After years of political stonewalling, the UFC finally found its way into New York last November and did what it promised to do—it shattered the all-time gate record at Madison Square Garden. And after so many years of lobbying in Albany to have the sport sanctioned in the state, how could the UFC not show up as big as it did? Conor McGregor took on Eddie Alvarez to become the UFC’s first two-division champion, which all by itself compelled Madonna and Zac Efron to turn up cageside. The title fights between welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson and women’s strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Karolina Kowalkiewicz were bang-for-the-buck numbers, over-the-top card stacking to distinguish UFC 205 from your ordinary event.
It was a hootenanny, all right, but it came at a steep price. The absurd concentration of star power at UFC 205 compromised the next handful of UFC pay-per-views, leaving its matchmakers scrambling. UFC 206 saw the invention of an interim featherweight title bout between Anthony Pettis and Max Holloway out of necessity (and thin air), and UFC 208 the invention of the women’s featherweight division in a match between Germaine de Randamie and Holly Holm (perhaps the worst idea in company history). One huge blowout show made for several pathetic ones.
Did the UFC learn anything from it? Hell no!
The UFC is returning to MSG on Saturday night in a similar fashion, only this time there’s—to use a nice word—creativity in the matchmaking at the top, to go along with some luminous supporting acts. Once again there will be three title fights, this time with the return of popular champion Georges St-Pierre as the hook. It won’t do the gangbusters that last year’s card did (which produced just shy of an $18 million gate, and right around 1.3 million PPV buys), if for no other reason than this—last year New York itself, the very idea of it, was the spirit behind the draw. Madison Square Garden and the UFC were the real headliners, with McGregor acting as a kind of master of ceremonies.
Still, just as last time McGregor had his play at history at fighting’s Mecca, UFC 217 has its fair share of historic markers in play, even if the promotion itself has (somewhat inexplicably) downplayed them. Here’s what’s in store:
Round 1: The Real Significance of Michael Bisping vs. GSP
Georges St-Pierre is returning to a different realm than the one he walked away from four years ago as the reigning welterweight champion (which I wrote about here), but his middleweight title fight against Michael Bisping is a true legacy jam. And not just because Bisping has a chance to add another scalp from MMA’s Mount Rushmore to his collection (having already defeated the consensus GOAT Anderson Silva last year), but because these are the two winningest fighters of all time.
That alone should be enough to make a toupee spin: Bisping has more victories than anybody else in UFC history with 20, and his next closest counterpart is St-Pierre, who is just behind him at 19. Should GSP return triumphantly on Saturday night, he would not only take Bisping’s title, but he would pull even in wins with “The Count”—a nickname that’s grown more apt with each victory. This is Larry and Magic going one-on-one, but doing it in 1992 when arthritis shows up on the list of intangibles.
And each time you turn your head you could swear this fight is winking at you. St-Pierre has never competed as a middleweight—he spent his whole career before leaving the company four years ago as a welterweight, 15 pounds lighter—a fact that has turned some people off as far as him being a “deserving” contender. Bisping has been taking on contenders out of order, which only fuels the popular notion that he’s ducking the top guys. All of this is hard to dispute.
Still, it’s a fun fight for all its bewildering “what ifs.” Bisping says he’ll fight interim middleweight champion Robert Whittaker if he comes out on top. Should GSP win, he says he’s contractually obligated to do the same. And with Whittaker looming over the festivities like the Babadook, the UFC is afforded a moment to squeeze this one in. It’s just as likely that whoever loses will retire. In that way, this is just an outside-of-time-and-logic fight for two ridiculously durable fighters coming to trade blows just for the fuck of it (and money).
The fact that they’re colliding in somewhat random fashion as older gentlemen gives the fight a lived-in, leathery feel, that of thick ears and scar tissue. Bisping is 38, and St-Pierre is 36—these are guys who eat punches for breakfast. Yet as far as cumulative punishment goes, nobody has taken more licks than Bisping has over the years, nor taken those licks with such an air of goading dickheadedness (and that’s a compliment). Bisping avenged his UFC 100 loss against Dan Henderson last October, but looked like he’d jumped out of a moving car going 80 miles per hour afterward. Same thing for his fight with Silva, which he somehow prevailed in, proving if nothing else that his chin is indeed an extension of his heart.
