In arguably the biggest card of 2017, Georges St-Pierre will make his long awaited return to the Octagon to face middleweight champion Michael Bisping as the UFC returns to Madison Square Garden in New York.
It's been nearly four years since St-Pierre last fought, but he's coming back to add on to his legacy by attempting to become a two-division champion with a move into the 185-pound weight class. Bisping has no desire to join St-Pierre's resume, so he's looking to spoil the return and defend his title for the second time.
A long simmering rivalry will also come to a head at UFC 217 when bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt faces off with former teammate TJ Dillashaw in one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the year.
In today's fantasy preview, we'll examine all three title fights, as well as several other matchups on the card, to see who has the edge and who might be primed for an upset at UFC 217: Bisping vs. St-Pierre.
These are the fights that are just too close to call, but a few minor differences between favorite and underdog could lead one fighter to victory and the other to defeat.
Cody Garbrandt vs. TJ Dillashaw
It what could turn out to be one of the best fights on paper in 2017, bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt puts title on the line for the first time against former teammate TJ Dillashaw. Both fighters appear to be at the top of their game heading into this contest and there's no doubt Garbrandt and Dillashaw are as evenly matched as anybody in the UFC.
What Garbrandt brings into the fight is a mix of incredible boxing, great defense and a wrestling game that is tough to beat. Garbrandt hits with speed and power with blinding combinations that come from all angles. Add to that, Garbrandt has never been taken down in his UFC career so that gives him another advantage if he gets Dillashaw in trouble and he's forced to fall back on his wrestling as a failsafe.
As for Dillashaw, he's earned his spot atop the division rankings with a skill set that includes some of the best footwork in the UFC, fast, accurate striking and a great ability to win in the scrambles if he gets caught up in a clinch or a takedown. Dillashaw actually lands with more volume and accuracy than Garbrandt on the feet and he'll need those weapons to stave off the champion's powerful attacks when they get into exchanges. Dillashaw can ill afford to get caught with one of Garbrandt's best punches, but his defense is outstanding and he actually absorbs less strikes per minute than his opponent at UFC 217.
In this game of inches who comes out on top?
Well, Garbrandt proved last year with his win over Dominick Cruz that he is the total package. He shed the moniker of just being a devastating knockout striker by outworking Cruz over five rounds in a classic performance. Garbrandt's ability to go for the kill is certainly a powerful attribute, but the fact that he can land a knockdown and then assess at the moment whether or not to go guns blazing for the finish or hold back his energy is a veteran move that makes him ready for all five rounds. Dillashaw will give Garbrandt everything he can handle over the course of this fight, but if he gets into trouble can he survive with a power puncher throwing dynamite at him from every angle? No one has survived Garbrandt yet and it's tough to pick against him this time as well.
Prediction: Cody Garbrandt by unanimous decision
Joanna Jedrzejczyk vs. Rose Namajunas
Strawweight queen Joanna Jedrzejczyk will look to tie the all-time record for title defenses in the women's divisions of the UFC when she faces Rose Namajunas.
The book on Jedrzejczyk is well known at this point, as she's put together one of the most impressive title reigns in the UFC today. Jedrzejczyk is arguably one of the best strikers in the sport, with a technical prowess that is virtually unmatched as she combines volume with power to outwork the opposition at every turn. Jedrzejczyk is deadly on the feet with surgical precision, yet she still manages to throw an absurd amount of strikes during every championship fight. Jedrzejczyk is also incredibly tough to take down to the mat, blocking over 81 percent of the attempts against her since joining the UFC roster.
Namajunas certainly has a few tricks up her sleeve and that's what she'll need to employ to have a shot at dethroning Jedrzejczyk this weekend. Namajunas is best known for her devastating ground game, where she's wrapped up a slew of submission victories during her career. With a long, lanky body, Namajunas coils around her opponents like a snake and she's unrelenting with her ground attacks until she lands the submission. More recently, however, Namajunas has really started to add high-level striking to her arsenal as well, as we witnessed in her fight with Michelle Waterson. In that fight, Namajunas uncorked a hellacious head kick that knocked Waterson down before the former Ultimate Fighter finalist jumped on top to finish the fight with a rear naked choke.
