UFC 217 Preview: The Empire State Strikes Back

Written by: Remi Se

When the UFC comes to NYC, they always bring the kitchen sink. There are top ten ranked light heavyweights competing on fight pass for this one. Dana White and the gang fought long and hard to get into Madison Square Garden and they’ve made it an annual point not to disappoint. The PPV is packed with elite fighters from top to bottom. There’s an elite prospect against a former champion, two Welterweight top five striking machines and then three consecutive title bouts. The event is capped off with the return of a GOAT conversation legend to face one of the greatest MMA villains of all time. It’s been a few months since a card has demanded attention but we’ve finally got a must-see event.

Johny Hendricks vs Paulo Borrachinha:
Paulo Borrachinha has started his UFC career with back to back KO victories. He’s huge and against Oluwale Bamgbose, his striking was just overwhelming with a hint of Rua’s influence slipping in. He faces Johny Hendricks, a fighter who could desperately use a victory. Hendricks won the welterweight title with a combination of dominant wrestling and a left hand like sledgehammer but has lost five of seven matches since. It feels like a clear bout between a fighter on the rise and a fighter on his way out, especially considering Hendricks was KO’ed in his last match. Hendricks could look to use wrestling to get back in the win column, but his recent struggles are hard to ignore.

Stephen Thompson vs Jorge Masvidal:
Stephen Wonderboy Thompson and Jorge Gamebred Masvidal were a couple of judges’ scorecards away from their match-up being a title fight. Before losing to Tyron Woodley, Wonderboy’s elusive karate based style helped him dominate the likes of Rory MacDonald, Johny Hendricks and current interim middleweight champion Robert Whitaker. Gamebred meanwhile had victories over Jake Ellenberger, Ross Pearson and Donald Cerrone before losing a razor thin decision to Demian Maia. The two men make great foils. Thompson’s offense is defined by his kicking and elusiveness while Masvidal’s boxing and timing are what make him such a threat. Masvidal is an underrated wrestler while Thompson has great takedown defense. This fight is by no means easy to predict with such different yet equally effective strengths. Masvidal’s toughness and ability to adapt could help him to figure out Wonderboy and take over the bout but only one of Thompson’s last 8 opponents have solved the puzzle. Wonderboy will need to keep range but in a three round bout, Masvidal won’t have much time to figure out the tricky opponent and capitalize.

Joanna Jerdrzejczyk vs Rose Namajunas:
Since entering the UFC, Joanna Jerdzejczyk has been as dominant as any champion. She pitched a shutout against Jessica Andrade, beat Claudia Gadelha twice and would tie Ronda Rousey’s record for title defenses by a female fighter if she can beat Rose Namajunas. Namajunas was once hyped as the next Rousey after a flying armbar victory went viral. She enters this bout fresh off a dominant win over Michelle Waterson that looked like she had taken another step up as a fighter. Thug Rose looks focused, she has incredible grappling and a fast developing striking game. Joanna Champion’s striking is unrivaled in the division however and her takedown defense is near impenetrable. Joanna throws flurries that put heavy pressure on opponents but she’s equally effective countering. Rose struggled previously with Karolina Kowalkiewicz in a loss where she simply could not beat an elusive fighter who could clinch in troublesome situations. Jerdzejcyk has all of the acumen to repeat the elusiveness and clinch work of Karolina but with a lot more pop and aggression. The intrigue here is that Rose is an unfinished product. She’s only 25 with ten fights under her belt, she has improved by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately the gap between every other woman in the straweight division and Joanna seems completely insurmountable.

Cody Garbrandt vs TJ Dillashaw:
The fight between former teammates Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw feels like it’s about much more than the bantamweight title. From TJ’s departure from team alpha male to the scuffles on TUF to accusations over sparring; these two might as well sell movie rights to the drama. That the rivalry involves two of the best technical strikers that the UFC has to offer is a gift from the MMA Gods. Former champion TJ Dillashaw developed his style with Duane Ludwig during a period when he repeatedly mimicked Dominic Cruz for teammates. His style feels like a combination of aggressive wrestler and Cruz’ vintage stance switching and in-out movements. TJ has power with both hands; throwing haymakers into stance switches for instant jabs. He has deceptive kicks as well, mixing up body and head kicks to catch fighters ducking. His aggressive style forces opponents to commit to countering and when they do, he’s quick to change levels for a takedown. Cody Garbrandt is no stranger to elusive, in and out fighting as he took the bantamweight title from Dominick Cruz himself in a one-sided affair. Garbrandt looks like a pure boxer at times with short efficient motion that at velocities to pack serious power. He has impeccable counter punching and head movement that helps him wade in and out of the pocket confidently. Cruz was able to get in on Cody’s hips early with level changes for takedown attempts but Cody was able to deny the takedowns or shoot right back up. It was a consummate performance for Cody who had every answer necessary to dominate an all time great and set up the Alpha Male rivalry fight.
This fight isn’t likely to go to a decision. Dillashaw is aggressive every time out. He sets a fast pace, keeps pressure on and likes to be the first man to the punch. That style saw him swing and miss A LOT against Cruz and could bare similar results if Garbrandt takes the patient, defensive approach he used to best Cruz. Cody’s ability to mix head movement with moments where he plants and counters really shined against Cruz and scored him multiple knockdowns, against a more aggressive opponent that could translate to KO opportunities. That said, TJ could throw a wrench in the plan by diversifying his attack. Dillashaw mixes in kicks every fight and could look to confuse Garbrandt by establishing the body kick early and going high when Cody starts to defend. Cruz was able to successfully change levels on the champion and TJ’s timing is second to none, so he can steal close rounds with a well timed takedown and some top position. This is a pick ’em fight, with Cody still very fresh and having not had to show off all of his skills and TJ representing a unique opponent for anybody. That said, the common opponent of Cruz shows that Cody is comfortable against mobile strikers and feeds off of counter opportunities; TJ’s aggressive approach could easily be his downfall and gives Cody the edge.

