For the second year in a row, the MMA leader finds its biggest card of the year coming to the World’s Most Famous Arena — Madison Square Garden. Once again, the card is topped by three title fights which includes the return of the best welterweight champion of all time, the culmination of a bitter rivalry, and a dominant champion on the verge of history.
Johny Hendricks (18-7, 13-7 UFC) vs. Paulo Costa (10-0, 2-0 UFC)
It’s a classic former champion versus up and coming potential superstar matchup as the former UFC welterweight champion Hendricks faces Costa (also known as Paulo Borrachinha), a twenty-six-year-old Brazilian monster who will be making his United States debut at the Mecca.
Four years ago Hendricks was riding high. He was the man who droves Georges St. Pierre into retirement, he beat Robbie Lawler to win the vacant UFC welterweight title, and looked to be on his way to superstardom. But then, Hendricks lost the rematch to Lawler and soon it was all downhill.
First, it was the illness that forced him to cancel a fight with Tyrone Woodley. Then, it was the devastating first round knockout to Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson. Then there was the missing weight in losses to Kelvin Gastelum and Neil Magny. Hendricks was forced to middleweight and changed up his team, and in strange bit of happenstance, his jiu-jitsu coach became forth degree black belt Marcos Santos — who also became my coach at that time! He scored a nice win over Hector Lombard in February at his first fight at middleweight, but then shockingly missed weight at 185 in his hometown of Oklahoma City and then was knocked out by Tim Boestch.
But Hendricks has made the switch to the famous Jackson Wink Academy in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and says he feels rejuvenated. He has made weight for this fight and looks like a good state of mind. But he is fighting a certifiable monster in Costa, a ripped Brazilian who will have a three-inch height advantage. After knocking out Garreth McLellan in seventy-seven seconds in his UFC debut in February, he made his PPV debut and stopped the highly regarded Oluwale Bamgbose in two rounds in June.
Costa has finished all of his fights and Bamgbose is the only fighter to even make it into the second round with him. But Hendricks represents a huge step in class and Costa has never fought outside of Brazil, let alone in Madison Square Garden. If Hendricks is in shape and a little like the guy he was four years ago, he may be able to extend Costa and tell us just what the Brazilian has. But Hendricks, nice guy he may be, hasn’t shown that guy in the cage in a long time. Who knows what Johny shows up Saturday.
Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson (13-2-1, 7-2-1 UFC) vs. Jorge Masvidal (32-12, 9-5 UFC)
What an amazing matchup between two fighters who could not have more opposite backstories. Wonderboy is a clean-cut, handsome family man from South Carolina, who still teaches the kids class at the family karate school almost every day and came into MMA with an incredible kickboxing background. Masvidal came up in the streets of Miami, fighting in underground fights alongside the likes of the late Kimbo Slice, and won hearts not with his smile, but when he said of Cowboy Cerrone — “I smell the bitch in him, I smell the ho in him.” But both are top welterweights and excellent strikers, and represent a very interesting style matchup.
Thompson’s eclectic karate style propelled him to an amazing seven fight winning streak from 2013 to 2016, which lead to a welterweight title fight with champ Tyrone Woodley. Their spirited battle last November in the Garden was as close as it gets and ended a draw. Their rematch in March was the near opposite, drawing universal derision and once again Woodley kept his title, winning by a narrow decision.
Meanwhile, Masvidal went from the streets to the local Florida MMA scene to Strikeforce to Bellator to the UFC. After spending most of his career at lightweight, Masvidal moved up to welterweight last summer, and picked up big wins over Ross Pearson, Jake Ellenberger, and Cowboy in his hometown of Denver. This set up a defacto title eliminator with Damian Maia, but the man I call “The Hitman” lost a close decision. Both men know they need a win to stay in the welterweight title picture.
While Masvidal is the more versatile fighter, he does his best work on the inside and walks straight forward most of the time, which is music to the ears of Thompson, a deft counter striker who comes from the weirdest stances, distances, and angles. Masvidal will need an excellently executed gameplan to counter the strange style, and it’s hard to say if he is the wrestler needed to subdue Wonderboy. Meanwhile, Masvidal seems more interested in getting to faceoffs with Michael Bisping more than anything. He will need his focus on Wonderboy if he wants to win this pivotal matchup for which he surely is the underdog.
Joanna Jedrzejczyk (c) (14-0, 8-0 UFC) vs. Rose Namajunas (6-3, 3-2 UFC)
Since Joanna became Joanna Champion with her drubbing of Carla Esparza in March 2015, the Polish badass has racked up five consecutive title defenses against growingly fierce competition. She is one shy of the title defense record of six set by Ronda Rousey, but she may have chosen the wrong opponent this time.
Despite only having three pro fights, Thug Rose dominated the TUF 20 strawweight tournament before coming a cropper against Carla Esparza at the final in December 2014. Since then Rose has won four of five, with her only loss being a close decision to Karolina Kowalkiewicz last July. But then she came back with a devastating win over the red hot Michelle Waterson and clinched this title shot.
There is a myth that Joanna has run through everybody, but she hasn’t knocked anyone out in two years. The truth is that she hasn’t had a knockout in two years, she’s increasingly vulnerable to be hit (Karolina nearly starched her late last November), and she beats the other woman with excellent conditioning and solid game-planning. She emotionally coaxes them to either stand right in front of her where Joanna can work them over with solid combinations and leg kicks, or she makes them waste all of their energy trying to wrestle her early so she can pick them apart late.
