Two weeks removed from Alexander Volkov’s second-round stoppage of Alistair Overeem, the last two men to defeat Volkov will square off in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs. Lewis.
Curtis Blaydes earned a unanimous-decision victory over “Drago” in his last outing. Meanwhile, Derrick Lewis completed an epic comeback knockout over the Russian at UFC 229 that, combined with his charismatic post-fight interview, made him an instant fan-favorite. Now, Blaydes and Lewis collide in an affair where the outcome will put the winner much closer to the front of the queue for a shot at the title and a showdown with the winner of the highly anticipated rematch between champion Stipe Miocic and challenger Francis Ngannou that’s slated for UFC 260.
Since suffering back-to-back losses against former champions Daniel Cormier and Junior dos Santos, “The Black Beast” has rattled off three consecutive wins to earn his spot at fourth in the UFC’s official rankings. His opponent, the second-ranked Blaydes, will try to move his winning streak to five fights and put himself back in the good graces of UFC President Dana White, who was less than impressed with Blaydes’ performance against Volkov.
The women’s bantamweight division is the setting of the evening’s co-headliner. Two top-10 fighters face off when Ketlen Vieira takes on Yana Kunitskaya. Both ladies seek to build upon decision victories in 2020 over Sijara Eubanks and Julija Stoliarenko, respectively. With two-division champion Amanda Nunes slated to defend her featherweight belt next and no clear top contender for the “Lioness” at bantamweight, an emphatic win from either woman could vault them into title contention.
Since joining the UFC, featherweight Charles Rosa has alternated wins and losses to amass a 4-4 record inside the organization. He tries to move above the .500 mark in a main-card affair opposite Darrick Minner. Minner also sits with an even win-loss record inside the UFC after dropping his debut to Grant Dawson and then notching a win over T.J. Laramie. If either man wants to establish themselves as one of the elite at 145 pounds, then a win this weekend is paramount.
The main card also features two additional heavyweight contests. In one of these fights, submission ace Aleksei Oleinik meets prospect Chris Daukaus. In the other contest, former champion Andrei Arlovski takes on a surging Tom Aspinall. Both Daukaus and Aspinall look to move to 3-0 in their UFC careers while adding a notable name to their resume.
UFC Fight Night: Blaydes vs. Lewis takes place inside the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, as the promotion continues to use the venue as its U.S. home for events during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The fight card can be viewed in its entirety on ESPN+ with prelims beginning at 5 p.m. ET and the main card following at 8 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Andrew Sumian and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Curtis Blaydes and Derrick Lewis clash in the evening’s headliner. Will the wrestling of Blaydes prove too much for Lewis to handle?
Sumian: As long as Blaydes sticks to a technical and calculated game plan, then yes, it will be too much for Lewis.
Despite both of these heavyweight competitors currently holding a top-five ranking, there is a huge disparity in regards to talent and title potential. Besides suffering two knockout losses to Francis Ngannou, Blaydes has been nearly perfect throughout his UFC campaign. The Chicago native is arguably the most athletic and versatile heavyweight in the UFC today, which has been apparent in his incredible evolution throughout his career.
Blaydes has undoubtedly looked better every time he has stepped foot in the Octagon. This has led to impressive wins over Alistair Overeem, Mark Hunt, Junior dos Santos and Alexander Volkov. Blaydes, who stands 6-foot-4 and boasts an 80-inch reach, has unmatched cardio and wrestling within the division. The 29-year-old has averaged an impressive 6.63 takedowns per 15 minutes, along with 3.74 significant strikes per minute.
Blaydes’ most well-known weakness has been in both his defensive and offensive striking. However, he has recently worked extremely hard to further develop his stand-up game, which he put on full display in his bouts against Shamil Adburakhimov, dos Santos and Volkov. He’s now riding a four-fight winning streak as a result.
Lewis is one of the most entertaining yet unpredictable heavyweights on the UFC roster. Since joining the promotion in 2014, Lewis has compiled a 15-5 record and had an unsuccessful title bid against Daniel Cormier. Despite all this success, there is not a single fighter on the roster today who has the ability to look so good and so poor within back-to-back fights.
