Friday 20 July 2018

UFC 217: Michael Bisping vs GSP is a mysterious match-up that headlines the best card of the year

UFC President Dana White moderates questions between fighters Michael Bisping of England (L) and Georges St-Pierre of Canada (R) during the UFC 217 Press Conference inside Madison Square Garden on November 2, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
UFC President Dana White moderates questions between fighters Michael Bisping of England (L) and Georges St-Pierre of Canada (R) during the UFC 217 Press Conference inside Madison Square Garden on November 2, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Dan Hardy

A legend of the Octagon returns this weekend at UFC 217, as the UFC rolls into Madison Square Garden with a card headlined by three title fights. Reigning and defending middleweight champion, Michael Bisping, puts his belt on the line against the greatest welterweight of all time, Georges St-Pierre.

After a four year lay-off, GSP has decided to make his comeback at a higher weight class and take on one of the most successful and polarizing fighters ever to step into the Octagon. With the highest total fight time, most wins and most significant strikes landed, Bisping is a tough match-up for anyone.

With incredible resilience and conditioning, Bisping has been able to overcome some of the best fighters in the sport, pushing a hard pace and never accepting defeat - no matter how dire the circumstances get. His heart and ability to endure has seen him rise and fall, and rise again, all the way to the world title.

Now he has the opportunity to add St-Pierre to that list of achievements - and Bisping is determined to do so. The trash talking has been led by Michael but what is unusual is that St-Pierre has been standing his ground.

Usually GSP is rather quiet but this new outspoken version could be a glimpse at some of the changes he has undergone during his four year sabbatical. After the string of title defences he put together before stepping away in 2013, it is no surprise that St-Pierre needed a break.

After a close fought decision win against Hendricks at UFC 167, it was clear that GSP was not in the right place mentally to continue his reign. In these last few years he has sat on the sidelines and watched as the likes of Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor rose to stardom and continued growing the sport of MMA in the mainstream.

Now he feels ready, he has selected Michael as his preferred opponent, stepping up a weight class, taking on the champion and headlining the biggest card of the year - typical GSP style! It was never going to be a low-key return and the opponent was never going to be a pushover, but choosing Bisping really shows that GSP feels ready.

In Michael he knows he'll get an aggressive opponent that can sell a fight in the build-up and come ready for war on the night. This will give GSP the opportunity to employ his strong wrestling offensive and try to nullify Bisping's high-paced kickboxing style.

This is exactly what Michael is expecting and dating all the way back to his Rashad Evans fight a decade ago he's shown good takedown defence and an even better ability to get back to his feet. It's that durability that I feel will cause GSP the most problems.

To control a bigger athlete, with more tenacity than the rest of his weight class, over 25 minutes is surely going to be taxing. Even if Michael is grounded and controlled for the first couple of rounds, as long as he can stay out of GSP's submissions, he will be able to push a striking gameplan in the later rounds.

GSP’s four years away from competition does add a little mystery to this fight, as St-Pierre is a real student of the game. He will have no doubt added to his skills but putting them into practice when the pressure is on is another thing entirely.

I think Bisping will be counting on St-Pierre showing up with a similar approach to before. In which case it will be a night of sprawl and brawl for the British champion, where he will hope to land enough strikes to take the belt home with him and send GSP back into obscurity.

The co-main event is a genuine grudge match between two former Alpha Male teammates. Former bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw hopes to regain his title and validate the decision to leave his old team in Sacramento, California. To do so he must better the current champion, Cody Garbrandt.

The animosity has been brewing for some time. Tensions between the two were evident as they coached opposing teams on The Ultimate Fighter. They know each other very well, both on and off the mat, to the point that Cody helped TJ win the bantamweight title in July 2015, against Renan Barao.

After the team fractured and Dillashaw moved to Colorado, following his striking coach, Duane Ludwig, Garbrandt was able to focus on his own title pursuits. When TJ lost the title to Dominick Cruz in his third defence in January last year, it left the door open for Cody to step in and better Dillashaw's effort.

And he did just that at UFC 207 almost a year ago, shutting down Cruz, hurting him, and even showboating throughout the fight to demonstrate his confidence. It seemed to me that the deciding factor in both Dillashaw’s and Garbrandt's approaches, was the power in the hands of Cody.

TJ is a strong wrestler with excellent footwork. His ability to switch stances during his attack puts many opponents on the back foot and disguising his takedowns amongst the attack makes him very much a hybrid fighter with a lot of ways to win.

It is, however, a much more grinding style of competing, having to outwrestle and outpoint his opponents and hope to wear them down. Garbrandt's power, on the other hand, can level any man in the division with one shot. I feel like a win for TJ will be a much more hard-fought effort than a potential fight-changing right hand from the defending champion.

I expect this one to be very competitive, with the probability of a trilogy developing in the future. Both of these men are at the top of their game. Add Cruz in there and the story gets even deeper. It's always difficult when a team breaks down and one of the mainstays in the gym leaves. It's even more troubling for all involved when there are more than one team mate in the same weight class.

Even more unlikely is for them to be the two best in the world! These guys both know each other so well. It may come down to which man has evolved most since TJ's departure from Team Alpha Male.

As if that wasn't enough action for you, I would be amiss not to mention the third title up for grabs at UFC 217. It is widely agreed to be the least likely to change hands, as Joanna Jedrzejczyk has been nothing but dominant since becoming the women’s strawweight world champion.

Still unbeaten in 14 contests, she looks to be head and shoulders above the rest of the division and is already lining up the women's flyweight title in the future. Her opponent is Rose Namajunas, who is still a developing fighter, but is already on an impressive tear through the division.

Namajunas' game seems to gravitate towards the rear naked choke finish. Her striking is effective but elementary in comparison to Joanna but she has shown a good ability to ground her opponent and, in the chaos, take their back.

This will undoubtedly be the safest place for her in this bout, as Joanna will be bringing a full set of Muay Thai skills and an excellent defensive wrestling game. The approach for both fighters is much more clearly defined than the other two sets of fighters. Although Rose can mix it up, the safest route to victory is not trading blows with the champion.

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