But Rose is an unorthodox striker who rarely stands right in front of her opponent, and wrestles not to keep someone on the mat, but to set up strikes and to go from submissions from crazy angles. She is unlike anyone Joanna has ever faced in that department. Also, as this week has shown us, Rose is not intimidated by the champion. If you know Rose’s story, you know that she has gone through real horrors in her life, the kind that make the self-proclaimed ‘Boogey Woman’ not so scary. Rose is the last legit threat to Joanna at 115, and while there is chance that this is another five-round leg kick fest for the champ, something tells me we could see something unique in this fight.
Cody Garbrandt (c) (11-0, 6-0 UFC) vs. TJ Dillashaw (14-3, 10-3 UFC)
Finally, the beef that has been brewing for the better part of three years comes to ahead as this fight that was supposed to happen at UFC 212 in July finally comes to ahead. The narrative has been repeated over and over-a young fighter from Ohio to Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California, home of then UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw.
Dillashaw had shocked the invincible Renan Barao to win the title, but Garbrandt was holding his own and sometimes more in sparring. But when Urijah Faber and the rest of the team went to go coach Season 22 of TUF, a certain guy named Connor McGregor stirred the pot, calling Dillashaw a snake for claiming to still be Team Alpha Male, when he had clearly thrown his lot with their former coach, Duane Ludwig. It soon exploded, and got only worse when Dillashaw lost the title to Dominick Cruz. Dillashaw has been clearly superior to his two opponents since then, Rafael Assuncao and John Lineker, but he also has looked to be in the championship form he showed against Barao.
Meanwhile, Cody Garbrandt entered the UFC and started running through everybody, stopping four of five foes, including the highly touted Thomas Almeida to earn a shot a longtime champion Cruz. The man known as “No Love” fought an excellent fight, dropping Cruz several times and using his own unique form of movement to befuddle the champion and lift the title. Garbrandt has struggled against a back injury in the time since then, but now feels healthy and ready to defend his title, especially after finally releasing the much ballyhooed tape of him knocking out Dillashaw in sparring. (The video shows Cody dropping TJ with a counter overhand right, but doesn’t show what happens immediately after).
Unlike the last title fight, this is one where I fall in with this conventional thinking-if Garbrandt could figure out Cruz’s movement, he can figure out Dillashaw’s. Also, Dillashaw has certain holes in his movement that neither Barao, Assuncao, or Lineker could take advantage of, that Garbrandt has the speed and timing to find. If Dillashaw tries to do what he does, I think Cody takes him out. Dillashaw might be better suited to trying to make Garbrandt trade with him and counterstrike, and exploit all of that emotion. The only thing that we can hope for is that all the emotion leads to some fireworks, and we get a bantamweight title fight for the ages.
Michael Bisping (c) (30-7, 20-7 UFC) vs. Georges St. Pierre (25-2, 20-2 UFC)
The main event pits the two most prolific fighters in the UFC against each other in what has not gotten enough credit as a legitimate dream matchup. Of course, Georges St. Pierre is the greatest welterweight champion in the sports history, with his reign of nine title defense crossing five years. At that time, Michael Bisping was the unofficial gatekeeper for middleweight champions Anderson Silva and Chris Weidman.
If you wanted a title shot, you had to get past Bisping, although “The Count” never got a title shot himself. Then in 2013, Georges took a beating in a close decision win against Johny Hendricks and “stepped away” from the sport. Meanwhile, Bisping found the run he had been looking for his entire career. He beat Silva in February 2016 and stepped in on short notice in his first title shot against the dominant Luke Rockhold and knocked him out in three minutes to win the UFC middleweight title.
But now St. Pierre is back, moving up for the fight that was first announced in the Spring, but delayed because of injuries to both men and the time needed to get Georges back into the testing pool. It has been four years since St. Pierre’s last fight, but at the same time, Bisping himself hasn’t fought since his close win versus Dan Henderson at UFC 204, thirteen months ago. Ring rust will be a factor for both men. That being said, this is still a near impossible fight to predict, because no fighter in history has been able to do what Georges is attempting.
The history of combat sports is littered with great champions who come off long layoffs and try to reclaim their past glory. The closest successful example of that in the UFC is Dominick Cruz, but he wasn’t moving up in weight to fight a great champion-and Bisping, no matter what you think of him, is a great champion.
This fight isn’t so much just a test for St. Pierre, but modern sports science. Georges has trained for months for this fight, using all of the modern techniques to the hilt. But will his timing, which allowed him to takedown and control so many excellent fighters, still be there. Georges was getting hit and rocked by the likes of Hendricks and Carlos Condit before he left. What happens when a big middleweight like Bisping touches him?
There are so many questions in this fight, but in the end, Georges isn’t just fighting the fighter with the most wins and second most cage time in UFC history in Bisping — he’s fighting history.
Here’s your full card for tonight’s event:
Main Card (PPV – 10 p.m. ET)
Middleweight Championship Bout
Michael Bisping (c) (30-7) vs. Georges St. Pierre (25-2)
Bantamweight Championship Bout
Cody Garbrandt (c) (11-0) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (14-3)
Strawweight Championship Bout
Joanna Jedrzejczyk (c) (14-0) vs. Rose Namajunas (6-3)
Stephen Thompson (13-2-1) vs. Jorge Masvidal (32-12)
Johny Hendricks (18-7) vs. Paulo Borrachinha (10-0)
Preliminary Card (FS1 – 8 p.m. ET)
James Vick (11-1) vs. Joe Duffy (16-2)
Walt Harris (10-6) vs. Mark Godbeer (12-3)
Light Heavyweight Bout
Ovince St. Preux (21-10) vs. Corey Anderson (9-3)
Randy Brown (9-2) vs. Mickey Gall (4-0)
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass – 7 p.m. ET)
Aleksei Oleinik (55-10-1) vs. Curtis Blaydes (7-1)
Aiemann Zahabi (7-0) vs. Ricardo Ramos (10-1)