It’s been a long road for Curtis Blaydes since he suffered a loss in his UFC debut.

Back in 2016, Blaydes took a fight against another top heavyweight prospect named Francis Ngannou on a UFC Fight Night card in Croatia.

While he held his own for two rounds, Blaydes was ultimately stopped by the doctors who wouldn’t let him continue due to swelling around his eye. It was the first and only loss of Blaydes’ UFC career and one he hopes to avenge this weekend when he rematches Ngannou at UFC Fight Night Beijing.

Now Blaydes won’t discount the experience he gained by facing Ngannou more than two years ago. Looking back now, he barely recognizes the fighter he was during his UFC debut.

“I went into that fight with honestly just a good jab,” Blaydes said ahead of the main event showdown. “I didn’t have any type of combinations. I didn’t have angles, counters, I didn’t even understand how to counter. The footwork I’ve built on each camp I’ve had here at Team Elevation. My footwork and my cardio are just leaps and bounds above where they were when we last fought.”

No excuses

Add to that, Blaydes readily admits that his nerves got to him that night but he’ll never use that as an excuse as to why he lost.

On that night, Ngannou was just the better man but Blaydes has grown a lot since feeling like a deer caught in the headlights that night.

“Just all the lights, when they’re announcing your name and just looking out into the crowd, it makes you feel small,” Blaydes said. “That was a lot. It was the biggest stage I ever fought at. That was the most people I ever had watching me live or on TV. I was on the main card for that fight. It was just a lot.

“I’m not going to blame it on that. I still think I could have won that fight if I would have had that last round. I think he was slowing down and I was about to pick up steam. That’s how I fight. I pick it up as the rounds move on. My style is built on attrition. I want to continue to come at you with the same pace and the same intensity from the first round until the fifth round. I feel I could have won that fight but the doctor came in. He did his job, my eye was swollen and Ngannou won.”

Blaydes has accomplished a lot since that initial loss in the UFC.

He’s gone undefeated over his past six fights including a TKO against Alistair Overeem in his last contest as well as a dominant win over Mark Hunt prior to that.

Opposite trajectories

Meanwhile, Ngannou has gone on the opposite trajectory lately after suffering a lopsided loss to former heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic at the start of 2018 and then putting on a truly bizarre performance in a defeat to Derrick Lewis in July.

“I thought he looked tentative, he looked like he didn’t believe in his striking,” Blaydes said about Ngannou in his last fight. “If you don’t believe in it, you’re not going to pull the trigger. If I can tell he’s not going to pull the trigger, I’m going to get a lot more aggressive. Obviously in the beginning, I’m going to be cautious but if I can tell that he doesn’t want to strike, I’m going to get aggressive.

“I think that’s his biggest issue. He seems to have lost his swagger. He doesn’t have it no more. That’s to my benefit.”

Even if Ngannou has lost confidence through those two losses, Blaydes knows the Cameroon native still packs a serious punch with every shot he throws.

Blaydes didn’t know that much about Ngannou the first time they met but he’s studied his opponent this time around and he knows what to expect when he step into the cage together on Saturday.

“He does have power. I’m not going to bad mouth him. He has heavy hands. We all know this,” Blaydes said. “But if he doesn’t believe in his power, that’s better for me. Even if he does believe, my game plan is the same.

“I’m going to take him down, I’m going to gas him out. I’m in better condition than he is but if he makes it easier by not being aggressive, I’ll take advantage of it.”

Consolation prize

Blaydes was hoping following his last two fights that he’d be in line for a shot at the UFC heavyweight title but unfortunately that didn’t happen.

Getting the opportunity to avenge his only UFC loss was still a good option and one Blaydes is happy to take.

“I knew DC [Daniel Cormier] was going after Brock [Lesnar] so that wasn’t an option. So really the only option was [Francis] Ngannou,” Blaydes said.

“I guess this is the best consolation prize I could have got. In that way, I’m happy.”