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Curtis Blaydes: Francis Ngannou could be feeling pressure after back-to-back losses

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Ahead of their rematch at UFC Beijing, the careers of Curtis Blaydes and Francis Ngannou are going in opposite directions.

Blaydes has won five straight (excluding a victory that was overturned to a no-contest when Blaydes tested positive for marijuana) since losing his UFC debut in April 2016, while Ngannou is currently on a two-fight skid. That might make this an odd matchup to run back, but it makes more sense when one considers that it’s Ngannou who handed Blaydes his only loss.

When the two clash again in Saturday’s main event, Blaydes could end up moving one step closer to a heavyweight title shot or see his momentum stolen by his rival. Appearing on The MMA Hour, Blaydes told that while he isn’t sure where Ngannou sits in the rankings after losing two straight fights, he knows it’s possible that Ngannou’s mindset might not be where it needs to be.

“I don’t know. I’ve never had a two-fight losing streak, but if I project, I’m thinking he’s probably feeling a bit of pressure right now,” Blaydes said. “He knows if he loses another one it doesn’t look good. That would be three back-to-back-to-back losses in one year. He’s a fan favorite, but you can still get released after that, so I know he’s got a little bit of pressure on him and that might make him press. When guys start pressing, they make mistakes and it usually gets worse.”

Beyond Ngannou’s recent travails, it’s the improvements that Blaydes has made to his own game that have him most excited about fighting Ngannou again. A junior college wrestling champion who also had success at the Division-I level, Blaydes considers himself to be a much more complete fighter than he was two years ago.

Repeat and thorough viewings of the first Ngannou fight have instilled in him the belief that if he knew then what he knows now, his 10-1 (1 NC) record would still be unblemished.

“I haven’t watched it in a few months now, but I’ve watched it at least a dozen times,” Blaydes said. “I’ve picked it apart, all the things I did wrong, all the mistakes I made, all the ways I could have won. I had plenty of opportunities to win that fight. When I took him down the first time, I allowed him to get an underhook and just get back up. Had I had the knowledge I have today, I would have easily been able to counter that underhook and hold him down and ground and pound him. He didn’t have great conditioning then, he doesn’t have great conditioning now. I know if I hold him down for two to three minutes, he’ll be gassed, he’ll be done for.

“That right there just lets me know I could have beat him back then with all the holes I have in my game and today I’m ten times better than the version of myself that debuted that day. So I know I can win. I have so many different ways to win now. I don’t have to wrestle, but most likely I will wrestle because I know that’s his weakest area of MMA.”

Blaydes didn’t want to discredit Ngannou completely, especially considering that their fight at UFC Croatia ended with a TKO (doctor stoppage) win for Ngannou. He acknowledged that Ngannou hits “extremely hard”, and though he might not have the punching power of Mark Hunt (who Blaydes defeated in February), he said Ngannou has “hammers in those fists.”

Asked if he thought Ngannou could have suffered any long term physical or psychological damage from his one-sided title fight loss to Stipe Miocic — which Ngannou followed with a widely panned unanimous decision loss to Derrick Lewis — Blaydes could only speculate and hope that isn’t the case.

“If it led to that, then I would probably retire,” Blaydes said of whether he thought Ngannou’s corner could have done a better job of protecting him in the Miocic fight. “If I can’t pull the trigger in a fight, that’s just not smart to go into a fight like that. You have to go into a fight believing in all your tools and he doesn’t have a lot of tools, but the one tool he does have is a nasty overhand. So if you don’t believe in that, then you shouldn’t be in the Octagon. You can get hurt.

“If he goes in there and he fights me the way he fought Derrick Lewis, it’ll be really bad for him. I’m hoping he’s in a better place in his head right now, that he believes in his skill set, because I want him to be at his best. I don’t want any excuses from the fans or pundits or anyone. I want him to come out guns blazing.”