Should the ever-unsung Bisping beat GSP, people will have to reevaluate where he ranks in the canon of greats. What better stakes are there for a fight than a potential rewrite of our own perceptions?
Round 2: Joanna Jedrzejczyk Looks to Tie Ronda Rousey’s Record
It’s telling of the fleeting nature of fight celebrity that Ronda Rousey went from being a female version of 1980s Mike Tyson to a sulking J.D. Salinger in the space of three years. After losing back-to-back fights, Rousey has all but disappeared from the UFC, yet her consecutive streak of title defenses still stands atop the sphere of women’s MMA at six.
She could have company by Saturday night. Just like GSP can catch Bisping for all-time wins, the current strawweight champion, Jedrzejczyk, can tie Rousey’s record with a victory over the “Thug,” Rose Namajunas. She’s a prohibitive favorite to do so, though if you’ve watched the lead-up to the fight you know that Namajunas’s unnerving, unflappable calm has piqued the interest of gamblers looking for a live dog.
In MMA, not everything is equal. Catching Rousey in the black-and-white sense of compiling title defenses is one thing, but surpassing Rousey as the face of women’s MMA is another. In fact, people should give up on the idea that Jedrzejczyk’s popularity will ever come within a country mile of Rousey. For one thing, Jedrzejczyk is a Polish fighter in a North American company. People can’t spell her name, including the UFC’s promotional team, which has listed her on all UFC 217 promotional material as simply “Joanna.”
Then there’s this: Rousey destroyed people. During her delirious run from early 2014 to late 2015, Rousey spent a grand total of two minutes and 10 seconds in the octagon though four fights. It was ridiculous. She didn’t just beat Sara McMann, Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, and Bethe Correia—she took their identities away and left them nameless. You tuned in to see Rousey not for a competitive fight, but to see how fast she could dispose of a delusional human being. It was that kind of run, before Holly Holm brought her crashing down to earth at UFC 193.
For the dominant strawweight champ Jedrzejczyk, it’s never going to be like that. Jedrzejczyk (14-0) has a real chance of going down as the greatest women’s mixed martial artist in history, but she can never be Ronda Rousey, because without Rousey she wouldn’t even be fighting in the UFC. And she doesn’t really need to be. Jedrzejczyk has won unanimous decisions in each of her past four fights, figuring out her opposition, and then ladling out punishment for the entire allotment of time. She’s vicious, too. Her striking combinations are the best in her division. Her jab shoots out as suddenly as a busted coil. She seems to enjoy the sight of blood.
For her it’s a slow, torturous burn. If she does that to Namajunas, the next step might be to see how she does headlining a pay-per-view event—then conquering the new 125-pound division, and who knows what else. She may accomplish things that will never be duplicated in MMA when all’s said and done, yet the sky will never be the limit, not when people still think of Rousey as the sky.
Round 3: Squashing Beef—the Fight of the Night Is Garbrandt vs. Dillashaw
All you need for a big title fight is two apex competitors in their prime, some backstory, and some bad blood. That’s the setup for Cody Garbrandt’s bantamweight title fight with his former training partner, T.J. Dillashaw. When Garbrandt first showed up at Team Alpha Male in 2014, Dillashaw was the 135-pound champion and therefore a mentor to the wide-eyed Garbrandt, fresh out to California from rural Ohio.
That was then. A lot has happened since.
In a nutshell, after Dillashaw followed his coach Duane Ludwig to Colorado in 2015, he became Public Enemy No. 1 to his betrayed training partners back in Sacramento. During the split, words traveled back and forth across the Rocky Mountains. Garbrandt came into his own over the next couple of years, raising his record to 10-0 and emerging as one of the bright young stars in fighting. Dillashaw eventually lost the title to Dominick Cruz in 2016, and Garbrandt put on a virtuoso performance against Cruz in December to win the title and then dangle it over Dillashaw’s head. The two coached opposite each other on The Ultimate Fighter this past season just so they could seethe at each other in a more public setting.