It's that kind of strategy that Namajunas has to employ against Jedrzejczyk if she hopes to leave New York with the title. Namajunas is a very tricky fighter who has been known to throw everything at an opponent, including flying submissions, as she attacks with an unorthodox style inside the Octagon. If she can keep Jedrzejczyk off balance while also threatening with her submission arsenal, it could keep the champion guessing and unable to time her combinations on the feet.
That said, Jedrzejczyk has faced a laundry list of top fighters throughout her UFC career, from the best strikers to the most dangerous ground specialists, and she's beaten them all. One day someone may solve the puzzle that Jedrzejczyk presents, but it's tough to pick against her while she's still on top of the world. Namajunas will definitely make things interesting, especially if she throws caution to the wind and just launches attack after attack, trying to look for the finish. In the end, Jedrzejczyk is just the safer pick because she's proven to be the best 115-pound fighter on the planet, and the gap seems to grow ever wider with each performance she puts on.
Prediction: Joanna Jedrzejczyk by unanimous decision
Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson vs. Jorge Masvidal
In a matchup between two elite strikers, Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson will look to bounce back from a title fight loss in his last fight as he takes on Jorge Masvidal, who has quickly become one of the most talked about athletes in the welterweight division.
Prior to his pair of fights against welterweight king Tyron Woodley, Thompson had proven to be the second best fighter in the world at 170 pounds. With pinpoint accuracy, nasty knockout power and great takedown defense, Thompson became a tough matchup for anybody in the division. It seemed by his second fight with Woodley, however, that Thompson was a little more tentative in his exchanges with the champion, perhaps focusing too much on avoiding power shots or takedowns. Either way, Thompson didn't quite look himself and he'll look to recapture that same magic that had him on a long winning streak before he got his first crack at the title last year.
As for Masvidal, he's looked better than ever as a welterweight, with his boxing just as good as it's ever been while he’s also started to really show off his knockout power. Masvidal absolutely overwhelmed Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone when they met earlier this year, and he was one scorecard away from beating Demian Maia back in May and possibly earning a title shot. Masvidal has great hands, his defense is top notch and he has no problem standing in the pocket and trading with the best of the best in the welterweight division.
The real question in this fight comes down to Thompson's ability to avoid the championship slump after failing to capture the title on two occasions. Thompson looked like a welterweight poised to wear gold until he ran into Woodley and now he needs to get back to the form that led him to the title shot in the first place. At his best, Thompson is a creative striker with speed and power, especially when he's the one controlling the distance from the outside. If he can get back to being the fighter who knocked out Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger with aggression combined with jaw-dropping power shots, he should be able to get back on track this weekend.
Just don't expect Thompson to get a finish, although anything can happen in a fight. Masvidal hasn't been put away by strikes since 2008 and it's tough to imagine he's going to fall by knockout at UFC 217 either.
Prediction: Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson by unanimous decision
In the featured bout on the preliminary card, James Vick will look to build on his two-fight win streak as he takes on highly touted Irish prospect Joe Duffy.
Vick is a tough matchup for anyone at 155 pounds thanks to a massive size advantage where he'll be a full five inches taller than Duffy with a three-inch reach edge as well. Vick has used those long limbs to set up a number of submissions as well with a very slick ground game that he'll gladly implement if he gets an opening during the fight.
Now Duffy will present some problems for Vick, especially on the feet, where he employs a top-notch boxing game that could be one of the best in the entire lightweight division. Duffy hits hard but it's the combinations that he lands with really solid accuracy that gives so many fighters problems. Duffy is very astute with counter striking as well, which could be an advantage in this fight as he'll look to get inside Vick's long range while landing combinations to the head and body whenever pressing forward.
The key for Vick is being able to use his long reach to keep Duffy at distance and then winning any scrambles if they hit the ground. For Duffy, he just needs to be wary of staying on the outside for too long or he could get picked apart, but if he's able to slip inside and punish the head and body, Vick could crumble and fall. It's an insanely tight matchup but the slight edge goes to Duffy with his boxing prowess and ability to win exchanges on the feet with superior accuracy.
Prediction: Joe Duffy by TKO, Round 3
These are the fights that appear to be a little more one-sided, but remember that this is MMA, where anything can - and usually does - happen.
Johny Hendricks vs. Paulo Borrachinha
Brazilian powerhouse Paulo Borrachinha will look to remain undefeated as he takes on former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks in the fight that will kick off the main card on Pay-Per-View.