Michael Bisping vs Georges St. Pierre:
Georges St. Pierre is one of the greatest martial artists of all time, sporting one of the most dominant title reigns in the organization’s history. He developed elite wrestling without a decorated collegiate background, had one of the sharpest jabs in the game and for the early part of his career was also impressive as a kicker thanks to a kyokushin background. But he was dominating at Welterweight and never made the move to a second division. While he owned the 170 lbs. division, Michael Bisping was building a workman-like resume starting at 205 and dropping to 185 lbs where he would spend years working toward a title shot. Bisping is a fighter’s fighter, comfortable standing with a boxer’s hands and kickboxer’s knees; Bisping could be taken down but he was always hard to keep there. Bisping used his mixture of feints and clean boxing to first beat legend Anderson Silva and then knockout Luke Rockhold for the Middleweight belt. His first title defense added legend Dan Henderson to list of victories and he follows this impressive run with GSP as his next target. To run off a winning streak against the likes of Silva, Rockhold, Henderson and GSP would give Bisping one of the most impressive runs ever in spite of the outrage that he has inspired in avoiding top ranked title challengers.
On paper, GSP’s elite wrestling looks like the perfect tool to steal a win from Bisping. Bisping has struggled with wrestler’s throughout his career, amassing losses to Rashad Evans, Tim Kennedy and Chael Sonnen who all used a ton of pressure and takedowns to disarm the Count. The issue is that all three men are much bigger than GSP and they all had trouble keeping Bisping down. The Count is the larger fighter and while GSP might have a speed and jabbing advantage; the champion’s overall boxing seems to have an edge. When GSP does shoot, an inevitability, Bisping could look to overpower the French Canadian. The Count can punish GSP with knees from the clinch on takedowns he defends and look to make Rush bare as much weight as possible. If Bisping can win the wrestling battle, he can force a boxing match at range. St Pierre has always been an explosive fighter but opponents have been able to intercept him as he shoots forward. This wasn’t confined to the killers like Condit and Hendricks, GSP had a lot of trouble Jake Shields’ more patient approach. The Count’s feints could really be a gamechanger here, keeping the challenger off balance and uncertain about when to change levels. For GSP success is all about scoring takedowns. If he can establish his jab early, he can force Bisping to be more aggressive and time one of the Count’s overhands for a level change. Neither fighter has particular one punch power unless they land absolutely clean and both men are very good at recovery, so there is room for risks that GSP will need to take. The rumor mill has been that Rush spent his time off refining his submission game which could add an interesting dimension to an already intriguing bout, but he has to get the fight to the ground first. Size and potential rust makes this fight tough to hand to the MMA Legend, St. Pierre but remember that this is a man who retired on 12 straight wins including 11 title defenses, it would be wise not to count him out even though I’m leaning toward Bisping.
Every Fightpass Fight is a Sleeper:
I usually save a spot at the end for the must see fight of the prelims but with the MSG card, there are too many to count. So the best thing to do is mention that every early prelim on Fight Pass features someone worth watching. Aleksei Oleinik got a lot of attention for pulling off an Ezekiel Choke while full-mounted and is a top 10 Heavyweight. Ion Cutelaba fights usually end in a highlight KO, he’s known as the Hulk. Finally Firas Zahabi’s brother Aiemann will fight as well, he’s 7-0 with a developing game worth watching as a great coach’s sibling. Keep an eye out!
UFC 217: Empire State
When the UFC comes to NYC, they always bring the kitchen sink. There are top ten ranked light heavyweights competing on fight pass for this one. Dana White and the gang fought long and hard to get into Madison Square Garden and they’ve made it an annual point not to disappoint. The PPV is packed with elite fighters from top to bottom. There’s an elite prospect against a former champion, two Welterweight top five striking machines and then three consecutive title bouts. The event is capped off with the return of a GOAT conversation legend to face one of the greatest MMA villains of all time. It’s been a few months since a card has demanded attention but we’ve finally got a must-see event.

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