UFC Fight Night viewers guide: Rise of Blaydes, dos Santos blocked by heavy obstacles

play
Blaydes vs. Dos Santos: A hard-hitting battle of heavyweights (1:08)

Curtis Blaydes and Junior dos Santos collide in a highly anticipated battle of heavyweights on Saturday, January 25th. For more UFC, sign up here for ESPN+ http://plus.espn.com/ufc. (1:08)

A potential heavyweight championship trilogy bout between Stipe Miocic and Daniel Cormier is one of the most compelling matchups on the horizon in mixed martial arts. Unfortunately, it happens to be holding up the UFC's entire heavyweight division.

That reality is simply impossible to ignore as we head into Saturday's UFC Fight Night main event between Curtis Blaydes and Junior dos Santos. The event takes place in Raleigh, North Carolina, and airs on ESPN+ (main card at 8 p.m. ET, prelims at 5 p.m.).

Blaydes (12-2) vs. dos Santos (21-6) is a bout that should have real title implications. Blaydes, 28, has looked the part of a title contender for years -- his only two losses in nine UFC bouts were to knockout artist Francis Ngannou. Dos Santos has also lost only to Ngannou in his last four appearances, and at age 35, time is not on his side as he tries to secure a title shot.

It's not a good sign, though, that the man who holds wins over both -- Ngannou -- has spent the last several months complaining about a lack of movement in the division. Ngannou is a bona fide title challenger but instead is scheduled to fight Jairzinho Rozenstruik in March because of the roadblock at the top.

And that roadblock has shown no signs of clearing. The UFC wants to make Miocic vs. Cormier III, for good reason. It's the only title fight to make. But the time frame around Miocic's recovery from an eye injury is still uncertain, and Cormier, who has said he has only one fight left in his career, won't fight anyone else.

It's a shame, because this weekend's headliner is a marquee heavyweight fight -- particularly when it comes to Blaydes. The Colorado-based fighter has shown consistency in a division where chaos is the norm. Both he and dos Santos -- not to mention Ngannou -- deserve clarity on their futures.

For the moment, however, clarity is hard to come by. It's like if two NFL teams were to meet in the playoffs, with no guarantee of where a win takes them -- or even a time frame on when a Super Bowl might be played. How Blaydes and dos Santos -- Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, in the ESPN heavyweight rankings -- manage their frustration could even have an impact in this fight.

A look back

By the numbers

10: Knockout wins in the UFC by dos Santos, tying him with Cain Velasquez and Derrick Lewis for the most in the promotion's history.

1.9: Significant strikes absorbed per minute by Blaydes, the lowest -- that is, best -- absorption rate among active UFC heavyweights.

7.05: Takedowns landed by Blaydes per 15 minutes of fighting, the highest rate in UFC history.

80.5: Percentage of takedowns successfully defended by dos Santos, fourth-highest defense in UFC heavyweight history.

3: Victories by Blaydes, among his four in the UFC, that have come via elbow strikes on the ground.

Sources: ESPN Stats & Information and UFC Stats

Five vs. five

Curtis Blaydes' most recent results
Win: Shamil Abdurakhimov (TKO2, Sept. 7, 2019)
Win: Justin Willis (UD, March 23, 2019)
Loss: Francis Ngannou (TKO1, Nov. 24, 2018)
Win: Alistair Overeem (TKO3, June 9, 2018)
Win: Mark Hunt (UD, Feb. 11, 2018)

Junior dos Santos' most recent results
Loss: Francis Ngannou (TKO1, June 29, 2019)
Win: Derrick Lewis (TKO2, March 9, 2019)
Win: Tai Tuivasa (TKO2, Dec. 2, 2018)
Win: Blagoy Ivanov (UD, July 14, 2018)
Loss: Stipe Miocic (TKO1, May 13, 2017)

Film study

Curtis Blaydes lays groundwork against Overeem:

Brett Okamoto's prediction

This has the feeling of a passing-of-the-torch type of fight. Dos Santos is still very dangerous on the feet and is a veteran of five-round fights. His ability to deal with pressure has always been suspect, however, and that is what Blaydes brings. Despite the heavyweight roadblock, this could be a coming-out party of sorts for Blaydes. Blaydes via TKO, third round.

