It is rare that a clash of two top-five heavyweights goes largely unnoticed, but coming on the heels of the high-profile event that was UFC 246, that’s exactly what’s happening to the throwdown between Curtis Blaydes and Junior dos Santos at this weekend’s UFC on ESPN+ 24.
Blaydes has put together back-to-back wins after suffering his second career loss to Francis Ngannou. He looks to further his status as a top contender by making it three straight with a win over the former champion dos Santos. Blaydes stopped Shamil Abdurakhimov in a dominant performance in Abu Dhabi at UFC 242. Outside of his two losses to Ngannou, he has looked nearly unbeatable.
Dos Santos is one of the most accomplished heavyweights in UFC history. The former titleholder possesses victories over five other UFC heavyweight champions, including current kingpin Stipe Miocic. The Brazilian was riding a three-fight winning streak heading into his last fight, where he got stopped in the first round by the aforementioned Ngannou. “Cigano” was supposed to take on Alexander Volkov in November, but he was forced out of the fight due to a serious bacterial infection in his leg that left him hospitalized.
Now, both men are looking to make their way toward a title shot, Blaydes for the first time and dos Santos trying to reclaim the title he first earned by defeating Cain Velasquez in 2011. The winner of this fight will be on the short list of next contenders in the crowded and confusing heavyweight division.
In the co-headliner, former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos squares off against Michael Chiesa, who recently moved up to welterweight after struggling to make the 155-pound lightweight limit. Dos Anjos burst onto the welterweight scene with three straight wins before losing back-to-back fights against the most recent title challenger Colby Covington and the champion Kamaru Usman. Despite the mixed results on his record, the Brazilian has looked great since moving up a weight class. This will clearly be the biggest test for Chiesa, who makes his third walk to the cage at 170 pounds. He is sports a 2-0 record in the division with wins over Carlos Condit and Diego Sanchez. If victorious, Chiesa introduces himself as a legitimate contender.
Further down the main card is a flyweight showdown between Jordan Espinosa and Alex Perez, who stand at Nos. 10 and 11 respectively in the rankings. With Henry Cejudo relinquishing the belt to focus on defending his bantamweight title, a win in this fight becomes exponentially more meaningful. The winner could be only one or two fights away from a title bid.
UFC on ESPN+ 24 gets underway with the prelims at 5 p.m. ET from the PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The main card follows at 8 p.m. ET. The entire card airs live on the ESPN+ streaming platform. Combat Press writers Chris Huntemann and Matt Petela preview the action in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
So far, only Francis Ngannou has cracked the code to beating Curtis Blaydes — twice, in fact. Can Junior dos Santos become only the second man to hand Blaydes a loss?
Huntemann: Since Ngannou is more or less a cheat code in the heavyweight division, I’m not sure how much he really showed other heavyweights about beating Blaydes. Ngannou is in a class all by himself right now. That said, dos Santos is a former UFC heavyweight champion and is as worthy a candidate as anyone to hand Blaydes only his third career loss and once again halt Blaydes’ march toward a title shot. Dos Santos’ only setbacks in the last three years were to Ngannou, Alistair Overeem and the current heavyweight champion, Stipe Miocic. So the Brazilian is as battle-tested as they come.
Of course, with that, comes the question of whether dos Santos has already suffered too much wear and tear to his body. He recently dealt with a serious infection that forced him to withdraw from a planned bout with Alexander Volkov. Have the wars he has been involved in for basically the last decade finally taken their toll? What does he have left in the tank? This fight will serve as a great answer to that question. Either dos Santos shows he has one more title run left in him, or he is closer to becoming a gatekeeper in a division that already has plenty of them.
Petela: The X factor in this fight is definitely the wear and tear that dos Santos has sustained over his career, as my colleague astutely pointed out. Between the trilogy with Cain Velasquez, the two fights with Miocic, and countless other wars, he has absorbed a tremendous amount of damage throughout his career. Furthermore, he’s coming off that grotesque infection and won’t be close enough to his prime to stop a surging Blaydes.
Blaydes is perhaps the best wrestler in the heavyweight division, which is no small compliment considering former champ Daniel Cormier was on the Olympic team and current kingpin Miocic was an NCAA Division I wrestler at Cleveland State University. Blaydes is one of the only heavyweights who consistently and successfully will utilize a blast double-leg takedown. Once he is on top of his opponent, he has some of the best ground-and-pound in all of MMA. He bludgeoned Overeem and Shamil Abdurakhimov and was able to completely nullify Justin Willis over the course of his last three victories.
Blaydes will pick up a third straight win and add another big name to his resume. His road to a title shot is confusing, to say the least. Ngannou is ahead of him, and Miocic’s trilogy fight with Cormier is up in the air due to the eye injuries the champion sustained in the pair’s second fight. So, while this fight might not put him next in line for a chance at the belt, it certainly reaffirms his status as one of the most elite heavyweights in the UFC. At 28 years old, Blaydes has a chance to be a preeminent name for years to come.
Will Michael Chiesa announce his arrival as a contender in the welterweight co-headliner against Rafael dos Anjos?
Petela: Yes. Nobody gets past dos Anjos without being a top contender, and that is exactly what Chiesa is now that he has found a home at welterweight. He was stifled by the massive weight cut down to 155 and dropped consecutive fights to Kevin Lee and Anthony Pettis before making the move up to 170.
