Two heavyweights heading in opposite directions will collide for a second time in Beijing.
When Francis Ngannou and Curtis Blaydes meet in a rematch on Saturday at UFC Beijing, the circumstances will be considerably different from their first fight. Back in April 2016, Ngannou was looking to capitalize on an impressive knockout of Luis Henrique in his UFC debut, while Blaydes was just beginning his career in the Octagon. Ngannou defeated Blaydes via doctor stoppage, part of a six-fight UFC win streak that earned him a shot at then-champion Stipe Miocic.
The fearsome Ngannou would be soundly humbled in his title opportunity and then see his reputation tarnished further in a listless decision loss to Derrick Lewis; meanwhile, Blaydes hasn’t lost since faltering against Ngannou, and he can claim convincing wins over the likes of Alistair Overeem and Mark Hunt.
Will Ngannou continue his slide, or will he bounce back and steal Blaydes’s thunder?
In other main card action, Overeem is tasked with spoiling the debut of unbeaten heavyweight Sergey Pavlovich, 20-year-old bantamweight wunderkind Song Yadong looks to improve to 3-0 in the UFC when he takes on short-notice replacement Vince Morales, and welterweight slugger Li Jingliang meets fellow knockout artist David Zawada.
What: UFC Beijing
Where: Cadillac Arena in Beijing, China
When: Saturday, Nov. 24. The entire card will air on UFC Fight Pass, with the eight-fight preliminary portion beginning at 3:15 a.m. ET, and the four-fight main card beginning at 6:30 a.m. ET.
So much of how this matchup plays out depends on what Francis Ngannou shows up on fight night. Will it be the prodigious destroyer of worlds that had the UFC salivating over the possibility of him wearing the heavyweight crown? Or the timid kitten that hardly threw a dozen strikes in his last outing? It’s anybody’s guess.
Even considering how their first fight went, the advantage has to go to Curtis Blaydes on paper this time around. He’s not the homerun hitter that Ngannou is, but his wrestling has allowed him to dominate his opponents and either cruise to clear-cut decisions or pound them out inside the distance. As much as Ngannou has regressed in his last two fights, Blaydes has gone the other way, looking more mature and well-rounded with every outing.
You can’t blame anyone for hoping that the Ngannou’s performance against Lewis was a blip on the radar, a career-worst outing that we’ll look back on someday as an aberration. But picking him to beat Blaydes based on what we’ve recently seen would be irrational. Blaydes will be able to take Ngannou down again and this time, he won’t get back up.
If the UFC is looking to get Alistair Overeem back on track, they haven’t done him any favors matching him up with a stud like Sergey Pavlovich. Overeem certainly represents a significant step up in competition for the undefeated Russian, the question is how much of one?
The margin of error for Overeem is so low these days, especially whenever he’s paired up with a younger fighter both capable of absorbing more damage and landing a one-punch KO. Pavlovich’s chin is mostly untested, but he’s shown himself to have good defensive skills and an overhand right that only needs to land once to put Overeem on skates. He also has a wrestling background that will have Overeem thinking twice about opening up his kickboxing arsenal.
With respect to Overeem, at 38 years old he’s constantly having to deal with an athleticism disadvantage and that will be apparent on Saturday when he steps into the cage with the hulking Pavlovich. He’ll want to feel things out at first and his opponent won’t give him that chance.
So far, Pavlovich has either finished fast or gone the distance. In this one, I’m favoring the former.
Song Yadong continued to look like a star in the making in his second UFC outing against Felipe Arantes, an opponent 10 years his senior. He’s incredibly light on his feet, which combined with his patience makes him deadly. His work at Team Alpha Male has given him a strong wrestling base from which to work and he’s shown off an effective top control game.
He’ll have to be careful standing with Morales, a scrappy bantamweight who can surprise opponents with his unorthodox movements. The 28-year-old lulls you into sleep with his loose stance and if Yadong isn’t careful, he could catch a counter-strike that puts him on his back. Where Morales has shown limitations is in his ground game. The grappling control of Yadong could frustrate Morales and if he tries to sweep or escape without the proper set-up he will end up in even deeper waters.
Look for Morales — who’s taking this fight on less than three weeks’ notice — to put on a good showing before eventually succumbing to a submission or ground-and-pound from Yadong.
Speaking of fighters accepting bouts on short notice, David Zawada had less than a month to prepare for Li Jingliang. It shouldn’t be too much of a factor though as the game plan for both fighters is usually simple: get in there and be aggressive.
Jingliang is always entertaining, but I actually like Zawada’s chances in this one. There’s no question these two will engage freely in the striking department and it could be Zawada’s slight reach advantage that makes the difference. He’s also comfortable mixing it up on the mat and he can threaten with takedowns should it come to that. That’s a good option to have if he senses that Jingliang is bringing too much heat.
Don’t expect this bout to be on the ground for too long though as Jingliang and Zawada will likely form a silent agreement early on to hunt for the Fight of the Night. It should go to the scorecards with Zawada eking out the decision.