Waiting in the wings

The three heavyweights who are ranked ahead of these two -- champion Stipe Miocic, ex-champ Daniel Cormier and Francis Ngannou -- are otherwise occupied. But Derrick Lewis and others from right below in the top 10 should be watching. Maybe Jon Jones, too, if he's ready to make a move up after defending his light heavyweight belt next month.

What else to look for ... beyond the main event

The rest of the card, co-main event down:

ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET
Rafael dos Anjos vs. Michael Chiesa | Welterweight
Jordan Espinosa vs. Alex Perez | Men's flyweight
Hannah Cifers vs. Angela Hill | Strawweight
Jamahal Hill vs. Darko Stošić | Light heavyweight
ESPN+, 5 p.m.
Bevon Lewis vs. Dequan Townsend | Middleweight
Arnold Allen vs. Nik Lentz | Men's featherweight
Justine Kish vs. Lucie Pudilová | Women's flyweight
Montel Jackson vs. Felipe Colares | Men's bantamweight
Sara McMann vs. Lina Länsberg | Women's bantamweight
Brett Johns vs. Tony Gravely | Men's bantamweight
Herbert Burns vs. Nate Landwehr | Men's featherweight

How good is Chiesa at welterweight? Co-main will tell us

Former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos moved to welterweight in 2017 and went on a three-fight winning streak. Since then, however, he has lost three of four fights.

It doesn't look good on the résumé, but consider the opponents who defeated him: Kamaru Usman, who now wears the championship belt; Colby Covington, who challenged for the belt last month; and Leon Edwards, who has won eight in a row and soon could be going for the title. No shame in any of those losses.

Next up for RDA is Michael Chiesa, a fellow transplant from the 155-pound division. And like dos Anjos, Chiesa has had a smooth start to his move up. He's 2-0 at 170 pounds.

Chiesa's welterweight wins came against Carlos Condit and Diego Sanchez, both big names but both in their mid-30s and on the downward slope of their careers. Dos Anjos is 35 as well, but he's still in the mix among the UFC's best. The Brazilian might now be considered a gatekeeper, but he's a stout test for anyone seeking to enter the welterweight elite.

Can Chiesa pass his biggest test yet?

Nickname of the night

"Hello there, Bevon Lewis. You're here looking for a nickname?"

"Yes, I am."

"What do you do for a living, Mr. Lewis?"

"I fight inside a cage."

"Oh, OK. Then let's call you 'The Extraordinary Gentleman.'"

(Lewis fights in the feature prelim against middleweight Dequan Townsend, aka "The Tarantula.")

Odds 'n' ends

Some tidbits from Andrew Davis of ESPN Stats & Information:

  • This will be the UFC's first time in Raleigh but not its first time in North Carolina. UFC 3 was in Charlotte in 1994, and the next year the promotion was back for UFC 5. The Octagon did not return to the state until 2008.

  • It is a home game for strawweight Hannah Cifers, who fights out of Wake Forest, North Carolina, just 18 miles north of Raleigh.

  • Angela Hill, who faces Cifers, fought four times in 2019, making her one of three women to do so in a calendar year, along with Irene Aldana and Cynthia Calvillo. This will be Hill's 13th fight in the UFC, tying her for third most among female fighters.

  • Arnold Allen, who fights Nik Lentz, has won six in a row, tying him with featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and Zabit Magomedsharipov for longest active UFC win streak at 145 pounds.

  • If Sara McMann wins her bantamweight fight with Lina Lansberg, the 39-year-old would become the second-oldest female fighter to win a UFC fight, behind Marion Reneau, who was 40 when she defeated McMann in 2018. Win or lose, McMann will have the third-most UFC fights at women's bamtamweight, 11, one behind Amanda Nunes and Raquel Pennington.