Lewis has been hampered by a questionable gas tank, various back issues, and an inability to stop the takedown. Yet, he is still ranked as the No. 4 heavyweight and continues to rack up winning streaks by utilizing the thunderous knockout power he holds in both his hands. After unimpressive victories against Blagoy Ivanov and Ilir Latifi, Lewis returned to the cage in August and knocked out Aleksei Oleinik in impressive fashion.
Blaydes should have a clear path to victory as long as he utilizes his pressure, wrestling and constant movement. The worst thing he can do is to stand in front of Lewis and expose himself to the one weapon Lewis could utilize to win this fight: his power.
Blaydes will consistently stick and move as Lewis struggles to absorb the wave of jabs and body kicks that come his way. Once Blaydes has peppered Lewis with numerous strikes, he’ll shoot for the takedown and eventually secure a TKO or submission on the mat.
Petela: My colleague isn’t giving Lewis nearly enough credit. His counter wrestling might not be his strong suit, but it has only been his downfall in one of his UFC losses. Outside of the submission he suffered at the hands of the aforementioned Cormier at UFC 230, Lewis has lost four fights with the organization via knockout in slugfests with some of the most talented strikers to grace the heavyweight division.
When he has been taken down, Lewis has shown several times that his brute strength alone can be enough to help him get back to his feet, especially if his opponent has worked into side control. His cardio is fairly called into question, but it has been an area of continued focus for Lewis since he joined the upper echelon at heavyweight. This, paired with his ability to land a fight-ending punch at any moment, will be enough to overcome any wrestling advantage that Blaydes holds over him.
There is no doubt that Blaydes is one of the best wrestlers in the division and perhaps the entire UFC. His striking, too, has grown by leaps and bounds. However, his seemingly impervious cardio was called into question in the Volkov fight, where he was so exhausted that he was barely able to give a post-fight interview.
The majority of the Volkov fight took place exactly where Blaydes is most comfortable: on the canvas with him in top position. If this fight with Lewis drags into the later rounds, it could likely be Blaydes’ downfall. If he’s forced to fight on the feet against Lewis for large periods of time, then it will be Blaydes, not “The Black Beast,” who ends up feeling the effects of a five-round affair.
Ultimately, it will look as if Blaydes is on his way toward a workmanlike decision victory over the first two or three rounds before things change drastically. It could be a Hail-Mary punch that Lewis is able to land to score another jaw-dropping knockout. Or it might be a lackluster takedown attempt from Blaydes that Lewis capitalizes on to find his way into a dominant position and force a TKO stoppage. Either way, it will be Lewis with his hand raised.
Ketlen Vieira has been marching through the UFC women’s bantamweight division, where her only loss has come to Irene Aldana. How much of a threat does Yana Kunitskaya pose to the Brazilian’s rise?
Petela: Kunitskaya is a big threat to stop Vieira from rebuilding the momentum she started to regain with her win over Sijara Eubanks. Kunitskaya’s UFC losses came against Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino and Aspen Ladd, a pair of elite fighters.
The game plan for each woman should be fairly straightforward. Vieira will try to close the distance and implement her grappling game as a black belt in both judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Meanwhile, the taekwondo and Muay Thai skills of Kunitskaya will be her best assets in keeping the fight standing and at kicking distance.
Kunitskaya will be able to thwart her opponent’s attempts to take the fight to the mat. The question is whether Vieira will get frustrated and mistime an entry where Kunitskaya can land a fight-altering strike or if the Brazilian can end up taking the fight into her world. Ultimately, though, it will be the polished striking of the Russian that prevails. Kunitskaya will force Vieira to start from scratch once more on her path to the top of the division.
Sumian: It’s hard to argue with that assessment. Despite her success in the UFC thus far, Vieira is still fairly one-dimensional. She heavily relies on her grappling to achieve victory. Kunitskaya will stick and move for three straight rounds and earn the unanimous decision.
This card has a couple of additional key heavyweight affairs that pit established divisional contenders against up-and-comers. Aleksei Oleinik provides a huge jump in competition for Chris Daukaus, while Andrei Arlovski attempts to slam the gate shut on Tom Aspinall. Are fans in store for a passing of the torch to a new generation here?
