Well, it’s finally here. Times three.
It’s been four years since Georges St-Pierre, unbeaten in over a decade, last graced the coveted UFC Octagon. GSP’s last outing, which took place at UFC 167, resulted in a split-decision win over Johny Hendricks to defend his UFC welterweight title for the ninth time.
At UFC 217, on Saturday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the former champ will be back in action. His return is an immediate title shot in the middleweight division, where St-Pierre faces current champ Michael Bisping.
Bisping is coming off back-to-back wins. The Brit secured the strap with a first-round knockout of Luke Rockhold in June 2016. His encore was a decision win over Dan Henderson a few months later. The champ has not fought in over a year. The UFC middleweight division is in a state of disarray, and with many contenders sitting idle and an interim champ in Robert Whittaker, the outcome of this fight will be very interesting.
Speaking of interesting, the UFC 217 co-headliner features a grudge match between former teammates turned heated enemies. Former bantamweight champ T.J. Dillashaw takes on current champ Cody Garbrandt. Ever since leaving Team Alpha Male to train with Duane Ludwig in Colorado, Dillashaw has picked up the moniker “Snake” from his former teammates. The hot-headed Garbrandt continuously attacked Dillashaw, both verbally and physically, as they served as opposing coaches on season 25 of The Ultimate Fighter earlier in the year. The bitter rivalry finally comes to a head this weekend.
The third title fight of the evening features undefeated and largely unmatched Polish women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk. She attempts to defend her title for a sixth time in just two and a half years when she faces rising star Rose Namajunas.
After finishing as a runner-up on The Ultimate Fighter 20, Namajunas has gone 4-1 in the Octagon. Her only loss came in a split decision against Karolina Kowalkiewicz. In her last outing, she submitted Michelle Waterson.
The main card also includes the return of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who takes on Jorge Masvidal. Johny Hendricks is up against Brazilian Paulo Borrachinha, who sits undefeated at 10-0.
The action kicks off with three preliminary-card bouts on UFC Fight Pass at 6:30 p.m. ET. From there, it’s off to Fox Sports 1 for the four remaining prelim affairs at 8 p.m. ET. Finally, the action shifts to pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET for the main card. Combat Press writers Kyle Symes and Dan Kuhl preview the event in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
It’s been four years since we’ve seen Georges St-Pierre in action, but now he’s back in a new division and immediately gets to fight for the title. What should we expect out of him? Can he unseat Michael Bisping and claim the middleweight throne?
Symes: I would expect to see much of what we saw from GSP before he stepped away, including a conservative game plan that focuses on top control and avoiding damage. St-Pierre was a dynamic striker earlier in his career, but then he decided to focus on his wrestling after dropping the belt to Matt Serra. He stepped away from MMA due to head trauma and the damage he was sustaining, so don’t expect to see St-Pierre involved in any extensive exchanges on the feet.
Although he’s been out of action for the past four years, GSP has reportedly been active in the gym. Sure, it’s not like he was going through the rigors of a fight camp, but it’s not like he’s coming back after sitting at home on the couch. He has arguably the best lineup of coaches behind him, including Freddie Roach, Firas Zahabi and John Danaher. There’s no doubt they’ve worked to get him prepared for UFC 217.
Can GSP beat Bisping? Of course he can. He’s one of the greatest of all time and has the perfect set of skills to counter Bisping’s forward pressure. Now, that doesn’t mean I expect GSP to get takedowns at will against the UFC champ. Bisping is going to be much bigger than St-Pierre come fight night, and the Englishman has undoubtedly been working on his takedown defense heading into this contest.
Bisping will push the pace with his insane cardio and make St-Pierre exhaust himself to not only score a takedown, but to keep the Brit grounded. We’re looking at a split decision in the end, with St-Pierre’s takedowns possibly negating Bisping’s boxing.
Kuhl: It’s still hard to think of Bisping sitting on a real throne. It’s more like a Burger King throne. He has only fought one real contender in Rockhold to capture the title. He had what amounts to an exhibition match against Hendo, and he hasn’t fought since. Can GSP unseat him? Abso-freakin-lutely! It would be ludicrous to say that any GSP, four years benched or not, could not beat Bisping.
