UFC 217 preview and predictions as triple threat of title fights tops the bill in New York

Alex Rea 3/11/2017
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Contrary to UFC president Dana White‘s claims, 2017 has not by any stretch been the company’s most distinguished.

Last year saw the premier MMA promotion put on five pay-per-view cards which hit one million or more in buys but contrasting fortunes has seen not one make the mark in 2017.

That doesn’t mean there has been a shortage in thrilling fights and absorbing narratives but without the ability to milk cash cows Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, they have been short off star pulling power.

That will not be the case for UFC 217 and the return to Madison Square Garden on November 4.

Indeed, three title fights top the bill with the best ever welterweight, women’s strawweight and one of the most intense rivalries on offer.

Here is a look at the bouts everyone is talking about.

Women’s strawweight title fight

Joanna Jedrzejczyk v Rose Namajunas

Jedzrejczyk talks quick, fights even quicker and her ascent into the pound-for-pound debate is quickening with every fight.

The champion’s reputation is growing and her development into one of the most feared strikers on the planet will surely mean she tops a bill of this nature by herself in due time.

As it is, her clash with Namajunas starts off the title-fight triple-header and the match-up is a sensational one.

The high-speed Pole brings relentless volume and an ability to fight at a tornado pace for the full 25 minutes.

She breaks opponents down with strikes from any limb and is equally as cruel outside the Octagon as she is in it.

Indeed, extra heat has been added to the mix after Jedzrejczyk touched on the sensitive personal past of Namajunas by labelling her “mentally unstable”.

In reality no trash talk is required because the styles make for a fascinating fight.

Jedzrejczyk’s elite-level striking will be challenged by Namajunas’s slick submission work with either a fight-ending choke or stand-up clinic likely to play out.

Prediction

Jedzrejczyk R4 TKO

Bantamweight title fight

Cody Garbrandt v T.J. Dillashaw

Nothing beats a good rivalry – especially a genuine one.

Too often the UFC has had grudge matches built on artificial disdain but that is far from the case with former team-mates Garbradnt and Dillashaw.

Not only does this bout have the backdrop of personal bad blood but it also has two of the very best at 135lbs going toe-to-toe.

The story is a well read one but for the uninitiated a brief timeline will suffice to hook you in.

Dillashaw left Team Alpha Male under a cloud of controversy. Garbrandt is a former training partner and TAM loyalist.

Dillashaw’s dispute with the team soon saw Garbrandt thrust into the role of TAM frontman and the pair coached against each other on a fierce season of The Ultimate Fighter.

The bad blood boiled and it all leads to an explosive bout come fight night. The emotive undercurrent is just one aspect of interest, though.

Both are highly skilled fighters with their own twist of violence. Dillashaw is a fighter who creates more angles than a protractor with his ‘neo-footwork’ harder to read than any maths exam.

He’s precise and powerful with his methodical approach married to an endless gas tank.

Then there is the champion, a physical phenom with an lion-heart. His boxing skills are arguably the best in MMA with his hand speed blurring and his fists fearful.

Both are elite-level wrestlers, both have outstanding striking and they both hate each other – sit back an bust out the popcorn for this one.

Prediction

Garbradnt, majority decision

Middleweight title fight

Michael Bisping v Georges St-Pierre

Before Conor McGregor’s emergence, the best trash talking European fighter was Michael Bisping and the biggest PPV star was Georges St-Pierre.

Both have since had their titles ripped away by the divisive Irishman but it does not make this main event less interesting by any stretch of the imagination.

The unknowns and knowns are what make this fight fascinating.

And we’ll start with the knowns. Bisping is the middleweight champion and GSP is returning from a near four year sabbatical.

The two are in the twilight stages of their career with the champ aged 38 and the challenging Canadian 36.

The Brit is the naturally bigger man with GSP moving up from the division he dominated and that’s where the unknowns come into the equation.

GSP is fighting 15lbs above welterweight and is four years older since his last fight against Johny Hendricks. No one really knows what version of the welterweight GOAT we’re going to see.

His evolution from slick kickboxer to smothering wrestler in the latter part of his career makes you wonder what iteration of GSP will be on display given his age, weight class and opponent.

And for all Bisping’s criticism having fought a 46-year-old Dan Henderson after shocking Luke Rockhold to take the belt, he’s better than ever.

