One sentence summary
Phil: The mighty Jan of Rivia attempts to claim UFC gold against some guy who did OK against the guy who used to hold the light heavyweight strap
David: This is for a title?!
Record: Dominick Reyes 12-1 | Jan Blachowicz 26-8
Odds: Dominick Reyes -245 | Jan Blachowicz +225
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: When Reyes began his UFC career, he was one of those maybe/maybe not prospects whose ceiling you don’t care about because he’s just such an electric fighter (think Charles Oliveira, or Edson Barboza). But then he found another gear, and now here we are, still talking about that Jon Jones title fight. And since we’re still talking about it, I didn’t have a problem with Jones winning (the decision itself however is another matter). I thought Jones, in the most Jones-way possible, pressed the action more than Reyes, who seemed content to ride the coattails of his early work. I think people get so caught up in the perception that Jones looks beatable that they forget he has looked beatable for many many years. Not enough credit goes to how he adjusts, however awkwardly or slowly he does so. Crap. This is about Dom! Sorry, Dom!
Phil: Dominic Reyes is that rarest of things at light heavyweight: a prospect who does not explode into a cloud of disappointment midway through the hype cycle. Everyone knows the drill- there’s an athletic young fighter on the 205 block who looks like they’ve got something like a cohesive game, and then it is gleefully deconstructed like a poorly constructed lego set by OSP or Glover, and then we all sigh and go back to the drawing board. Instead, Reyes looked like a murderer in his early UFC career, and adjusted to the harder fights towards the top of the division (Oezdemir, and later Jones) with an aplomb and professionalism which belied his years. He’s dynamic, has an approach that makes sense, can fight through tough decisions, what’s not to like? Well I’ll tell you: I’m not having it. I don’t want “good” “well-trained” light heavyweights. This division has burned that desire out of me. The only thing left in the scorched husk is a desire for janky loons and flawed, cut-rate gems. What does Reyes bring to the weirdness table? A freakily long back? Jug ears? It’s just not good enough. Unacceptable.
David: I’ve always appreciated your eccentric love of all things Blachowicz. But the last time I asked you this question, I feel like you gave me a non-answer. What is it Phil?! This is a safe space, my brother. Although oddly enough, I’m on the opposite end of the spectrum. I don’t sympathize with fighters who fight through their weaknesses. Why do you think everyone hated the twist about the aliens in Signs? I can live with seeing elite fighters fight beyond their limitations when those limitations are forced on them. But seeing them fight with limitations is like looking at an English bulldog wearing a Margot Robbie mask.
Phil: What’s not to love? Jan Blachowicz was an absolute jobber in the 205lb division who dropped terrible fights to people who were not very good. He was a power puncher who didn’t hit hard enough to finish people, and didn’t have the cardio to survive failing to knock them out, leading to execrable performances against Patrick Cummins and Jimi Manuwa. He has a retirement loss to Sokoudjou on his record! Outside the first frame! Then he turned it all around. He became a legitimate outside striking threat; he learned how to survive over time; he avenged some of his losses in decisive ways. To cap it off, he gave us one of the funniest KOs (and overall fights) I’ve ever seen when he clobbered Luke Rockhold. Basically I love him and will only accept him losing to Thiago Santos at this point.
What’s at stake?
Phil: For all my Blachowicz love, I honestly forgot this was for a title. It is genuinely hard to remember a time when Jones or Cormier wasn’t the man to beat in this division. If Reyes wins, there is at least a justified sense of continuation (as when Hendricks beat Lawler, seemingly validating the contentious decision against GSP and crowning him the “true” champ) and of the belt being alive. If Jan wins? Ahahahaha.
David: Beyond the title, maybe they get to be the co-star in a potential Jon Jones return in four years after another run-in with the law? How many more pregnant women will suffer before Jones gets his shit together? Sorry I keep circling back to Jones. I’m rusty with this toe-to-toe stuff.
Where do they want it?
David: I still feel like an outlier when it comes to Reyes. People think of him as this badass southpaw kickboxer. And he is. But his game is still so lunch pale, I wonder if the only reason he’s winning fights is because he’s a southpaw kickboxer, and light heavyweight doesn’t know what to do with a southpaw kickboxer. Reyes is obviously good on his own. He’s got solid power, and good instincts, and he does it all with a straight left that can’t miss when he’s on. He has a way of funneling larger attacks from small ones, and vice versa. But here’s my point: the only thing that makes Reyes truly stand out is his discipline. I think that’s honestly it. Again, this is all in the context of an elite contender. Reyes wins because he has old tools packed in a modern toolbox, but is always disciplined enough to stay out of unnecessary exchanges, and unwilling to aggressively provoke those exchanges. That steady, calm approach inside a hard-to-solve shell is what makes him durable, and a potentially durable champion.
