UFC Fight Night 148: Thompson vs. Pettis - Predictions and Picks
- The UFC returns to Nashville this weekend with a hell of a headliner, as Stephen Thompson takes on Anthony Pettis. But who will win?
#2 Curtis Blaydes vs. Justin Willis
As 2018 came towards its end, it looked like Curtis Blaydes would be closing in on a Heavyweight title shot. The hulking wrestler was coming off back-to-back wins over veteran contenders Mark Hunt and Alistair Overeem and looked great in both fights, and only Francis Ngannou – who was responsible for his only loss in the UFC in 7 fights – stood in his way.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go the way of ‘Razor’, as he was knocked out by Ngannou in just 45 seconds. Blaydes attempted to protest the stoppage, but if he wasn’t out, he was definitely in trouble and it was certainly a justified call from the referee. Depending on how this upcoming fight goes though, it could be considered a blessing in disguise. Blaydes might well be the future UFC Heavyweight champion, but at 28 he’s still very young and a title shot this year probably would’ve been too much, too soon.
He’s faced with a fellow young gun here in the form of American Kickboxing Academy’s Justin Willis, an unbeaten fighter who recently outpointed Mark Hunt in December. ‘Big Pretty’ is 4-0 in the UFC, 8-1 overall, and appears to have some excellent skills that belie his flabby frame. In that sense, he’s very similar to his teammate, current UFC Heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
Willis’ biggest strength appears to be his striking game. Despite coming in at nearly the limit for the Heavyweight division at around 265lbs, Willis is surprisingly sprightly on the feet, and puts together quick, sharp combinations based around some nifty footwork and a decent jab. This was on show in his victory over Hunt, although it must be noted that Hunt looked terrible in that fight, and seemingly didn’t want to be in the Octagon.
That style does seem to be a major plus point against Blaydes, who is still a developing striker for the most part. Blaydes has power, but he remains extremely hittable, as we saw against Ngannou. He was also rocked pretty badly by Hunt before recovering to dominate him on the ground, and he was also hit pretty heavily by Overeem, and also by Alexei Oleinik in their 2017 fight. It must be said though that he does have a good chin – Ngannou knockout aside, he’s always recovered from big shots well and despite his unusual power, even Ngannou couldn’t knock him completely out.
Where Blaydes excels is in his wrestling. A couple more takedowns would allow him to break the record for most takedowns in UFC Heavyweight history – a record which currently belongs to Willis’ teammate Cain Velasquez. And while Hunt, Overeem, and Oleinik aren’t known for their stellar takedown defense, it’s hard to see anyone stopping Blaydes’ double leg.
At 6’4” and 265lbs, Blaydes is simply a huge, powerful athlete, and he probably would’ve gone on to become an NCAA All-American had he remained in education – he did win the NJCAA National Championship at Harper College, for instance. That means he’s one of the best wrestlers in the division, point blank – and while training with Cormier and Velasquez should prepare Willis well, it’s notable that Blaydes is much bigger than both men.
I’m going with Blaydes here for a couple of reasons; firstly, I’m not sure that Willis can defend Blaydes’ takedowns, and if Blaydes does get him down, he’s pretty ruthless with his ground striking and we’ve seen nothing from Willis on his back yet. Secondly, despite his striking skills, Willis doesn’t seem to pack all that much power – he couldn’t finish James Mulheron or Chase Sherman for instance, and Blaydes does have a good chin.
That could be something to do with the fact that Willis just isn’t a big Heavyweight – at 6’1” he probably shouldn’t be weighing 265lbs, and against a genuinely huge guy in Blaydes, I think that could come home to roost. This might be a bit of a wake-up call for Willis in fact, faced with a hulking wrestler in Blaydes who’s equally as fast as he is. ‘Big Pretty’ has skills, but I think he’s outmatched here.
The Pick: Blaydes via unanimous decision