GSP does not love MMA. He has said it time and time again. Unless he just simply needs the money, I’m not even sure why he’s coming back at this point. He has a tremendous team and is one of the most talented all-around fighters in history, but four years is a long time. If he really wants to do this, he will beat Bisping. If he doesn’t, that’s another story. Unlike José Aldo’s comeback fight against Conor McGregor, GSP won’t rush in and get clipped. He’s not reckless like that.
This one will go the distance, with GSP outworking Bisping for a fresh new title win. However, the Canadian won’t fare as well in a unification bout against interim champ Robert Whittaker.
In addition to the middleweight title showdown between Bisping and St-Pierre, this card also features a clash for bantamweight gold between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw and a women’s strawweight championship affair between Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Rose Namajunas. Which champion is most likely to lose their title? Which champ will definitely hold on to their belt?
Kuhl: I really believe both of the non-headlining champs will retain their belts, but, out of the two, Jędrzejczyk has a much better chance of staying unbeaten than Garbrandt does.
Namajunas is a top contender, for sure. Against other any top-10 fighter in the division, I’d give her the nod. She and Jędrzejczyk both have fierce mentalities, but the challenger may have a slight edge in the grappling department. Good luck getting the champ in a precarious position on the mat, though. Jędrzejczyk is a champion that transcends the sport, and Joanna “Champion” will outstrike Namajunas on the feet. If this fight goes the distance, Jędrzejczyk will take it decisively and remain unbeaten.
The bantamweight fight is not so simple. Both Garbrandt and Dillashaw are outstanding wrestlers. They have unique finishing power for bantamweights, too. Both have champion pedigrees, and they have trained together with the same coaches. So, they have at least some understanding of each other’s style. Either of these guys could get knocked out or submitted, but it’s just as easy to envision this fight going the distance. This is the true main event of the evening.
I predict Jędrzejczyk and Garbrandt will retain their belts, but if Dillashaw earns his title back, that will be no surprise.
Symes: Agreed. Garbrandt is the one more likely to lose his title.
Jędrzejczyk has looked so dominant thus far into her UFC career. Her toughest fights were against Claudia Gadelha, and the Polish star still managed to get her hand raised at the end of the night. Other challengers have only been able to obtain a few moments of success, moments that fail to matter when it’s pitted against Jędrzejczyk’s overall domination. “Thug Rose” is as legit as they come, but she won’t knock out Jędrzejczyk on the feet and Jędrzejczyk has proven to be one of the most difficult women to take down.
The bantamweight affair is a much more equal contest. Garbrandt looked amazing in his fight with Dominick Cruz. He danced circles around the former bantamweight champion. Dillashaw has a similar style to Cruz, but it is different in that Dillashaw is much more apt to stay in the pocket. Garbrandt made it look easy for most of his contest with Cruz. Can he do the same with Dillashaw?
At the end of the day, it would surprise me more if Namajunas knocks Joanna “Champion” off her perch than if Dillashaw beats Garbrandt.
Michał Oleksiejczuk — do we need to know this name?
Symes: A 22-year-old light heavyweight with a decent record? Yeah, I’d say it’s someone to pay attention to. The 205-pound division, once the pride of the UFC’s roster, has become a wasteland outside of the top guys. The division has a mix of veterans and younger guys, but only Volkan Oezdemir seems to have been able to separate himself from the pack. Of course, Oleksiejczuk is miles away from title discussion, but any time the 205-pound division can get some new blood, it’s a welcome sight.
We should have some reservations about the Polish fighter, though. He’s making his UFC debut and hasn’t faced a lot of stiff competition. He didn’t come up through Poland’s premier MMA promotion, KSW, and his wins came over guys with questionable records. You can’t fault him too much for handling the cards that were dealt to him, but it’s safe to say we should keep an eye on the young man.
Kuhl: The thing I like best about Oleksiejczuk is that he is a finish-or-be-finished type of fighter. He very rarely goes to decision, and he reminds me somewhat of a Polish version of Anthony Smith in that regard. It’s hard to judge his worth based on his previous opponents, which appear to be either relatively inexperienced or washed-up journeymen. That being said, he’s quite young, and his opponent is only 23 years old with a similar record, so it should be an exciting fight between two guys hungry to make a name for themselves in the UFC.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 217?
Kuhl: Michael Bisping, for sure. The guy has yet to fight a real challenger, but if he loses, “Oh well. He lost to GSP.” If he wins, “He beat GSP!” This is a money fight for “The Count” all the way, and, win or lose, he will come out a winner with a fat paycheck. Good for him. It’s a good thing for GSP as well, but if he loses, it was to Bisping and his legacy will start to fade. The other two titleholders and their challengers all have a lot to lose. Bisping got the sweetheart deal on this card.