Sumian: The division is in desperate need of up-and-coming talent to take the next step and climb the ladder. The weight class has long been plagued with a lack of talent, which has led to a questionable top 15 at best. Thus, the arrivals of Daukaus and Aspinall are a breath of fresh air.
Due to his immense knockout power and entertaining style, Daukaus has the potential to be one of the most electrifying new additions to the heavyweight roster. The Philadelphia native has compiled a 10-3 record, which includes nine knockouts. He has looked more and more comfortable across his UFC victories over Parker Porter and Rodrigo Nascimento.
Daukaus possesses above-average boxing skills, including a powerful left hook and razor-accurate right cross. He tends to fluster his opponents with various combinations before finding an opening to counter with a fight-ending power punch. After a 2-0 start in the UFC, Daukaus now faces a huge step up in competition. His key to victory will be to keep the fight on the feet, where he will hold a distinct striking advantage. If he can utilize his crisp boxing and stay clear of Oleinik’s grappling game, then the result should be another highlight-reel knockout for Daukaus.
Aspinall is a fighter who could land inside the top 10 by year’s end. The British heavyweight has a 9-2 record that includes two UFC victories and eight career knockout wins. His knockout of Jake Collier featured an incredible knee to the body followed by a 1-2 combo and was easily one of the most fluid and impressive heavyweight debuts of recent memory. The 6-foot-5 Aspinall boasts serious boxing skills, too.
Aspinall is ready to take a huge leap on Saturday night when he faces Arlovski. This bout will likely take place on the feet, where the younger and fresher Aspinall will have to beat Arlovski to the punch. Despite his age and various knockout defeats, Arlovski has consistently proven he still has what it takes to compete with the best in the world. The Belarusian is currently riding a two-fight winning streak at the expense of Phillipe Lins and Tanner Boser.
There is a very real possibility that both of these prospects are simply not ready for elite competition and fall victim to their veteran opponents. However, let’s be optimistic here and expect both Daukaus and Aspinall to shine on Saturday night. They’ll score a pair of TKO victories and in all likelihood earn a top-15 ranking.
Petela: The time of Arlovski and Oleinik as contenders has long since passed. These two veterans have been relegated to gatekeeper status. However, nobody can be a successful gatekeeper forever. Both men will fail to keep the next generation from overtaking them this weekend.
Daukaus is one half of a pair of brothers who have both the talent and charisma to be the closest thing fans get to the next coming of the Diaz brothers inside the UFC. They are a long way from that type of popularity, but Chris will move them a huge step closer with his performance against Oleinik. This one won’t last long. It will be a third straight knockout victory for the older Daukaus sibling.
Aspinall might be the only person not impressed with his performances inside the UFC. He has been highly critical of himself despite scoring two knockouts in a total of 2:10 of cage time. This won’t be a second straight fight where Arlovski is able to play the role of wily veteran and stifle a prospect by turning the fight into a methodical chess match. Instead, look for yet another first-round knockout from Aspinall. Even he’ll have to be happy with his performance this time.
Pat Sabatini, Rafael Alves, Casey O’Neill, Jared Vanderaa and Drako Rodriguez — do we need to know these names?
Petela: Sabatini is a definite. The current and two-time Cage Fury Fighting Championships featherweight champion is not only insanely talented, but he’s as tough as they come. The broken arm he suffered in his fight with Jason Gonzalez when he refused to tap to an armbar was one of the most gruesome in-cage injuries of recent years. He was back in action just seven months later, though, when he picked up a knockout win. Sabatini then recaptured the featherweight crown while scoring the ninth submission win of his career.
Sabatini takes the fight with fellow newcomer Alves on short notice. These two debuting fighters will put on an impressive display. They are finishers, and Alves comes into the bout on a five-fight winning streak that includes a submission finish on Dana White’s Contender Series.
O’Neill’s debut may actually be more of a litmus test for her opponent, Shana Dobson. Dobson picked up an “Upset of the Year” win in her last appearance when she stopped Mariya Agapova. The 23-year-old O’Neill is an undefeated prospect who still has time to grow into her own. How she fares will likely show whether Dobson is truly as good as she looked against Agapova or if she outperformed her abilities on that night.