Phil: Yeah I think I’m willing to co-sign on that. Reyes is talented and coherent, but there’s little about his game which makes you think anyone would be crowning him as an elite striker in an actually good division. I think his most special ability is still his counterpunching: he has a nasty uppercut, and a decent counter left straight, and he’s the rare light heavyweight who can fight on the back foot. As far as it’s possible to tell, he has very good, if not quite Rumble-level, power, given his ability to wax historically durable fighters like Cannonier and (sort of) Weidman. Like Gustafsson before him, he keeps up a wearying amount of lateral movement, which, like Gustafsson, tends to fade over time, but he has a lot more defensive savvy in the pocket and more to offer on the counter. His earlier tendency to depend on single shots has improved (at least as of the Jones fight) as he has been opening up more with a jab. As far as the ground game, it’s essentially just “hard to wrestle” at the moment. He’s been able to outgrapple physically outclassed opposition like Jeremy Kimball, but other than that it’s all been used in reverse.
David: What I said about Reyes goes triple for Blachowicz. Like Reyes, Blachowicz having an identity at light heavyweight is enough to make him stand out. Historically, light heavyweight has been a division ruled by ‘box tickers.’ Need a fighter to win with wrestling? Here’s Tito’s cyclopean head and dumbass insight, and Randy Couture. Need a fighter to win with striking? Here’s Vitor Belfort and Chuck Liddell. Need dudes with a milquetoast variety of skills? Here’s Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans. Need actual milquetoast? Here’s Forrest Griffin. And so on. My theory is that Reyes and Blachowicz represent this weird jump in light heavyweight’s evolutionary chart: a chart that still lives in the shadow of Frank Shamrock’s ego, and the sheer size of Tito’s head. These two don’t represent the final form, but we’re getting there.
Phil: Blachowicz had some time to figure out what he was going to offer in the 205 pound division. When he started out it was basically: body kick them from far away, uppercut them if they get close, and then… um, get pretty tired, probably? Since then he has done an admirable job of making sure his game makes sense. I mean, sort of. It’s LHW, baby! He has a great jab, which he throws while dipping his head off the center line, and now has a deeper variety of counterpunches, including the booming left hook that he used to finish Rockhold. His takedown defence has improved out of sight, and he is himself a decent wrestler and major threat from top position, with a nasty snap-down and front choke series. He seems to work best when drawing opponents onto his shots. When fighting someone on the back foot he has often looked… less good. He favours swinging blitzes which were more than enough to discombobulate Alexander Gustafsson, but which became meat for the mad counterpunches of Thiago Santos. His tendency to drag his foot behind him when doing this is perhaps the weirdest singular tic of an aggressive fighter that I’ve seen.
Insight from past fights
Phil: OK fine. Santos played a mobile, outfighting game against Blachowicz and Jan could not stop himself charging headlong into a finishing counter shot. On the other hand, though, Reyes’ fight against Oezdemir was still not all that decisive. He can land solid countershots, but I am still not convinced that he deals that well with being crowded, or that he has much defense beyond that counterpunching layer. While Blachowicz can overcommit on his blitzes, the same is true of Oezdemir, who still managed to set up multiple offensive flurries on the larger man.
David: One of the things I like about Blachowicz, and one of the things that was apparent against Rockhold, is his shifty outbursts. I think this is where Blachowicz can catch Reyes: awkwardly positioned, and normally unable to strike from a position of power. Remember, Rockhold didn’t get his brains scrambled until Blachowicz pulled a left high kick out of his ass to punctuate round one. These little behavioral, positional tics of Jan could pay dividends.
Phil: As with the main event, there is much more likelihood to be improvements coming from one side of the octagon. Reyes has been showing visible improvements, and is likely not done developing. Blachowicz, despite the way he has shored up his technical holes, is probably a finished product by this point.
David: I got nothing except a Stars game to watch (they’re in the Stanley Cup finals!), which means I’m skipping this section.
Phil: Reyes has momentum, youth, athleticism, punching power, you name it. Am I going to pick him? I am not. It’s not simply the depressing lack of weirdness, it’s that nagging feeling that you called out at the beginning of your discussion of him: that he’s just not necessarily all that skilled? Perhaps I’m spoiled by other weight classes, but I guess I have to see people beat functional kickboxers before I pick them to beat other functional kickboxers: it’s why I picked Santos and Reyes to beat Jones. Screw it. Polish power. Jan Blachowicz by unanimous decision.
David: You won, Phil. I get it now. I’m on the Blachowicz bandwagon. Jan Blachowicz by Decision.
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