LAS VEGAS — At almost any other point in UFC heavyweight history, Curtis Blaydes’ recent run of success would have been more than enough to earn him a shot at the championship.
Blaydes is 14-2 with a no-contest and riding a four-fight winning streak, in which he finished Junior dos Santos and Shamil Abdurakhimov and won by decision over Justin Willis and Alexander Volkov. He’s also won nine of his last 10.
But as the second-ranked Blaydes prepares to fight fourth-ranked Derrick Lewis on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 19, he’s still got a long wait to compete for that potentially life-changing bout.
Champion Stipe Miocic will defend the belt in the main event of UFC 261 next month against Francis Ngannou, who has two wins over Blaydes — Blaydes’ only two defeats. UFC president Dana White said the winner of that fight will face former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for the heavyweight title later this year.
Both fights make a lot of sense; Ngannou’s ferocious power has made him the most feared man in the sport and the logical challenger for Miocic. And Jones is widely regarded as the greatest fighter of all time, so he deserves a shot at heavyweight given he’s moved up.
Still, it’s an awkward position to be in for Blaydes, who knows that no matter what he does, he’ll be on the sidelines for the next two championship fights.
Blaydes was still basically a puppy in 2016 when he got to the UFC, at 24 years old and with five fights on his record. He isn’t upset about his lot at this point because he’s learned the sport both from a competitive standpoint and from a business standpoint.
He understands why the fights that are set are happening.
“Jon Jones is a GOAT and for him to bump up to heavyweight, I know they want to maximize his earning potential,” Blaydes told Yahoo Sports. “The best way to do that is for him to be in a title fight.”
Like anyone else would do, Blaydes has envisioned himself in the cage against each of the three men he might face. If it were to be Jones, it would be massive because a victory over the Miocic-Ngannou winner would solidify his status as the best fighter in the sport’s history.
That would make a potential Jones-Blaydes bout for the title all the more appealing. But Blaydes understands it’s not wise to waste energy, psychic or otherwise, on things that are out of his hands.
“I don’t want to invest too much emotional energy into anything I don’t have direct control over,” Blaydes said. “Who knows? What if Ngannou KOs Stipe and then he KOs Jon? What if he beats Stipe and then Jon beats him? It’s just too much. I don’t put a lot of energy into it.”
What he is going to put a lot of energy into is taking Lewis down and wearing him out before trying to go for the finish.
The plan, he said, is always the same. He’s like a python who loves to wear his opponent down and then finish the fight.
He couldn’t finish Volkov despite taking him down repeatedly, but he said that was more credit to Volkov than to any shortcomings on his part.
“I’d like to get the finish and you always want to get the finish,” Blaydes said. “I think Volkov was an outlier. [My plan] usually leads to a finish. When I get that many takedowns, guys are usually gassed. He wasn’t and he’s got great conditioning, great stamina. And he’s got great fighter IQ. When he’s on the bottom, he wouldn’t allow me to get my elbows off.
“I was burning so much energy going for the ground and pound. I think that was his game plan. It took us until the fourth round to figure out he was rope-a-doping me.”
Blaydes doesn’t expect Lewis to survive should he get him down anywhere near as often as he did Volkov. Though Lewis is coming off a TKO victory over submission ace Aleksei Oleinik, Blaydes doesn’t see it in any way comparable to his fight with Volkov.
Oleinik had great success in the first and was working on submissions, but Lewis caught him with a huge shot to start the second and finished him quickly.
“The fact that Derrick Lewis allowed a 40-year-old, 225-pound man to take him down with such ease, it only makes me feel better about my prospects,” Blaydes said. “My takedowns — if you can’t stop Oleinik’s takedowns, what are you going to do with my takedowns? I feel real good about my chances of getting him down.
“Oleinik, I think he would have won that fight [against Lewis]. If he hadn’t held onto that D’Arce — I don’t know the name of the submission he had, but he held it for about two minutes — you would think that a black belt like Oleinik would know, ‘OK, this isn’t working. Let me transition to something else.’ He just hung on and let Derrick survive the round. … If I take him down, I’ll get him out of there.”
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