Curtis Blaydes wants to clear up a misconception about him.
Yes, the UFC heavyweight has a speech impediment. No, it’s not related to his career as a fighter.
“I’ve had my speech impediment since … all my life,” Blaydes told The Post over the phone Wednesday. “All I can remember, I [have] had a speech impediment. So it doesn’t have anything to do with getting hit in the head or CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) or anything like that.”
Blaydes (14-2, 10 finishes), who will headline Saturday’s UFC Fight Night event on ESPN+ against Derrick Lewis at UFC Apex in Las Vegas, is no stranger to the toxic words of the less informed — or just plain mean-spirited — when it comes to stuttering. Long before he was one of the top big men in MMA, fueled by an unapologetic lean on takedowns and ground strikes to secure victories, he had considered walking a far more peaceful professional path as a history teacher.
“But then I realized kids are mean,” Blaydes said. “I can’t be in a classroom with them for eight hours.”
Those former academic dreams underscore another fallacy he’s observed, one that “annoys him” and, he imagines, those like him with speech disorders.
“There [are] so many people who just think, if you cannot speak … medically correct, that you’re not intelligent” Blaydes said. “… Contrary to popular belief, a lot of us who have speech impediments are really, really intelligent.”
Winning at the highest level of mixed martial arts affords Blaydes, who maintains an interest in European history and the Civil Wars as well as Black history, the platform to debunk such myths. But being such a visible figure in the UFC the past few years opens the door for more criticism — professionally, rather than personally.
Case in point: Blaydes’ most recent victory over Alexander Volkov last June. In that fight, the 2012 NJCAA national champion wrestler at Harper College (Ill.) leaned heavily on takedowns against the Russian, beginning with a successful single-leg less than 10 seconds into the evening’s main event. He would be credited with 14 takedowns in all by UFC Stats over the course of a five-round decision victory, although his lower striking output coupled with Volkov finally finding breathing room to pile up effective offense with his own strikes gave away the final two rounds on the judges’ scorecards.
Blaydes’ performance drew sharp criticism from Dana White. The UFC president told reporters after the fight that Blaydes was “gassed out at the end of the third round,” after what he termed talking “a lot of s–t coming in this week.”
The 6-foot-4 Blaydes, who weighed in at 261 pounds for that bout, admits he was at first “a little bit” surprised to receive another headlining opportunity against Lewis (24-7, 20 finishes), a bruising knockout artist not known for takedown defense. Blaydes suggested ahead of the Volkov fight that the UFC was protecting Lewis.
“I don’t have a preference on headlining or being on the co-main [event] or whatever. I don’t really have a preference. But I do understand that, when you are a headliner, that does carry a little bit of weight,” Blaydes said. “It means that the UFC believes in you enough to have you headline and be the one to carry a card. So I understand the significance of it and appreciate the vote of confidence that the UFC has put in me.”
Saturday will mark the fourth time and third in a row in which Blaydes competes in a five-round main attraction — the seventh for Lewis, a former heavyweight title contender who lost his November 2018 challenger against Daniel Cormier at Madison Square Garden. The two were originally scheduled to headline against one another last Nov. 28, but Blaydes was forced to pull out a day earlier when he tested positive for the coronavirus.
Blaydes, who trains with Denver-based Elevation Fight Team, said that he didn’t develop any of the respiratory issues associated with COVID-19 but did suffer from muscle aches, chills and a high fever.
“I wasn’t really able to move around for, like, four days,” Blaydes said. “So we had to hang out here in Vegas at an Airbnb until I was healthy enough to drive back to Colorado.”
So for the second time since Thanksgiving, an octagon date with Lewis looms. Conventional wisdom would point to Blaydes once again harnessing takedowns and ground strikes to wear down his 36-year-old opponent. Lewis holds the record for UFC heavyweight knockouts (11), although his latest victory in August — a TKO of Aleksei Oleinik, who at 43 also competes Saturday at UFC Apex against Chris Daukaus — is his only one by finish in his past five outings.
But Blaydes asserts he believes in his standup striking, which he pointed out was what won him the day against former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos last January as he scored his first standup-based TKO in the UFC.
“I’ve already shown that I can strike,” Blaydes said. “… The only way to make me have to strike with you is [for] you to defend my wrestling, and that’s what Junior dos Santos did. He stopped all my takedowns in the first round, and I knocked him off his feet in the next round. I can adjust if I have to, but why would I?”
Blaydes’ takedown-heavy approach often isn’t the most popular with viewers. He knows he can’t control their feelings, but he won’t apologize for what sees as “the path of least resistance” for him to get his hand raised and get closer to the first championship fight of his career. In his view, any displeasure with his focus on taking the action to the mat is misdirected.
“I never understand why fans get upset that I wrestle,” Blaydes said. “I feel like they should take that anger and direct it at my opponent for allowing me to take them down at will.”