This weekend, UFC returns to Madison Square Garden with a stacked line-up for UFC 217: Bisping vs GSP. Featuring a trio of title bouts, including the long-awaited return of Georges St. Pierre – albeit under somewhat unusual circumstances – this promises to be a good card on paper. For all you gambling types, take a look at the updated betting odds for UFC 217. Keep in mind that since the event is in NYC, we can expect all kinds of wackiness with refereeing, judging, and all other things which involve the New York State Athletic Commission, so play at your own risk.
To be honest, I am not particularly excited for this fight. Partly because I am not a huge fan of either fighter, partly because I would like to see Michael Bisping defend his title against the interim champion (WME-UFC lingo for #1 contender) Robert Whittaker instead of taking another meaningless “money fight”, and partly because St. Pierre returning as a middleweight and getting an immediate title shot makes no sense. I guess asking for UFC matchmaking to make sense may be asking too much at this point. GSP has not fought in four years, leaving the sport and his welterweight title after winning a very controversial decision against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. There are plenty of interesting matchups available for Georges in the welterweight division, and even walking directly into a title shot against Woodley would have been better than once again holding up the middleweight title picture. Hell, a rematch with Hendricks would have made more sense than the Bisping fight, alas Johny is also a middleweight these days…
If recent photos and comments from one of his long time coaches are anything to judge by, GSP is not carrying the extra weight well and it is questionable how his never-ending cardio has held up with the age, weight gain, and long layoff. Bisping in the meanwhile has evolved into an elite fighter late in his career, favorable matchups aside. I think GSP will be greatly out sized, and for the first time in his career out-performed in terms of endurance. St Pierre always excelled mainly due to his ability to keep the fight in the area where he has an advantage over his opponents, whether it be striking or on the ground. With Bisping, St. Pierre’s advantage is definitely on the ground – but we have historically seen many aging wrestlers find it more and more difficult to take down their opponents like they once used to, and with his lack of striking power GSP may be forced to fight Bisping on the feet for extended parts of the fight which will likely go the distance. It won’t be pretty or exciting, but it will be more of a typical Bisping fight than a typical GSP fight.
Prediction: Michael Bisping by decision.
The second title fight on the card is a meeting between two former training partners and current rivals. This fight was originally scheduled to take place at UFC 213, but was delayed due to a back injury suffered by Garbrandt. A few months and a lot of trash talk have gone by, and the rivalry is finally slated to come to a head.
Both men have looked spectacular in their recent outings, making this a difficult fight to pick. Garbrandt is undefeated as a pro, and riding a six-win streak in the Octagon, punctuated by dismantling Dominick Cruz to capture the bantamweight title. Dillashaw dropped a close split decision to Cruz in a fight that could have easily gone either way, then picked up a couple of decision wins over contenders Raphael Assuncao and John Lineker – the latter only going the distance due to Lineker’s incredible toughness – to earn another crack at the gold. Both men have powerful striking, lighting footwork, elite wrestling, and impeccable gas tanks. A lot has been said about their questionable chins, however both have only been stopped once: Garbrandt in an amateur fight in 2012, and Dillashaw in his UFC debut against John Dodson in 2011. Garbrandt claims to have knocked out Dillashaw in sparring, but never released the video of the alleged incident, and I don’t put much faith in training camp stories. It’s difficult to pick against Cody based on his clinical performance against Cruz… on the other hand, a back injury serious enough to require surgery could mean that we won’t be looking at the same fighter on Saturday. I’m going out on the limb with my prediction: TJ will catch Cody in the championship rounds after going through a bloody war.
Prediction: TJ Dillashaw by TKO.
The women’s 115-lbs title match between the long reigning ‘Joanna Champion’ and ‘Thug Rose’ Namajunas completes the championship triple-header on the UFC 217 card. Joanna will be looking for her sixths consecutive title defense, to tie the record currently held by Ronda Rousey in the UFC women’s divisions. WMMA still has a long way to go in terms of the divisional depth and talent, and Joanna is currently the most dominant and consistent fighter in an otherwise lackluster scene. She may not have the scary power of Cris ‘Cyborg’ Justino, but she makes up for it with an impeccable technique and timing, picking apart every opponent with a surgical precision. Rose Namajunas is a very game and dangerous fighter who always takes it to her opponent – win or lose – but I believe the submission expert will be in over her head against Jedrzejczyk. Expect Joanna to suffer a couple of scares in the early rounds, however once she settles into her rhythm, it will be a long and painful night for ‘Thug Rose’.
Prediction: Joanna Jedrzejczyk by decision.
The welterweight division is going through some turmoil. Reigning champion Tyron Woodley had a series of uneventful title defenses after knocking out Robbie Lawler to win the belt, which cost him the matchup with GSP that Woodley was gunning for. Though Woodley has been an active champion, it seems that getting him to commit to a fight is a bit like pulling teeth. His next fight will most likely come against the winner of Lawler vs Rafael dos Anjos; meanwhile Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson, who has twice failed to unseat Woodley, is fighting to remain relevant against Jorge Masvidal.
This is an interesting stylistic matchup between a karate expert and a boxer, and between two veteran fighters who have hung around the Top-10 rankings for a long time but never tasted the UFC gold. With young guns like Daren Till and Colby Covington quickly rising up the rankings, it’s a must-win for both fighters if they want to remain somewhere near the title picture. It will be a striking chess match, and perhaps not the most fan-friendly fight, with both men known for coasting at times. Another tough fight to pick but I believe Thompson will take the scorecard in a close and possibly controversial bout.
Prediction: Stephen Thompson by decision
As I mentioned earlier, I would have loved to see Johny Hendricks be matched up with GSP in Georges’ return, to settle the controversy stemming from the outcome of their UFC 167 fight. However this matchup becomes understandably less interesting when you take Johny’s recent record into account. Though Hendricks went on to capture GSP’s vacant title against Robbie Lawler, he immediately lost it in the rematch (with both of his fights with Lawler also being close and somewhat controversial decisions). Since then Hendricks never returned to his old form, going 2-4 after losing the title, in addition to missing weight in three of his last four fights. After two failed weight cuts Hendricks was forced to move up to 185 lbs, and while he earned a decision win over Hector Lombard in his middleweight debut, he once again missed weight in his most recent fight and was subsequently knocked out by Tim Boetsch. Missing weight and lackluster performances have become a pattern for the man who started his career with a 15-1 record prior to earning a title shot against St. Pierre. I don’t know whether his decline is due to age, losing his competitive drive, enhanced USADA testing, or some combination of factors… Whatever it may be, it’s clear that Hendricks is on the downside of his career and not likely to turn things around.
He is taking on Paulo ‘Borachinha’ Costas, an undefeated 26-year-old who has finished all ten of his opponents in within two rounds – 9 of those by TKO, including his two fights under the UFC banner. I see this trend continuing for at least one more fight, and this may very well be the last time we see Hendricks compete in the Octagon. Especially if he misses weight once again.
Prediction: Paulo Henrique Costa by TKO