The much anticipated return of Georges St Pierre will headline a stacked main card at UFC 217 this weekend. We take a look at the key fights of the night and give our betting tips below
At UFC 217; it will be nearly four years to the day that Georges St Pierre (GSP) last set foot in the octagon. In the days before worldwide superstars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, GSP was amongst the biggest names the UFC ever produced. However in November 2013, he shockingly retired following a controversial title defence against Johnny Hendricks. He cited rampant PED by fellow competitors and a loss of passion as the reasons for his abrupt departure from the sport. He filled the subsequent years with a number of movie roles and two full knee reconstructions. Now he is back, however instead of trying to reclaim his welterweight throne, he will instead move up to middleweight and attempt to take the belt from reigning champion Michael Bisping. The bittersweet caveat to this fight is it really should be Australia’s Robert Whittaker getting a shot at the title. He is the current interim champion, but the traditional line of succession has been forgone in light of GSPs return.
Michael Bisping is one of the most surprising champions in UFC history. Not because he doesn’t have the career or skills to warrant UFC gold, but because everyone assumed opportunities had past him by and he would retire without ever getting that shot. But when injury forced Chris Weidman out of a title shot, Bisping was gifted a last minute replacement fight against champion Luke Rockhold. In one of the most shocking outcomes in UFC title history; Bisping won via first round KO (his first ever KO in the UFC). In the following 18 months he has only defended the belt one, against an aged Dan Henderson. Bisping himself is 38, but to this point hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down. He is a technically solid, high volume kickboxer with really strong takedown defence. On the feet he likes to push forward and is good at using angles and footwork to pick opponents apart. In recent years he has been working with Jason Parillo and we have seen a significant improvement in his technique and power. His exceptional takedown defence relies heavily on his ability to scramble. Even if the initial shot lands, he is excellent at using his BJJ to scramble to his feet and ensuring his opponents expel maximum energy. Bisping’s greatest weapon is undoubtedly his cardio, he is able to keep a high pace over 5 rounds and seems to increase his output as opponents tire.
Despite GSP being one of the biggest names in the UFC, he never really fought with a very fan-friendly style. Unlike McGregor and Rousey who earned notoriety by blitzing opponents in the first round, GSP was content to thoroughly dominate an opponent over 5 rounds without overextending in pursuit of a finish. Despite having no traditional wrestling background, GSP is one of the most dominate wrestlers to ever compete in the UFC. His incredible athleticism allowed him to cultivate a grappling game specifically for MMA. He has a powerful blast double, which is masked well behind his strikes. Once he has an opponent on the back, the round is in the bag. He is so strong on top and while he rarely threatens with damaging ground and pound or submissions, his control is smothering. His striking is also well tailored for MMA. He works behind a strong jab, but can throw in flashy strikes like high kicks and superman punches. He is also a better defensive striker than Bisping. GSP’s strongest attribute, particularly for bettors, is his willingness to fight boring to get a win. If he opponent is a weak wrestler he has no qualms taking him down and laying on him for five rounds (see Nick Diaz) or if his opponent is a wrestler he is content to keep him at the end of a jab for 5 rounds (see Josh Koscheck).
Prediction: I think a prime GSP is a bad match up for Bisping. The striking is relatively even with GSP having a slight technique and variety advantage, while Bisping has the volume advantage. Bisping has strong takedown defence, but he has been outgrappled by far less accomplished wrestlers than GSP. GSP is also the far superior athlete and has the gas tank to go all 5 rounds at Bisping’s pace. So the question is how much has 4 years on the sidelines and two knee reconstructions hampered GSP? Without seeing him fight it’s an impossible question and certainly not a fight you can bet on with any conviction. However there is still value here. Neither of these fighters are finishers, with GSP in particular not earning a stoppage since 2009. There is good juice available for the fight to go to decision and that’s the play I will be making. For the record I don’t think GSP comes back unless he is pretty excellent condition, so I think he gets his hand raised in a wrestling based decision. Georges St. Pierre by 48-47 decision.
While the main event has the star power; this fight brings the drama. Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw are former training partners at Sacremento’s Team Alpha Male. But after an acrimonious split between owner Urijah Faber and head coach Duane Ludwig, team members were forced to pick a side. Dillashaw choose to turn his back on the team that had groomed him since his high school wrestling days, and move to Denver to continue his career under Ludwigs tutelage. Needless to say this didn’t sit well with the rest of the team and one of the more bitter (and catty) feuds in MMA has been evolving ever since. This is the first time Dillashaw has faced one of his former team mates and the fact this is a title fight between two of the best in the division’s history has MMA fans salivating.