Vanderaa is a young heavyweight who has an impressive record of 11-4. However, his three appearances with the Legacy Fighting Alliance all ended in disappointment for him. Anything can happen, especially at heavyweight, but don’t be surprised if Vanderaa’s run with the UFC is a short one.
Rodriguez’s sole loss came to UFC veteran Tony Gravely. He has an opportunity to pick up a big win against a struggling Aiemann Zahabi. Rodriguez could be a fun addition to the bantamweight roster down the line as he matures, but the 24-year-old shouldn’t be pegged as a contender just yet.
Sumian: Sabatini and Alves will certainly have the most attention among these debuts, and that’s for good reason. O’Neill, Vanderaa and Rodriguez can certainly earn some attention with impressive showings, but only time will tell if they are ready for elite competition.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Sumian: Aiemann Zahabi. After an impressive 7-0 start to his career, the Canadian has suffered back-to-back defeats across his UFC debut and sophomore appearances. If he suffers another defeat at the hands of newcomer Drako Rodriguez, then Zahabi is likely to be released shortly thereafter.
Petela: Eddie Wineland. Outside of a knockout win over a debuting Grigory Popov, Wineland hasn’t won a fight since 2016. If he falls to John Castañeda, then it will be the straw that broke the camel’s back and ends the 12-year run for Wineland inside the UFC and its stable of promotions.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Nassourdine Imavov and Phil Hawes. Both men came out victorious in their promotional debuts. They should steal the show in their sophomore outings. Imavov has finished seven of his nine pro wins, while Hawes burst onto the scene with an 18-second knockout of Jacob Malkoun at UFC 254. This one will be all action. It won’t get to the judges’ scorecards, either.
Sumian: Drakkar Klose and Luis Pena. Both men are aggressive, fast-paced competitors who are eager to get in the face of their opponent and impose their will. They are coming off losses, though, and will be eager to get back in the win column when they meet.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Sumian: Tom Aspinall. The Brit has a tall task ahead of him in the form of Andre Arlovski, but expect him to deliver with a bang. He’ll finishthe former UFC heavyweight champion and establish himself as a top-15 competitor.
Petela: Derrick Lewis. It will be hard for anyone to outshine “The Black Beast.” Another knockout victory and a charismatic post-fight interview will be the lasting memory of this event for fans. It will be more than enough to earn him an extra $50,000.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Popeyes fried chicken. Derrick Lewis, whose love of the franchise led to a sponsorship deal, will pick up a huge win and deliver a post-fight speech just as impressive as his performance. The “Black Beast” has been offered free food for life from the fast-food chain since publicly defending their honor prior to his title fight with Daniel Cormier. So, pick up some Popeyes chicken. Unlike Lewis, though, you’ll have to pay for it.
Sumian: The heavyweights. Despite a fan-friendly card from top to bottom, this night belongs to the big. Curtis Blaydes, Chris Daukaus, Tom Aspinall and Serghei Spivac will all deliver highlight performances as the UFC’s heavyweight division finally gets a new wave of contenders and title challengers.
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Derrick Lewis
Women’s BW: Ketlen Vieira vs. Yana Kunitskaya
FW: Darrick Minner vs. Charles Rosa
HW: Aleksei Oleinik vs. Chris Daukaus
FW: Rafael Alves vs. Pat Sabatini
HW: Andrei Arlovski vs. Tom Aspinall
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 5 p.m. ET)
MW: Nassourdine Imavov vs. Phil Hawes
FW: Jared Gordon vs. Danny Chavez
LW: Drakkar Klose vs. Luis Pena
BW: Eddie Wineland vs. John Castañeda
FW: Julian Erosa vs. Nate Landwehr
Women’s FlyW: Shana Dobson vs. Casey O’Neill
FW: Chas Skelly vs. Jamall Emmers
BW: Aiemann Zahabi vs. Drako Rodriguez
HW: Serghei Spivac vs. Jared Vanderaa
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