Curtis Blaydes' path to title shot lined with obstacles out of his control

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS — Curtis Blaydes has what you might call a non-Francis Ngannou record of 13-0 with a no-contest. That no-contest was a win over Adam Milstead in 2017 that was changed because he tested positive for the horrible crime of having marijuana in his system.

Blaydes is a massive favorite to defeat Alexander Volkov on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the main event at UFC Apex and improve his non-Ngannou mark to 14-0.

That surely would make him the front-runner for the next heavyweight title shot, particularly since former champion Daniel Cormier told Yahoo Sports unequivocally that he will retire following his rubber match with champion Stipe Miocic in the main event of UFC 252 on Aug. 15.

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There is, though, what you may call Blaydes’ Ngannou problem that complicates matters.

Blaydes is 0-2 against the UFC’s biggest slugger, who has been on a bit of a roll himself. Blaydes opened his UFC career on April 10, 2016, in Croatia in a bout against Ngannou. The doctor stopped the bout after two rounds, so Ngannou won by TKO.

Blaydes reeled off five wins and that ridiculous no-contest in his next six bouts and landed another match with Ngannou. Ngannou stopped him in just 45 seconds.

That leaves him in an awkward, strange position and he needs help to get to a title shot. The best scenario for him would be if Cormier beats Miocic and then follows through on his vow to retire. That would make the belt vacant and the top two contenders would fight for it.

One of them under that scenario would almost certainly be Ngannou. The other would figure to be either Miocic or Blaydes, assuming Blaydes gets past Volkov.

Nothing has come easy for Blaydes, either in life or in sports, and even in that best-case scenario, there is yet another major obstacle:

Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.

Jones is in a contract dispute over pay with the UFC and is in the midst of a holdout. But he’s publicly expressed interest in an Ngannou fight. If it were for the belt, the UFC might be able to come to some sort of deal to bring Jones, the pound-for-pound best of all-time, back into the fold and into a championship bout for the vacant belt opposite Ngannou.

Curtis Blaydes is currently No. 3 on UFC's heavyweight rankings. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Curtis Blaydes is currently No. 3 on UFC's heavyweight rankings. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

And that leaves Blaydes, again, on the outside looking in.

“It’s just another obstacle for me,” said Blaydes, who is ranked third after Cormier and Ngannou in pursuit of Miocic. “I have been in the UFC for four years now and I understand how things work. I get the chaos of it all. It’s annoying [I may get passed over for a title shot], but what is going to happen will happen regardless of how I feel about it. I just have to take care of my own business.

“If Jon wants that fight, they’re going to give it to him and there’s nothing I can do about it. But if I keep beating whoever they put in front of me, sooner or later, it’s going to be my name at the top of the list.”

Blaydes has an impressive list of victims already to his name, and Volkov would be another one were he to pull it off. His wrestling has long been a mainstay, and he’s slowly improved his striking. His ground-and-pound has also become a weapon and he’s one of the best at that in the sport.

He knows the significance of the two losses to Ngannou, though, but he’s quick to point out that even though the fight in Beijing ended quickly, it was different than most of Ngannou’s other dramatic KOs.

“He’s been taking guys’ heads off,” Blaydes said. “I was never out. He clipped me and I lost my balance, but I wasn’t out. He took Junior [dos Santos] out; he took Cain [Velasquez]; his last fight against [Jairzinho Rozenstruik], boom, he took him out right away. But I wasn’t out.

“Obviously, if there is a fight for the [vacant title], Ngannou would be there, but I hope they’d look at me and think I’m a natural for that, too. Look at what I’ve done.”

He has one more hurdle to cover and then the issue is essentially out of his hands. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Blaydes is a mountain of a man. But Volkov is 6-7, 250 and has long legs that help him cover a great distance in a hurry.

To Blaydes, the key for the fight is to take away Volkov’s space so he doesn’t have the room to do his teep kicks and other leg attacks.

Bettors are backing him to be able to do it and keep his streak rolling. At the MGM Grand Sports Book, he’s been bet up to a -400 favorite. Volkov is at +310.

Another win puts Blaydes on the verge of making his dream come true.

“A title would mean I’m the best at what I do,” he said. “It’s a long journey to get to that point. There is so much that goes into it and so much you don’t always hear about. But to get to the top, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears a lot of sacrifice. That’s why it always means so much because you knew what it took to get there.”

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