UFC 217 in-depth breakdown: Stylistic matchups, fight picks, best bets and fantasy studs

MMAjunkie Radio co-host and MMAjunkie contributor Dan Tom provides an in-depth breakdown of all of UFC 217’s main-card bouts.

UFC 217 takes place Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, and the main card airs on pay-per-view following prelims on FS1 and UFC Fight Pass.

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Michael Bisping (30-7 MMA, 20-7 UFC)

Michael Bisping

Staple info:

  • Height: 6’1″ Age: 38 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 75.5″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Dan Henderson (Oct. 8, 2016)
  • Camp: RVCA Gym (California)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Good

Supplemental info:
+ UFC middleweight champion
+ “TUF 3” winner
+ Regional MMA titles
+ 18 KO victories
+ 3 submission wins
+ 12 first-round finishes
+ Excellent feints and footwork
^ Manages distance well
+ Consistent pace and pressure
^ Good cardio and conditioning
+ Accurate left hook
+ Underrated wrestling
+ Good guard retentions and getups
– Dropped in 4 of last 6 fights

Georges St-Pierre (25-2 MMA, 19-2 UFC)

Georges St-Pierre

Staple info:

  • Height: 5’11” Age: 36 Weight: 185 lbs. Reach: 76″
  • Last fight: Decision win over Johny Hendricks (Nov. 16, 2013)
  • Camp: Tristar Gym (Canada)
  • Stance/striking style: Orthodox/kickboxing
  • Risk management: Excellent

Supplemental info:
+ Former UFC welterweight champion
+ Kyokushin karate black belt
+ Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt
+ 8 KO victories
+ 5 submission wins
+ 7 first-round finishes
+ Intelligent and tactical fighter
+ Well-versed striker
^ Conducts well off of the jab
+ Tremendous takedown ability
^ Changes level, chains, transitions
+ Excellent top game
^ Superb passing and ground strikes
– Coming off of a 4-year layoff

Summary:

The main event in Madison Square Garden is a superfight for the middleweight title as champ Michael Bisping welcomes back Georges St-Pierre.

A longtime staple of the UFC, Bisping’s better days were thought to be behind him after the veteran sustained an eye injury that was cause for concern and inconsistent performances alike. But after a storybook resurgence that came to fruition in 2016, the Englishman earned his long-sought title after beating the likes of Anderson Silva, Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson.

Seeking another legendary name to add to his resume, Bisping has accepted the challenge of a returning champion who’s also chasing history.

Considered the greatest welterweight of all time, St-Pierre was one of the few to walk away as champion, as well as a pound-for-pound great. Now, nearly four years after his last appearance in the octagon, St-Pierre has decided to return north of his usual weight class while attempting to become just the fourth fighter to achieve gold in two divisions.

With the intangible of St-Pierre’s extended layoff, it can be difficult to forecast what style or state the former welterweight champ will return in.

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Given St-Pierre’s insane work ethic, resources and obsessive nature, I am sure he’s coming into this contest in serviceable, battle-ready condition. Still, I would not be surprised to see a different version of the French-Canadian, who has had multiple iterations to his game throughout his career.

Coming from a Kyokushin karate base, St-Pierre’s striking style shone through in his initial ascension up the UFC ranks.

Embracing his sport karate stylings, St-Pierre would almost bounce in and out of range, working particularly well when striking off of his lead leg. And even though he could win fights on the feet, the French-Canadian was a complete fighter who was quietly crafting his wrestling game (with the help of Olympians) for the challenges ahead.

Not only did St-Pierre steadily develop into one of the best wrestlers in the division, but he – more importantly – used his newfound skills to fuel his love for strategy.

After his first career loss in what was a title fight with UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, St-Pierre began to gameplan much more wisely for his opposition. Against former welterweight title challengers in Frank Trigg and Sean Sherk, we saw St-Pierre do the unthinkable by out-wrestling two of the most accoladed wrestlers in the division to score spirit-crushing stoppages.

Although St-Pierre eventually earned his first welterweight belt, he quickly lost it to Matt Serra in what was one of the biggest upsets in MMA history.

From that point on, St-Pierre further hedged his bets in regards to preparation and strategy. After winning back his belt from Serra, St-Pierre continued to pile up victories before retiring following 12 straight wins.