Cody Garbrandt took the title after an incredible display against long time champion Dominic Cruz. Garbrandt came into that fight a significant underdog, but steamrolled Cruz over 5 rounds and probably could have earned a finish if he wasn’t so concerned with show boating. To that point no-one had been able to consistently find Cruz’s chin, but Garbrandt was able to do it over and over again. Like the majority of team Alpha Male. Garbrandt is a wrestle-boxer, but with flatline KO power. He is currently undefeated and 9 of his 11 career wins have come by KO or TKO. He has tremendous speed and power for a batamnweight and closes distances extremely quickly. While he can often look like a brawler, Garbrandt is technically sound and very accurate. He is uses his strong wrestling base to keep fights standing and no one has successfully out grappled him thus far. Most of his fights tend to be short and violent, but he showed against Cruz in his last outing that he is capable of a hard 5 rounds.
TJ Dillashaw has already held the UFC batamnweight tile; he won it in a resounding upset against Renan Barao in 2014 (while Cruz was sidelined with injury). He then went on to lose the title to Cruz in a razor close decision. Previously a middle of the pack fighter, Dillashaw’s career took on new life when he started training under Ludewig. Ludewig saw Dillashaw as a protégé and recrafted his game from the bottom up. Dillashaw has openly admitted he tried to mimic the awkward movement style of Cruz and the similarities between the two are striking. Dillashaw has really good footwork and his weight is always perfectly distributed when throwing strikes. He also likes to use small lateral steps and pivots to create angles. Like Garbrandt, Dillashaw has a strong wrestling background that is used predominantly defensively.
Prediction: This is a super interesting matchup between two of the best athletes in any division. I expect the wrestling games to negate each other and this one to play out exclusively as a striking bout. However if someone is able to get a grappling edge I suspect it will be Dillashaw. On the feet, they are two equally skilled, but very different strikers. Dillashaw is more technically sound, with better footwork and a more varied offensive arsenal. Whereas Garbrandt has a significant speed and power advantage. Usually I would say Dillashaw has the perfect style to negate a static boxer, but Gabrandt showed against Cruz he is more than capable of stifling unorthodox movement. I just can’t go past Garbrandt’s performance against Cruz, it was one of the most impressive displays I have seen in the octagon. If Garbrandt can replicate that performance I think he gets the win here. Cody Garbrandt by 4th TKO.
The third and final title to be contested at UFC 217 will be in the women’s straw weight division, as Joanna Jedrzejczyk looks to defend her belt for a 6th consecutive time against up and coming talent Rose Namajunas. The undefeated Jedrzejczyk is a former multi time Muay Thai world champion and is one of the most technically proficient strikers in the UFC. Her technical acumen, combined with impenetrable takedown defense and vicious offense has resulted in one of the most dominant title reigns in recent years with a long list of bloody bruised and broken title contenders left in her wake. On the feet, Jedrzejczyk throws all kickboxing strikes well, but is particularly good in the clinch. She is an incredibly high volume striker and has doubled each of her title opponent’s significant strikes. She likes to throw a number of ‘weak’ shots to force an opening for her power shots. Once she smells blood she is exceptional at piling on pressure to force a stoppage. Due to her excellent takedown defence we have seen very little of what Jedrzejczyk has to offer on the ground, but this is clearly where opponents will enjoy the biggest advantage over her. She also punishes opponents for attempting takedowns, often landing a short elbow or knee when breaking. The only opponent to give Jedrzejczyk real problems thus far has been Claudia Gadelha, who was able to use her strong grappling to stifle the striking. Jedrzejczyk again finds herself against a strong grappler, albeit a very different one.
At only 25 and with an unimpressive record of 6-3, many are quick to write off ‘thug’ Rose Namajunas, but she is no doubt a worthy and capable challenger to the batamnweight throne. She is undoubtedly a submission specialist, with 5 of her 6 career wins coming that way (including an incredible flying arm bar in only her second fight). But she also has black belts in Taekwondo and Karate, so will be far from a sitting duck on the feet. She has solid technical striking, but often likes to go for flashy techniques which have cost her in fights; most notably against Carla Esparza. Namajunas is long for the division and her grappling takes full advantage of that. She mixes in traditional single legs with sneaky trips in the clinch to get the fights to the ground. She is excellent in top position, patiently waiting for openings to hurt opponents, but quickly taking advantage of on any submission opportunities that present them.
Prediction: Despite Namajunas’ dangerous striking game, this is a pretty clear grappler vs striker match up. While Namajunas should be defensively sound enough to avoid major damage, if this one stays on the feet Jedrzejczyk will win rounds easily. Namajunas needs to get this fight to the ground if she has any chance of leaving the octagon wearing gold. Namajunas loves to use the clinch to drag opponents, but the clinch is Jedrzejczyk’s bread and butter, so that completely nullifies one of Namajunas’ strongest areas. The gulf in class on the feet is just too big to ignore in this one, Namajunas is very tough so I don’t see her getting finished, but unless we she another shocking submission, this should be another decision win for the batamnweight supremo. Joana Jedrzejczyk by 49-46 decision.
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