His footwork is smart and limitless while his ‘pillow punches’ now pack power.

It’s the older, bigger but active champion against a king of old back to claim a new throne to join an exclusive dynasty of two-weight titlists.

Prediction

Bisping, unanimous decision

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Gokhan Saki slept Henrique Da Silva and in the process has awoken the UFC's 205lbs division

Alex Rea 24/09/2017
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Gokhan Saki knocked the senses out of Henrique Da Silva and then delivered a message to the rest of the UFC light-heavyweight division – be ready.

The 33-year-old was comfortably the most intriguing takeaway from UFC Japan as he made a stunning start to his career with the premier MMA promotion.

And his thunderous first-round stoppage didn’t just practically sleep the Brazilian, but it also woke a division which has been dazed and disorientated after Jon Jones was stripped of the title again.

Light-heavyweight has been crying out for an injection of new talent and while the window of opportunity is not quite so open with Saki turning 34 next month, the next 12 months will certainly be entertaining.

The “Turkish Tyson, who lives in Dubai and began his preparations from a 29-month layover in the Emirate, bounced bombs off his durable adversary with laser-like precision.

But that’s nothing new. Saki is a kickboxing legend, after all, a fighter with nearly 100 pro fights and a marriage of skill and mental fortitude which saw him compete against anyone at any weight.

His striking credentials were always going to impress but beyond the stoppage was two key elements of analysis – takedown defence and cardio.

Da Silva failed to complete a single takedown but Saki’s ability to snuff them out was built on strength rather than technique and it meant he faded before his seismic finish.

Granted, the three minute rounds in kickboxing vastly contrast five in MMA but it’s an area which the Turkish-Dutch fighter will point to for improvement.

With only four months of genuine wrestling practice, though, he displayed excellent defence and more development will mean he’s a genuine threat.

While the preference would be to build Saki up slowly to better prepare him for the wrestle-heavy background of occupants inside the top-10, ultimately, at his age and with his mileage on the clock, time is no luxury.

That’s something Saki himself realises, though.

“I stopped for two-and-a-half years, and I’m not back just to take part in the UFC and tell people I’m a UFC fighter,” Saki said in his post-fight press conference. “I’m here to take over.”

The warning was ominous and it’s backed by an impressive performance – the rest of the 205lbs division better take notice and be ready.

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Gokhan Saki is uncaged and ready for the UFC cage as the 'Cristiano Ronaldo' of kickboxing makes his big debut

Alex Rea 21/09/2017
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Gokhan Saki (via/UFC.com)

Thirteen years ago MMA was completely foreign to Gokhan Saki – he thought the acronym was for an insurance company.

That’s not a damning indictment of the sport considering it was still in its infancy in 2004 but it does give you an indication of Saki’s career trajectory.

Indeed, the 33-year-old will compete in MMA for just the second time this weekend, some 13 years on from his debut. But instead of fighting on a small promotion in the UK on very short notice, he’s making his first appearance for the world’s premier organisation as the UFC heads to Japan.

And he does so with the resume of a kickboxing legend, a former Glory light-heavyweight champion with close to 100 professional fights on his record and a brand of blurring speed and knockout power which is sure to light up the Octagon.

The Dutch-Turkish fighter, who lives in Dubai, faces Henrique Da Silva in a meeting at 205lbs and he is promising fireworks for a division which has lacked spark.

After a two-and-half-year absence from competition, a combination of promotional disputes and incentive keeping him away from fighting, Saki himself has been illuminated by this new challenge – one even he acknowledges is a little unexpected.

“I was just thinking about that (his 2004 MMA debut to now fighting for the UFC) the other day. Crazy, huh?” Saki tells Sport360.

Crazy, indeed because he represents an unusual signing by the UFC, given their penchant for acquiring young prospects rather than storied fighters such as Saki.

However, he’s a smart addition to the roster with his suffocating style sure to energise fans, but it has been some journey to get to this point considering the circumstances surrounding his 2004 debut.

“I was out with friends at 4am and got the call from my coach as I was walking out of a nightclub in Rotterdam,” Saki recalls. “He asked if I would replace a fighter who was injured for the main event and I was young, hungry and willing to fight anyone.

