Saturday’s Fight Night event was originally supposed to take place in Saskatoon, but the coronavirus pandemic derailed the UFC’s return to Canada. It now goes down at the UFC APEX in Las Vegas, where despite all the moving parts the main event managed to stay intact.
Two of the UFC’s top heavyweight contenders, Curtis Blaydes and Alexander Volkov, are featured in a classic grappler vs. striker headliner with the winner set to inch closer to a potential title shot.
There’s a reason Blaydes is a heavy betting favourite heading into the bout. The former collegiate wrestler has perhaps the best wrestling skills of anyone in the division besides Daniel Cormier. His 45 takedowns are the most in UFC heavyweight history. Still, his striking has become increasingly more dangerous and he even finished former champion Junior Dos Santos on his feet in his most recent outing in January.
Blaydes’ bread and butter, though, is when he can get top position and land ground-and-pound attacks. His elbows in particular are some of the most vicious in the sport – just ask Alistair Overeem and Shamil Abdurakhimov after Blaydes altered the landscape of each of their faces.
Volkov’s best chance of beating Blaydes is to keep this fight standing and pick him apart from the outside. At 6-foot-7, Volkov is one of the tallest fighters ever to compete in the UFC — but if he’s on his back that won’t matter. He likes throwing knees, but he must be wary of doing so and giving up easy takedowns against Blaydes.
One key element to consider in this matchup is the fact fights contested at the UFC APEX take place in the organization’s smaller, 25-foot Octagon instead of the more frequently used 30-foot cage.
A smaller cage means there’ll be less space for Volkov to navigate and this will make it easier for Blaydes to close the distance if and when he chooses to grapple.
Volkov (31-7) isn’t a one-punch knockout artist, but he’s an accurate volume striker with some pop. And that’s how he ended up earning the biggest win of his career in 2018, when he put away former champ Fabricio Werdum.
Following that win, Volkov was on the verge of a title shot and was mere seconds away from defeating Derrick Lewis at UFC 229 before “The Black Beast” pulled off a memorable come-from-behind knockout. Instead of playing it conservative and circling around the cage for the final 18 seconds, Volkov continued engaging and it cost him.
After taking more than a year off, the Moscow native returned this past November and handed Greg Hardy his first real MMA loss. The former Bellator and M-1 Global heavyweight champion is a dangerous and fairly well-rounded fighter, although he has been susceptible to takedowns in the past and that’s what this fight is likely to boil down to.
Blaydes is 13-2 with one no-contest in his professional MMA career. The 29-year-old is coming into the fight ranked as the No. 3 contender at heavyweight behind only Cormier and Francis Ngannou with the only blemishes on his record being a pair of losses to Ngannou. One was a doctor’s stoppage in his short-notice UFC debut in 2016. The other was a 45-second TKO in 2018.
Since Ngannou is next in line and waiting to fight the winner of Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic, which is set for Aug. 15, a win over Volkov won’t result in an immediate title shot for Blaydes barring unforeseen circumstances. It would, however, keep his name in the conversation and the rest of the division on notice. Same goes for Volkov if he can pull off the upset.
Here’s a look at the entire card:
• Curtis Blaydes vs. Alexander Volkov
• Josh Emmett vs. Shane Burgos
• Raquel Pennington vs. Marion Reneau
• Belal Muhammad vs. Lyman Good
• Jim Miller vs. Roosevelt Roberts
• Clay Guida vs. Bobby Green
• Tecia Torres vs. Brianna Van Buren
• Marc-André Barriault vs. Oskar Piechota
• Cortney Casey vs. Gillian Robertson
• Roxanne Modafferi vs. Lauren Murphy
• Austin Hubbard vs. Max Rohskopf