Despite St-Pierre’s conservative style drawing criticism from some, the dominance of his game paints a pretty clear path for him in this matchup.

Bisping, a stick-and-move stylist, should have the on-paper advantages for as long this fight stays standing.

Coming from a kickboxing base, we saw Bisping steadily evolve his style over the years. After his knockout loss to Henderson, the Englishman made a concerted effort to come back better and sounder than before.

Since then, we have seen Bisping improve upon his hand and head positioning, as well as sitting down more on his punches. Although his high-output approach still makes him hittable by nature, we have seen Bisping minimize these scenarios since joining forces with Jason Parillo.

A striking coach with strong boxing roots, Parillo has helped many notable fighters grow, including lightweight legend B.J. Penn. In turn, we now see Bisping move much more fluidly with his footwork, which fuels his pulling and returning preferences.

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Applying angles appropriately, Bisping will also change his level more, which can open up his options and make him harder to hit. What is most impressive about the Englishman’s renaissance is the fact that he is doing it with only one healthy eye.

Shortly after his loss to Vitor Belfort, Bisping sustained an eye injury that required surgery, albeit not corrective.

Despite initially struggling in his return fight against Tim Kennedy, Bisping has since shown he can come back into combat, carrying a heightened sense of urgency and awareness about his game. Coupled with the byproducts of gelling with his striking coach, we have seen Bisping have his best years during what is arguably the winter of his career.

Still, striking improvements aside, Bisping has demonstrated that he is not beyond being taken down, which sets up the key dynamic for this fight.

Whether it’s through offensive or reactionary takedowns (that take place against the fence or in the open), I see St-Pierre inevitably getting Bisping to the ground.

The question, however, is: What will he be able to accomplish while there?

One of the best guard passers and ground strikers to grace the octagon, St-Pierre will undoubtedly have an array of options he can employ. That said, he will also be facing one of the best get-up artists in the game.

Although wrestling pressure has been Bisping’s traditional foil, he surprisingly succeeds little control time in both wins and losses. Facilitated by active hips, the Englishman beautifully utilizes a butterfly or half-guard to create enough space to stand or scoot his way to the fence.

Not afraid to turtle and stand if he needs to, Bisping displays excellent grip and hip awareness, making it difficult to grab his back in the process of getting up. St-Pierre has shown the ability to take an opponent’s back smoothly, but his conservative sensibilities had him opting for ride positions toward the latter part of his career.

Don’t get me wrong: St-Pierre electing high-percentage options is not bad in theory, but I see his style allowing Bisping to get back to this feet if the French-Canadian isn’t willing to put his pieces on the line when it comes to fighting for position.

So, with the most recent iteration of St-Pierre in mind, I have a hard time seeing Bisping getting submitted or stopped on the floor unless compromised prior. Nevertheless, takedowns score and will likely bank St-Pierre rounds, which leads me to my next question: How long will he be able to employ his transition game?

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St-Pierre was known for his conditioning and pace prior, but he is coming into this fight at least 15 pounds heavier than usual, with an additional four years of ring rust on his back. Whether it’s the weight of the moment or the literal pounds put on, St-Pierre will have some on-the-job intangibles to work through.

Furthermore, the stereotype of St-Pierre’s biological makeup and transition game shine less brightly when re-watching his last three fights – matchups that ended up putting the most miles on him, statistically speaking.

Not only did the former welterweight kingpin, in my opinion, appear to be a beat slower in transit (to what was an already slimmed down and refined game), but St-Pierre also seemed to struggle with his accuracy and output numerically.

We even saw Nick Diaz, who has an otherwise vacant double-leg defense, stuff legitimate takedown attempts from St-Pierre in their last two rounds of action. It was also in the mid to late rounds in which we saw St-Pierre sustain the most damage in each of his final three performances.

These type of trends usually don’t decrease over time, but the oddsmakers and public seem to be much more optimistic for the returning legend given how competitive the betting lines have been.

Part of me is happy to see St-Pierre back, and finally taking a step up in the size of his competition. However, I also feel he’s reaching into the wrong cookie jar for multiple reasons.

In the fight game, timing is typically the first thing to go, and we’ve seen it tax the greatest names in this sport. If St-Pierre cannot find his finish on the floor, then I see him eventually succumbing to Bisping’s pace and pressure before the final bell.

Official pick: Bisping insde the distance

Official outcome: To be determined

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