“I was on the plane at 8am and arrived in Liverpool and they told me it was an MMA fight. At first I thought it was an insurance company or something. I never trained for MMA and partied the night before but they showed me some tricks in the locker room and it helped me last for seven minutes.”

Since his MMA bow, Saki has armed himself with a catalogue of new tricks having trained with elite-level wrestlers and BJJ black belts over the last year. He makes no secret of his desire to become a UFC champion in 2018 and the road to gold begins in Japan.

His timing couldn’t be more perfect. The 205lbs division is in state of disarray with Jon Jones’ doping violation seeing him stripped of the title again after beating Daniel Cormier at UFC 214.

With Cormier reinstated, new challengers must emerge and Alexander Gustafsson is the only obvious contender right now.

It’s an ambition which has reignited a fire in “The Turkish Tyson” after his protracted pursuit of Glory heavyweight champion Rico Verhoeven proved fruitless, a fight he believes both the promotion and his Dutch counterpart wanted to avoid.

Now, he returns to fighting, uncaged and in the cage.

“There was no challenge in kickboxing anymore. That was the biggest reason for making this move,” he explains.

“I was not happy anymore. I didn’t have the hunger. Not to train or anything. So I stopped and I haven’t fought in nearly two and half a years but about a year ago I felt empty. I fought for 20 years and I didn’t finish my career in the right way. I missed fighting, even after so long doing it.

“I still have the power, the hunger and the energy. I’m happy again. There is no better way to come back than this way.

“In kickboxing there was one challenge (Verhoeven) but this guy didn’t want to fight me so the UFC came and now I’m ready to go.

“Rico is like my ex-girlfriend – I don’t want to talk about him. This is the new book I am opening in Japan. The old one is closed and I am ready to write a new chapter.”

Saki is not short of confidence. He doesn’t just shoulder the pressure of expectation but embraces and thrives on it. And he needs to, because the transition from kickboxing to MMA has been notoriously difficult and despite the Netherlands being a hotbed for some of the most dangerous strikers in the world, it’s failed to produce a UFC champion since Bas Rutten in 1999.

“I’m going to be the new Dutch champion 100 per cent,” he adds. “This time next year I will be the UFC champion, that is my aim and this is what I will make happen. I’m not going to waste a moment, taking breaks. I want to fight and work towards my goal.

“There’s no rust. My sparring is real fighting. My sparring is very often harder than what I have to do in the fight, especially now as I spar every day for 12 rounds. I’m a fighter and I’ve been doing this a long time so I don’t care about the time off. I will be the first Dutch champion since Bas Rutten and I will also be the UFC’s first Turkish champion.”

Back in his homeland, a country populated by sports fanatics, Saki is idolised. As the most successful fighter in Turkey’s history, he’s made friends with his fellow countrymen in the NBA and in Europe’s leading football leagues with the likes of Gokhan Tore sending him well wishes.

“I was a very good footballer. If I choose to play football then 100 per cent I would have been playing for Manchester United or Barcelona,” he says. “In kickboxing I became the Ronaldo or the Messi of the sport.

“Now it’s time to bring that to MMA.”

Saki faces Da Silva at UFC Fight Night 117 in Saitama this Saturday with the main card live and exclusive on OSN Sports Action 2HD from 06:00

SNAP KICKS

LIVING IN DUBAI

I’ve lived in Dubai for three years and then the last year I was between here and Turkey, up and down. I started back training in Dubai but then there wasn’t enough in terms of facilities so I went to Sweden and trained at All Stars with Alexander (Gustafsson), Ilir (Latifi) and a lot of other MMA fighters there.

MOVING BETWEEN DIVISIONS

I’m a fighter, if someone will challenge me and if there is someone I want to fight then I will challenge them. If it’s a heavyweight, I don’t care, I’ll fight everybody. I fought Semmy Schilt, 230cm, 130kg so if you see that fight then you see I don’t care about size or who I am fighting. I’m open.

PROUDEST MOMENT

Fighting Daniel Ghita in Turkey (in 2013) and it’s also my favourite knockout. It was in front of my home people and a big KO like that, it was amazing. In Turkey that was the No1 and then Amsterdam Arena against Melvin Manhoef (in 2010) was also a very proud moment.

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