Paths to Victory: Can Jan Blachowicz reclaim the light heavyweight title vs. Magomed Ankalaev at UFC 282?
UFC 282 goes down this Saturday at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, and the road here has been a chaotic one. Originally, the final pay-per-view event of 2022 was supposed to be headlined by a light heavyweight title rematch of the presumptive “Fight of the Year” between Jiri Prochazka and Glover Teixeira. But two weeks ago, everything got thrown for a loop when Prochazka injured his shoulder, forcing him out of the bout. Given the severity of his injury, Prochazka opted to give up the title while he recovers, and the UFC attempted to have Teixeira face Magomed Ankalaev for the vacant belt. But the former champion declined to accept the change of opponent on short notice, and so instead, the previously planned co-main event between Ankalaev and Jan Blachowicz got bumped into the top spot with the vacant title on the line.
So with all the anarchy that’s taken place, let’s take a look at what each man needs to do to win this marquee matchup and ultimately what will happen on fight night.
Paths to Victory for Jan Blachowicz at UFC 282
Jan Blachowicz can absolutely win this fight.
Prior to winning the light heavyweight title, Blachowicz was one of the most criminally underrated fighters in the sport. He is a strong kickboxer with good (if slightly exaggerated) power, and a rock solid wrestling and ground game. That makes him a tough out for anyone, including Ankalaev. But on top of that, he has some stylistic edges in this fight that he can exploit.
First up for Blachowicz is his kicking game. The former light heavyweight champion rebranded himself with the “Legendary Polish Power” stuff, and while he does have heavy hands, it’s his kicks that are his real calling card. He has a wicked body kick and good low kicks (he’s also one of the best kick defenders in the sport, just ask Israel Adesanya) and Ankalaev has shown a clear weakness at defending both. In his UFC career, opponents have landed 87 percent of their low kicks, and Volkan Oezdemir had a ton of success chopping out Ankalaev’s leg. Blachowicz can do the same and much, much worse. Ankalaev did look somewhat improved in this category against Anthony Smith, but first and foremost, Blachowicz needs to test that out and see what’s what.
More important, though, Blachowicz must focus on his defensive responsibility. Ankalaev fights at a pretty measured pace, but when he does throw, it is fast and powerful and can certainly put Blachowicz in trouble. That’s dangerous, because Blachowicz has a habit of losing the plot defensively when he’s throwing combinations. Teixeira clipped him during a combination that put him on skates before the ending. Thiago Santos floored him with a left hook as he charged in, chucking hands with no semblance of defense. If he does the same against Ankalaev, it’s good night.
That’s not to say Blachowicz shouldn’t work in combination, though. Ankalaev’s defense is largely predicated on maintaining his preferred range, stymieing single attacks and returning fire with check hooks and pull counters. Working into that range safely and overloading Ankalaev’s preferred defensive triggers is the best way for Blachowicz to land the big power shots he wants. He just has to do so without putting his chin on a platter.
Paths to victory for Magomed Ankalaev at UFC 282
Magomed Ankalaev is the betting favorite for this fight, and that is not a mistake. If he comes in prepared, he should win this fight. And to do that, hev should speed things up, slow things down, and simply do the thing.
Ankalaev gets a lot of credit for his striking, and while that’s not all the way undeserved, it is a little overblown. He’s got good power in his hands and a quick trigger on the counter, but the strength of his game is largely his defense, and that often comes at the expense of his offense. He is not a full-on counter fighter, but he much prefers to let opponents kick off engagements, and that can result in long periods of relative inactivity. He might be able to make that work against Blachowicz, but it comes with risks of being outpointed, and there’s really no reason for him to consent to that sort of fight.
Blachowicz is good enough on the back foot, but he’s not an elite counter striker, and he struggles when facing guys who are faster than him, which Ankalaev certainly is. Moreover, Ankalaev is actually pretty good when he’s leading off, and he’s got a wicked left straight that fires from seemingly nowhere. Plus, Blachowicz has a history of “trying to get it back” when he starts to fall behind, and that often manifests itself in a quasi-reckless bull rush, opening him up for big counters. So Ankalaev would be best served to bring the fight to Blachowicz whenever possible, and when the former champion attempts to return the favor, melt him.
Along those same lines, contesting the fight in closer quarters would go a long way to taking out Blachowicz’s best weapon: the kicks. In the simplest of terms, Blachowicz is the better kick, while Ankalaev is the better boxer, and thus Ankalaev should endeavor to have this fight take place in boxing range, not on the outskirts of kicking range. Frankly, I think fighting this one in orthodox, instead of his preferred southpaw, would be an interesting wrinkle that would serve his ends much better. It would put more of a focus on his advantages in hand speed and head movement.
Finally, Ankalaev should really invest in wrestling in this fight. Though he hasn’t done much of it since entering the UFC, he has a Greco-Roman base and has looked pretty good with clinch wrestling the few times we’ve seen him do it. Blachowicz is a solid grappler and a BJJ black belt, but he doesn’t offer a ton off of his back, and though he’s a solid wrestler, he’s not bulletproof in that regard. Teixeira had success with straight double legs, and even Thiago Santos scored a takedown on him. If Ankalaev can get top position, he’s likely to secure that round, and given his own abilities with ground-and-pound, he might be able to win the fight. At the very least, it will add another layer that Blachowicz must worry about defensively, and it comes with pretty minimal risk.
How much with the last-minute change of plans affect things on Saturday?
For the vast majority of their training camps, both Blachowicz and Ankalaev prepared for a 15-minute battle, and now they’ve only had two weeks to adjust to a 25-minute one instead. That is a very big adjustment with a very small amount of time to get prepared, and so we really have no idea what affect, if any, it will have on the proceedings. Will both men have the gas tank to go a hard 25, or will the change of plans make them adopt a different style? Did either have a specific game plan that doesn’t really work over 25 minutes, so it’s now out the window? Does Jan’s greater experience in five-round fights make a difference in this instance? Who can say? While I generally think five-rounders make fights more predictable, in this instance, it’s the exact opposite. The short-notice change adds a layer of uncertainty to this fight that I otherwise would have felt pretty confident in.
This fight feels much closer than many believe and what the odds suggest, but it still seems like Ankalaev should win it. Blachowicz is solid all around, but Ankalaev is probably just a little bit better in every category and he’s much younger and faster, which is a huge advantage. If Blachowicz can get the kicks going early and Ankalaev has no answer for it, they dynamics of this fight change rapidly. But assuming Ankalaev has done even the bare minimum of prep work, he’ll come in with a plan to mitigate those and get his own offense going. In that sort of fight, I could see Blachowicz getting clipped later on in the bout, but my gut tells me most of this fight is a staring contest, with Ankalaev going to the wrestling later on to secure a convincing, if uninspiring win.
Magomed Ankalaev def. Jan Blachowicz by unanimous decision.
Who wins on Saturday?
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