Curtis Blaydes has never forgotten about the unfinished business he’s had with Francis Ngannou that stretches back more than two years.
The first time he faced the heavyweight behemoth was in his UFC debut back in 2016 and Blaydes will admit that while he was ready for the fight, he wasn’t quite prepared for the pomp and circumstance that surrounded an event of that magnitude.
Blaydes was able to adjust to the bright lights as the fight got underway but unfortunately he absorbed too much damage to his eye and the cage side physician ultimately stopped the contest after the second round was finished.
“When they’re announcing your name and just looking out into the crowd, it makes you feel small. That was a lot,” Blaydes admitted when speaking to MMAWeekly. “It was the biggest stage I ever fought at. That was the most people I ever had watching me live or on TV. I was on the main card for that fight. It was just a lot. I’m not going to blame it on that.
“I still think I could have won that fight if I would have had that last round. I think he was slowing down and I was about to pick up steam. That’s how I fight. I pick it up as the rounds move on. My style is built on attrition. I want to continue to come at you with the same pace and the same intensity from the first round until the fifth round. I feel I could have won that fight but the doctor came in, he did his job, my eye was swollen and Ngannou won.”
That defeat is the only blemish on Blaydes’ UFC record but he’s not holding on the loss out of some sense of revenge.
The problem Blaydes has with that particular fight is that he never actually got the chance to finish it and that’s stuck with him ever since.
“That probably is the most difficult thing. If he just knocked me out, it is what it is, but to have that unknown possibility that I could have won that, it hurts a little more,” Blaydes stated.
Blaydes has gone on a tear while staying undefeated for six straight fights including three wins by knockout with his last two victories coming against a pair of former title contenders in Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt.
In fact, looking back at that first fight with Ngannou from 2016, Blaydes barely recognizes the guy who stepped into the Octagon that night.
“I went into that fight with honestly just a good jab,” Blaydes said. “I didn’t have any type of combinations. I didn’t have angles, counters, I didn’t even understand how to counter. The footwork I’ve built on each camp I’ve had here at Team Elevation. My footwork and my cardio are just leaps and bounds above where they were when we last fought.”
As Blaydes has rocketed up the rankings with his recent win streak, Ngannou has traveled a much different road to this rematch.
Following their first fight, Ngannou starting tearing through the heavyweight division with a series of brutal finishes that earned him a title shot against former champion Stipe Miocic in early 2018. Unfortunately for him that night, Ngannou was out wrestled, out worked and ultimately out fought by Miocic over five straight rounds.
It was a humiliating defeat after there was so much hype surrounding Ngannou going into the fight and then he followed that up with a bizarre outing against Derrick Lewis back in July. On that night, Ngannou refused to engage and spent the majority of the fight just standing in front of Lewis with neither heavyweight willing to test the other one’s power.
Ngannou ended up losing a decision with even more questions surrounding his future as one of the best heavyweights in the sport.
“I thought he looked tentative, he looked like he didn’t believe in his striking,” Blaydes said about Ngannou’s performance against Lewis. “If you don’t believe in it, you’re not going to pull the trigger. If I can tell he’s not going to pull the trigger, I’m going to get a lot more aggressive. Obviously in the beginning, I’m going to be cautious but if I can tell that he doesn’t want to strike, I’m going to get aggressive. I think that’s his biggest issue.
“He seems to have lost his swagger. He doesn’t have it no more. That’s to my benefit.”
If Ngannou approaches the rematch with Blaydes with the same mindset that he did in the fight with Lewis, it could be another really bad night for him at the office.
That said, Blaydes isn’t discounting the kind of danger Ngannou possesses but he still feels like even if the Cameroon native is at his best, it still won’t be enough.
“He does have power. I’m not going to bad mouth him. He has heavy hands. We all know this,” Blaydes said. “But if he doesn’t believe in his power, that’s better for me. Even if he does believe, my game plan is the same.
“I’m going to take him down, I’m going to gas him out. I’m in better condition than he is but if he makes it easier by not being aggressive, I’ll take advantage of it.”