Ask those in the know, and most of them will tell you the co-main event clash between UFC bantamweight champ Cody Garbrandt and former champion TJ Dillashaw is the most hotly-anticipated clash of the night at UFC 217.
The pair are former teammates at Sacramento-based Team Alpha Male, but Dillashaw has since left the team, sparking a rivalry between him and his former team that is showing no signs of abating.
And the bad blood appears to be boiling as the two rivals get ready for Saturday night’s title fight, where there’s a lot more than just the UFC world title on the line. Pride, bragging rights and the knowledge that they’re in the right camp are all at stake in a bout that could deliver a possible fight of the year candidate.
Power versus variety
TJ Dillashaw is one of the most well-rounded fighters in any weight class in the UFC. His irresistible combination of slick striking, solid wrestling and championship mindset marks him out as one of the very best fighters on the planet. His stoppage win over Renan Barao at UFC 173 that saw him capture the UFC bantamweight title was one of the most complete performances I’ve seen in a title fight by a challenger.
But that display was eclipsed by Garbrandt’s phenomenal showing against Dominick Cruz, as "No Love" won the title to set up tonight’s clash in New York.
Now the former teammates-turned-rivals will do battle in a clash between two of the most skilled pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC.
Garbrandt is an excellent boxer with arguably the fastest hand speed in the UFC. He has a solid chin and, considering he’s in the second-lightest male weight class in the UFC, devastating punch power.
Dillashaw possesses excellent hands, too, but while his power has undone the likes of Barao in the past, he doesn’t seem to have the same one-shot finishing power as the champ.
© Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports
Both fighters are among the very best in the UFC when it comes to movement, footwork and being comfortable either at range or in the pocket. Both possess strong wrestling skills and excellent MMA boxing and both have shown the ability to sustain a high pace throughout the full five-round championship course.
On paper, you’d perhaps give the title-fight advantage to Dillashaw. He’s been there and done it on more than one occasion. He also appears to have a championship mentality.
Despite the barbs being thrown his way by Team Alpha Male this week, Dillashaw has kept his cool and appears to be focused on the job in hand. Under normal circumstances, he’d be the pick.
But while Dillashaw is a world-class talent, Garbrandt is a special athlete.
© Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
The defending champion can match Dillashaw for footwork and cardio, but has the sort of punch power that can prove the difference-maker in any contest.
His run to the title saw him claim three first-round KO/TKO wins before dropping Cruz multiple times en route to a decision victory in the title fight. All four fights came in 2016 as he went from unranked prospect to world champion in the space of a calendar year.
He fights with emotion, which is arguably his biggest flaw, but also gives him the edge that has taken him this far. As long as he can control those emotions against a heated rival and former teammate like Dillashaw, I think he’ll get the win.
Look for the stoppage
Many will be looking at this fight as one that could go all the way to the scorecards. That’s certainly a possibility. But I think we could see a finish in this fight.
Dillashaw has been hurt in fights before – former flyweight title challenger John Dodson stopped him with strikes in The Ultimate Fighter Finale back in 2011 – but he’s adapted his style to avoid being caught cleanly during bouts.
Against Garbrandt I’m expecting a fascinating opening couple of rounds, but at some point during the fight Garbrandt will land clean on Dillashaw. And when that happens, I’m expecting things to swing dramatically in the champion’s favor.
PICK: Garbrandt by KO/TKO
[Main photo credit: © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports / Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports]
Go Embedded at UFC 217
Follow the build-up to UFC 217 right here on Sports Action as we build up to the fights, with daily fight previews and behind-the-scenes footage from the UFC.
In the latest episode of "Embedded," the UFC’s behind-the-scenes cameras follow the world title fighters to the press conference at the Madison Square Garden theater as they exchange fighting words for the final time ahead of the weigh-ins.