Firmly established with the Team Elevation squad in Colorado and racing up the heavyweight ladder as he prepares for this weekend’s UFC 221 co-main event with Mark Hunt in Perth, No. 9-ranked contender Curtis Blaydes never forgets where he came from. But when asked if he was the big fish in a small pond when it came to training in his home city of Chicago, he laughs.
“I wouldn’t say I was the big fish. I would say it was more like I was the only fish in the pond," he said.
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Blaydes had dedicated coaches and training partners in the Windy City, but in Denver, it’s a whole new ballgame, and he noticed the difference immediately.
“Since I’m in the UFC now, it’s a lot easier to get guys to come and train with me,” he said. “I can tell them I train at Duane Ludwig’s or I train at Easton’s - gyms that other guys have heard of. I have coaches other guys have heard of, so they’re not as reluctant to come join me. It’s a lot easier to bring guys out to train.
“And my training’s better in every way,” Blaydes continues. “I have coaches and a team that support me, guys on the team are in the UFC, veterans like Neil Magny, Drew Dober and Bojan Velickovic, and I can talk to them and they help me navigate my career. It’s all-around better being here for MMA.”
His performances back up that claim, with his evolution clear in his 2017 efforts against Adam Milstead, Daniel Omielanczuk and Aleksei Oleinik. It was in the November bout with Oleinik at Madison Square Garden where the 26-year-old truly seemed to arrive, as he pressured and pressured the Russian vet until the Octagonside physician stepped in to halt the bout in the second round. In a nutshell, that was “Razor” Blaydes, a young man comfortable in the heat of the battle and willing to turn that heat up until an opponent breaks.
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“That comes directly from my wrestling background,” he said. “I’ve been through the wringer from high school to going to wrestle Division I and then transferring to JUCO. I’ve been through some tough practices, I’ve had some tough matches where I won on not being better – I just had more heart. I may not always be the better technician, but you’re not going to beat me because you’re in better condition or have more heart than me. You might beat me, but it won’t be because of those two things. I know when I smell blood in the water, I know when a guy is on the verge of breaking and I know how to push him over the edge.”
It’s what makes this weekend’s bout an intriguing one. Hunt is a veteran who has seen and done it all in the fight game, and he’s been in those sweat, blood and spit flying bouts. He also has the kind of power that can turn out the lights in a split second. But Blaydes embraces a brawl, and with his college wrestling background, he can take Hunt to a place he doesn’t want to go. And he plans on doing just that.
“Obviously this is MMA, not wrestling, and you do have to build other skills, but first and foremost, I am a wrestler and whenever I get a chance to get a guy on the ground, I want to do it,” Blaydes said. “I feel like everyone’s a lion when they’re standing up. But not everybody can be a shark in the water. And on the ground, that’s what I feel like – I feel like I’m a shark and I drown people on the ground.”
And he doesn’t mind going to Australia to do it.
“There’s pressure in every fight,” he said. “If anyone denies it, they’re crazy. But going to Australia doesn’t add any pressure. Once you go into the cage, it doesn’t matter if it’s in Australia, Brazil, Chicago. You have to fight.”
Curtis Blaydes will do just that, and if he beats Hunt, it’s a statement that he’s ready to throw his name into the title race.
“I feel like this is my year,” he said. “Based off the progress I’ve made since I’ve been here with Team Elevation, I think it’s time to put my stamp on the heavyweight rankings in the UFC and make a legitimate charge at the belt.”