.
He made the decision to move to Denver to join Elevation MMA to be with an elite team and get the kind of coaching he had lacked to that point in his career. He managed to do what he’d done with his wrestling ability and his athleticism.
On Saturday, Blaydes faces a massive challenge when he takes on sixth-ranked heavyweight Tom Aspinall in the main event of UFC London. The fourth-ranked Blaydes is fighting a guy ranked below him on the road, but he shrugs it off as no big deal.
This is a confident man, a man built into a legitimate contender on the fly.
He stopped Alistair Overeem at UFC 225 and won a Performance of the Night bonus despite not really being fully developed. He was like a star baseball player who should have been in Double-A but was in the majors because of a need who is trying to live on his physical skills alone.
Overeem is one of the great strikers in MMA history and Blaydes wouldn’t have been able to stand with him earlier in his career because he hadn’t gotten the coaching required.
“If I tried to stand and bang with Alistair, at that point and time in my career, I didn’t have the skill or the acumen necessary,” Blaydes said. “I was still learning and growing. I didn’t learn to strike properly and I didn’t learn jiu-jitsu until after I moved to Denver [to join Elevation MMA] in 2016.”
In Aspinall, he’ll face a highly athletic opponent who is well-versed in all aspects of the game. Blaydes raved about Aspinall’s athletic ability and called him “an absolute monster.”
Blaydes is a giant of a man, standing 6-foot-4 and weighing roughly 260 pounds. Because of his girth, his own athleticism is often overlooked, but there are few better athletes than Blaydes in the division.
He’s extremely agile and his quickness often surprises opponents. He’s not worried about how he’s perceived and isn’t slighted by a lack of recognition for his athletic ability. It’s something he said he’ll prove fight after fight.
“I definitely think people underestimate my athleticism, even to this day,” Blaydes said. “I don’t think a lot of people appreciate how athletic you have to be to get takedowns. They don’t get it, and I don’t care if they don’t get it. If they want to underestimate my speed, power, that’s to their detriment.”
Blaydes has finished 11 of his 16 wins in compiling a 16-3 record, while Aspinall has finished all of his victories while posting a 12-2 mark. Blaydes will fight the style he feels best, however, and won’t allow the blood lust of the crowd to take him off of his plan.
He said his plan in general each time is to use the strategy that works and leads to a win, not that leads to increased popularity.
“My hands are fast and they’ve always been fast and I’ve always been athletic,” Blaydes said. “But then again, I’ve always known that, yeah, I could stand and strike with someone and the odds would be 60-40 that I’m going to win. But if I take them down, the odds would be 80-20 in my favor.
“I know the fans prefer us to take the risks and slug it out on the feet, but if I had been taking those risks early in my career, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now.”
A win would increase Blaydes’ chances of earning a title shot, but the fighters in front of him — champion Ngannou, and Nos. 1-3 Ciryl Gane, Stipe Miocic and Tai Tuivasa — are formidable.
He knows he can’t stagnate because the division is better than it’s ever been.
“This is the best mix of youth and different styles we’ve had [at heavyweight],” Blaydes said. “One to six is the strongest it’s been in my memory.”
Aspinall is ranked sixth. A win over him on the road would be significant for Blaydes. He thinks it may be a short night.
“If you look at heavyweight history, it’s not too often you see a fight going five full rounds,” he said. “He’s never been to the fourth round, I believe, and he’s a guy who hunts for the finish. And when you have one guy hunting for a finish, that opens the door for the other guy to finish, too. So I don’t know exactly how the fight will play out but it probably isn’t going to go five rounds.”