So that’s where they are now, with the hate manifesting into a fight and Dillashaw jumping up trying to snatch the upstart Garbrandt’s belt.
If the drama isn’t enough, the fighting styles are. Garbrandt is one of the game’s most bewitching strikers, one who is accurate, aggressive, and powerful—who moves with purpose and uses space like nobody else in the division. His handling of Cruz back in December was one for the ages. It was as if he penned his opus right in front of everyone at the age of 25, outfoxing the unoutfoxable Cruz and taunting his inability to adjust. It was more than a victory; it was a passing of the guard.
Yet this is the fight that will tell us just how far out in front of everyone he really is. The lingering image of Dillashaw is the one that warped Renan Barão with speed and pressure on two different occasions and solved the likes of John Lineker with the all-in-a-day’s-work calm of a hitman.
If that’s not enough, both fighters are hoping to parlay a victory into a superfight with the flyweight champion, which—if that were to happen no matter who wins—is an early candidate for Fight of the Year in 2018.
Round 4: “Wonderboy” and “Gamebred”
The gravy fight is Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson returning to MSG to take on Jorge Masvidal. This fight is great all around. After getting frustrated by the immovable object personified, Tyron Woodley, in a pair of close title fights, Thompson gets the chance to square off against one of the most accommodating, zero-fucks-to-give brawlers in the welterweight division—Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal.
This fight has KO or TKO written all over it. Masvidal is a brash former street fighter from Miami, who thinks of himself as a kind of bounty hunter being commissioned to take out UFC undesirables. This is a shtick that has worked for him, especially in his fight with Demian Maia. Thompson is a Bible-reading karate guy from South Carolina, who doesn’t swear or eat too much white sugar. The one thing he does do is light people up with his feet, using kicks as a primary offensive weapon. Once he’s in rhythm—like he was when he chopped down Johny Hendricks last year—it’s the most beautiful thing you’ll see in fighting.
You know Masvidal will leave his chin out there to tee off on, but it takes only one miss for him to land his own. Somebody will have birdies circling their head in this one, probably in the early rounds.
Round 5: Best of the Rest
UFC 217 is top-heavy with the title fights, but there are three good ones to keep your eyes on otherwise.
–Johny Hendricks vs. Paulo Borrachinha
It’s got to be a little spooky for Hendricks to show up on a card like this, with so many demons from his past swarming around him. Hendricks was the last guy that St-Pierre faced way back at UFC 167, and plenty of people thought he won the bout. Though he did end up winning the vacant title against Robbie Lawler when GSP stepped away, it’s been vertigo ever since. He was picked apart by Thompson in February 2016, has lost three of the four fights he’s had since, and missed weight three out of four times as well. You get the feeling if he doesn’t show well against the undefeated Borrachinha, Hendricks’s UFC stint might be over. And desperation oftentimes makes for memorable fights.
–James Vick vs. Joseph Duffy
There’s no Conor McGregor on Saturday, but there is the guy who beat Conor McGregor back in 2010, Joseph Duffy. Not that Duffy needs the reminder—in fact, he has grown very tired of talking about the time he tapped McGregor in Cage Warriors—because he’s won back-to-back fights and is 4-1 in the UFC. The 29-year-old Irishman has a chance to add a pretty big name to his conquests in Vick, who is 7-1 in the UFC and coming off back-to-back finishes over Abel Trujillo and Marco Polo Reyes (no, I am not making that name up). This is a sleeper for Fight of the Night.
—Randy Brown vs. Mickey Gall
Both of these guys emerged from Dana White’s reality show Lookin’ for a Fight, with the more notable of the two being the 25-year-old Gall. He was the one that welcomed CM Punk to MMA back at UFC 203 and unceremoniously choked him out after 134 seconds of playtime. He also took out UFC golden boy Sage Northcutt back in December (also via rear-naked choke). Brown, who has a bit of an East Coast rivalry with Gall, has had the tougher fights, and he has a nice fan base in New York. For Gall, a win over Brown would be a natural next step in becoming a star.