Symes: My colleague stole the words out of my mouth. So, I’ll go with a different angle and say the biggest winner is anyone not at Team Alpha Male or in T.J. Dillashaw’s camp. The TAM-Dillashaw saga is one that’s gone on for far too long. From what I’ve seen online, most fans are ready to put this storyline to rest. If Dillashaw and Garbrandt turn out to have a close fight, I wouldn’t be surprised if the UFC tries to pair the two up again. However, it’d be great if we don’t have to deal with all the melodrama of Dillashaw leaving the Alpha Male camp.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 217?
Symes: Anyone outside of the title fights. Depending on how the three title fights play out, odds are most of the post-fight discussion is going to center on them. As for the rest of the card, there are some solid names that are capable of putting on memorable performances. Even the Fight Pass prelims feature a battle between two top-10 light heavyweights, plus the inclusion of talented heavyweight prospect Curtis Blaydes. They just won’t receive the attention they deserve.
Kuhl: Ovince St. Preux and Corey Anderson. This is a terrible fight for both men. Anderson is one loss away from fading into irrelevance. If Anderson loses, he’ll stand at 1-3 in his last four outings, with Jimi Manuwa and OSP as his only top-10 opponents.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kuhl: The heavyweight showdown between Curtis Blaydes and Aleksei Oleinik. Blaydes was 4-0 upon entering the UFC, and he has gone 2-1-1 since. He is a hard hitter with a bright future. Oleinik will be stepping into the cage for the 67th time in his decades-long career, and he is called “The Boa Constrictor” for a reason. These guys are coming in as a young striker versus a 40-year-old grappler, and this should be an exciting fight that will not go the distance.
Symes: It’s tough to call it a sleeper fight, considering both guys are so highly ranked, but Stephen Thompson and Jorge Masvidal are flying under the radar heading into UFC 217. With all the focus on GSP’s return and the title fights, this battle of top welterweights is an easy pick for “Fight of the Night.” Thompson has put on great fights with everyone except Tyron Woodley, and Masvidal isn’t going to be afraid to go after the former title challenger.
Pair this card with…
Symes: Caffeine. Or a mid-afternoon nap to rest up. As loaded as this card is, the final three fights all have the potential of going the distance. That’s 90 minutes of air time devoted just to what’s going on inside the cage. That’s not counting the pre-fight vignettes, walk-outs or discussion between the commentary teams. UFC 217 is packed with quality fights, but it has the potential to feel like it’s being paced at Fox Sports 1 levels if some of the fights don’t end before the final bell.
Kuhl: This whole card is set up to be action-packed with little potential for decisions. In keeping with a late-fall, football-and-fight season theme, I’m going with a plethora of choices. Endless decisions will reside in a mash-up of wings, cheeseburger dip, sliders, veggie tray, little smokies, and all the usual suspects. We’ll save the decisions for the kitchen counter.
|Fight||Symes’s Pick||Kuhl’s Pick|
|Main Card (Pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)|
|MW Championship: Michael Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre||St-Pierre||St-Pierre|
|BW Championship: Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw||Garbrandt||Garbrandt|
|Women’s StrawW Championship: Joanna Jędrzejczyk vs. Rose Namajunas||Jędrzejczyk||Jędrzejczyk|
|WW: Stephen Thompson vs. Jorge Masvidal||Thompson||Thompson|
|MW: Johny Hendricks vs. Paulo Borrachinha||Borrachinha||Borrachinha|
|Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)|
|LW: James Vick vs. Joseph Duffy||Vick||Duffy|
|HW: Mark Godbeer vs. Walt Harris||Harris||Harris|
|LHW: Ovince St. Preux vs. Corey Anderson||Anderson||St. Preux|
|WW: Mickey Gall vs. Randy Brown||Gall||Gall|
|Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 6:30 p.m. ET)|
|LHW: Michał Oleksiejczuk vs. Ion Cutelaba||Oleksiejczuk||Cutelaba|
|HW: Curtis Blaydes vs. Aleksei Oleinik||Blaydes||Oliynyk|
|BW: Aiemann Zahabi vs. Ricardo Ramos||Zahabi||Zahabi|