Chiesa is much more healthy fighting at welterweight. He has looked incredible in his wins over Carlos Condit and Diego Sanchez. It’s a fair question to ask just how good were the versions of Condit and Sanchez that he faced — the two veterans are seemingly well past their fighting primes. Condit had lost four fights in a row at the time he took on Chiesa and hadn’t looked like the same “Natural Born Killer” who dropped an incredible title fight to Robbie Lawler in a razor-close decision at UFC 195. Sanchez had just defeated Mickey Gall in his last outing, but he had left longtime gym Jackson-Wink MMA and entered the contest with a single cornerman and an unorthodox style.
This showdown against dos Anjos will be the toughest test to date for Chiesa at welterweight, but he will pass it with flying colors. He is an incredible grappler, and while he doesn’t have the powerful amateur wrestling style that has given dos Anjos trouble in the past, he will be able to dictate the fight and take it to the mat. Once there, he will be able to show his dominance and prove that he should be on the short list of people next in line for a crack at Kamaru Usman’s belt.
Huntemann: In keeping with my theme of gatekeepers, that’s where dos Anjos stands right now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. He did look excellent in defeating Condit and Sanchez, but those two guys are closer to retirement than they are to being the elite talents they may have once been.
Dos Anjos is still very dangerous, though, and the perfect test for someone like Chiesa, who has been trying to break through across two divisions for years now and just hasn’t been able to take the next step, for whatever reason. A victory here would give Chiesa a much-needed boost. If he can’t make a title run by now, it’s fair to wonder if he will ever be able to.
Jamahal Hill, Tony Gravely, Nate Landwehr and Herbert Burns — do we need to know these names?
Huntemann: All of them can make an impact, even on a bloated UFC roster. In particular, I like Hill and Gravely.
The UFC’s light heavyweight division continues to be paper-thin, and that’s reflected in how bored and disinterested its current champion, Jon Jones, has looked in his recent fights. Hill only has six pro bouts under his belt, but he has won all six contests. He is obviously a long way away from even joining the discussion as a possible contender, but an extended undefeated streak in the UFC can only help him and hopefully give a shallow division some much-needed depth.
Gravely is on an incredible winning streak, too. He has faced a who’s-who on the regional scene. He has a tough test for his UFC debut against Brett Johns. If Gravely is victorious — and especially if he gets a finish — it can only portend promising things for him in a UFC bantamweight division that is still very tough.
Petela: I am most excited for the debut of Landwehr. The Tennessee native is riding a seven-fight winning streak heading into his bout with fellow newcomer Herbert Burns. “The Train” has eight finishes by way of knockout and is an incredibly hard-hitting featherweight. The 31-year-old joins the promotion in the middle of his athletic prime. He is a name fans should know, as he could make a splash at 145 pounds inside the UFC.
Landwehr’s opponent, the aforementioned Burns, is no slouch either. The two men should put on a great fight to kick off the night. Burns earned his contract via Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series, where he snatched up a triangle-armbar submission in the first round against Darrick Minner. The win moved him to seven submissions in his nine professional victories. Burns trains with a great team at Hard Knocks 365 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Under the tutelage of Henry Hooft, he should be rounding out his skill set nicely.
Both of these two freshman UFC featherweights should stick around for some time, regardless of the outcome of their encounter.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Brett Johns and Tony Gravely. Johns is on a two-fight skid, but he faced a pair of elite bantamweights in Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz. The Munhoz fight in particular was wildly entertaining. Now, he’s taking on a UFC newcomer with a lot to prove, and this clash could easily end up as the “Fight of the Night.”
Huntemann: The featherweight prelim bout between Arnold Allen and Nik Lentz should be interesting.
I’m sure many fans are most familiar with Lentz as the guy who trolled B.J. Penn mercilessly in the not-too-distant past, even though the two men never actually squared off in the Octagon. Lentz also has 42 career fights, which is nearly three times as many as Allen. However, Allen has only lost once in his 16 career bouts and is coming off a convincing victory over a highly lauded veteran in Gilbert Melendez.
Lentz loves to get down and dirty in his fights, so this match-up will be a good indication of whether Allen is also willing to accommodate such a style. If Allen emerges victorious, his ascent up the featherweight ladder will begin in earnest.
Pair this card with…
Huntemann: Since this fight card takes place the weekend before the Super Bowl, when many people use that day as an excuse to gorge themselves silly, I’m sure MMA fans are no different. So, I recommend you just take it easy on this day. Begin training your body for the calorie-fest to come the following weekend. Sip some water. Enjoy a nice, refreshing salad. There is no reason to go overboard when the biggest unofficial holiday of the year is just a weekend away.
Petela: I was recently introduced to Strawberitas by a dear friend, and it’s the perfect drink to pair with this card. Coming off the massive event that was UFC 246, this show is largely flying under the radar. However, it should end up being a surprisingly strong card. In the same way, a sweet drink like a Strawberita will sneak up on you. They pack a wallop, and before you know it, you’re a far cry from sober. So, drink a few Strawberitas, but drink them responsibly — you don’t want to miss this sneaky-impressive fight card.
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Junior dos Santos
WW: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Michael Chiesa
FlyW: Jordan Espinosa vs. Alex Perez
Women’s StrawW: Hannaf Cifers vs. Angela Hill
LHW: Jamahal Hill vs. Darko Stošić
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
MW: Bevon Lewis vs. Dequan Townsend
FW: Arnold Allen vs. Nik Lentz
Women’s FlyW: Justine Kish vs. Lucie Pudilová
BW: Montel Jackson vs. Felipe Colares
Women’s BW: Sara McMann vs. Lina Länsberg
BW: Brett Johns vs. Tony Gravely
FW: Nate Landwehr vs. Herbert Burns
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