Borrachinha was a welcome addition to the UFC middleweight division, where he brings jaw-dropping power that has earned him nine knockouts in 10 career fights. Borrachinha not only lands with power but he’s also accurate, as he's hitting his target a whopping 58 percent of the time in the UFC. Now Borrachinha has shown a tendency to eat a punch for the sake of throwing a punch, so he has to be careful with that strategy if he gets into the top 15 at some point in his UFC career but, for now, that game plan hasn't really backfired on him.
Hendricks knows this is a very tough test for him, especially considering he was knocked out by Tim Boetsch in his last fight. Hendricks is not a big middleweight and he'll be giving up three inches in height and reach in this matchup. Now Hendricks has recently started training under famed head coach Greg Jackson, so that will certainly help him going into this fight, but it might be too little, too late as he's facing a serious powerhouse in Borrachinha, who will be looking for the knockout from the moment the referee unleashes him from the corner.
Prediction: Paulo Borrachinha by knockout, Round 2
Welterweight prospect Mickey Gall will look to stay undefeated when he faces New York's own Randy Brown on the preliminary card.
Thus far in his UFC career, Gall has looked outstanding with three wins, all by submission, while making quite a name for himself with every performance. Admittedly, Gall hasn't faced the stiffest competition just yet, but the pedigree is there for him to become a real star at 170 pounds now and into the future.
Brown will arguably be Gall's toughest matchup to date, as he brings a strong Muay Thai style attack into this fight with solid knockout power and great range on the feet. Brown will enjoy a four-inch reach advantage in this fight, which could be a huge advantage for him as he looks to keep Gall on the outside and stay away from his dangerous ground game.
Of course, Gall has shown solid striking in the past and he's not afraid to get into exchanges with his opponents, although his best weapon is still definitely his Brazilian jiu-jitsu. If Gall fights smart, he'll use his strikes to set up the takedown and once he gets the fight to the ground, he can look for punches to then transition into a submission. Gall's ability to take this fight to the ground could be the only hindrance he has in this fight, but assuming he can drag Brown down, he'll give the New York native nightmares on the mat.
Prediction: Mickey Gall by submission, Round 2
Michael Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre
A nearly four-year long absence for Georges St-Pierre will end at UFC 217 as he makes his return to the Octagon while trying to join a select few fighters in the history books as a two-division champion. St-Pierre has never competed at middleweight before, but he's packed on the pounds to ensure he won't be giving up much size or power to the bigger fighter in Michael Bisping.
Of course, Bisping has been here plenty of times before and he's faced the best of the best in the middleweight division. Bisping's game plan is never much of a secret, as he looks to outstrike his opponents with superior boxing while also adding up a high volume of punches landed over the course of any fight. Bisping has certainly earned his fair share of knockouts, but he typically gets those victories after pouring on the punishment round after round to really add up on the damage done. That's exactly what he'll look to do against St-Pierre on Saturday night.
At the peak of his performances in the UFC, St-Pierre was a top-notch wrestler who landed more than four takedowns per 15 minutes in the Octagon with an incredible 74 percent accuracy. In addition to those gaudy statistics, St-Pierre also established a great boxing game with one of the best jabs in the business while tagging his opponents with solid volume and tremendous accuracy, landing just under 54 percent of his strikes. The real question becomes whether St-Pierre will still be able to put together that kind of game plan four years later while also bumping up to a bigger weight class.
That's why when you combine those factors with Bisping's experience, it's easy to see why the middleweight champion is a very solid upset pick. Bisping has only really been outwrestled once in his career and that came against Tim Kennedy in a fight against a physically bruising middleweight following a long layoff due to eye surgery. Now it's entirely possible that St-Pierre could employ the same game plan to just take Bisping down for five consecutive rounds, but it will be tougher to do that against a fighter who is bigger and stronger on fight night.
Bisping just needs to avoid those takedowns while not allowing St-Pierre to simply pot shot him with jabs all night long and he should be able to find a path to victory. Bisping's relentless pace while landing with good volume in every round should wear down St-Pierre over the course of five rounds. Bisping may get a finish late, but it's a safer bet that he'll just do a lot of damage over 25 minutes to earn the decision victory while giving St-Pierre a rather rude welcome back to the UFC.
Prediction: Michael Bisping by unanimous decision