The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s long-awaited return to Columbus, Ohio, likely will not live up to the standards set by its predecessor in London, but it should provide the requisite level of entertainment. There is a little bit of everything with the UFC on ESPN 33 main card this Saturday at Nationwide Arena, led by heavyweight contenders Curtis Blaydes and Chris Daukaus squaring off in an important headliner. However, the stakes are probably highest a bit further down the bill, as either Askar Askarov or Kai Kara France figures to be in the catbird seat for a flyweight title shot with a win. Beyond that, there is an intriguing women’s flyweight co-main event between Joanne Wood and Alexa Grasso, along with some veteran clashes that promise both violence and strangeness: Matt Brown-Bryan Barberena at welterweight and Ilir Latifi-Alexey Oleynik at heavyweight. Mix in a compelling opener in which Viacheslav Borshchev attempts to keep his momentum going against a former top prospect in Marc Diakiese, and this has the look of a solid six-bout slate.
Now to the UFC on ESPN 33′ Blaydes vs. Daukaus’ preview:
#4 HW | Curtis Blaydes (15-3, 10-3 UFC) vs. #9 HW | Chris Daukaus (12-4, 4-1 UFC)
ODDS: Blaydes (-400), Daukaus (+300)
For as steady as Blaydes has been during his time on the UFC roster, his march towards heavyweight glory has often been a frustrating tightrope act. A massive man, Blaydes was highly regarded enough that he was the betting favorite upon his 2016 debut against Francis Ngannou; and while that fight ended in a loss, Blaydes did show the powerful wrestling game that resulted in so much hype, as well as the durability to take multiple brutal shots from the current heavyweight champ. From there, it was a slow climb up the ladder. Blaydes showed some much-improved striking to supplement his brutal ground-and-pound skills, until his momentum was once again stopped by Ngannou in a rematch—this time in much quicker fashion, with the Frenchman closing the show in just 45 seconds. So the process repeated itself once again. Blaydes’ wrestling was enough to handily dispatch most opponents, and “Razor” occasionally mixed things up by relying on his striking, in this case during an impressive 2020 main event victory over Junior dos Santos. However, just as Blaydes was once again on the verge of a title shot, his winning streak was once again stopped by a power puncher in just one moment. Derrick Lewis got outboxed by Blaydes for the better part of a round before suddenly flattening him with a counter to a takedown attempt. After a wrestling-heavy win over Jairzinho Rozenstruik in September, Blaydes looks to once again clear out the rest of the heavyweight ranks to either finally get into the title picture or to get knocked out again and prove himself to be Sisyphus reborn as a heavyweight wrestler . That process continues here against Daukaus.
Daukaus’ rise through the ranks was mostly unexpected. The Philadelphia native had put together a solid resume by regional standards heading into his late-notice 2020 debut, but a 2019 loss to Azunna Anyanwu particularly stood out as an omen that he could be cowed by more imposing competition. Instead, Daukaus put those doubts to rest without much issue, racking up four straight knockouts in impressive fashion. While Daukaus is not a particularly large heavyweight, his relative speed and fast hands allowed him to march forward, pick his spots and clip his opponents, with a September win over Shamil Abdurakhimov putting him in the fringe contender mix. However, his main event loss to Lewis in the UFC’s last fight of 2021, was a rough look. With the threat of Lewis’ massive knockout power, Daukaus struggled to find an opening to pressure and was eventually sent moving backwards himself on route to a first-round knockout. While Blaydes presents a much different threat, Daukaus may arrive at the same problem. He has fast-enough hands to catch Blaydes on the feet, but any attempt to apply some pressure seems like it will just leave things open for a takedown, which appears to be a surefire path to victory given the Elevation Fight Team rep’s wrestling skill and massive size advantage. There is always a chance for Blaydes to suffer another stunning knockout, but he has taken the most crushing hitters in the sport to actually put his lights out, so the biggest questions here seem to center around whether he can pound out enough offense to score a finish or if Daukaus can be slippery enough to survive for 25 minutes. The pick is Blaydes via third-round stoppage.
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Grasso vs. Wood