Stephen Thompson and Jorge Masvidal square off in one of the most intriguing matchups of UFC 217 on Saturday.
The UFC is back in New York’s Madison Square Garden this weekend — and just like in 2016, it’s bringing along three title fights.
Here’s everything you need to know about UFC 217.
Odds: Thompson -160; Masvidal +140
One year can make a world of difference in mixed martial arts. Heading into UFC 217, Stephen Thompson is a good example of that.
Thompson went into last year’s UFC 205 as one of the sport’s rising darlings. Coming off wins over Johny Hendricks and Rory MacDonald, Thompson was actually favored to dethrone Tyron Woodley for the welterweight championship.
Today, that 170-pound title seems pretty far from Thompson’s grasp — at least, as long as Woodley continues to hold it. He’s coming off back-to-back majority decision losses to Woodley. The rematch, at UFC 209, was criticized as one of the worst fights of the year.
Looking back on it, Thompson, who missed time over the summer because of knee surgery, says he has his share of regret, but has moved on from it.
“It’s a lot different situation that last year,” Thompson said. “The rematch is the worst I’ve ever felt about a fight. Why didn’t I let my hands go? Why didn’t I let my kicks go? I can say that now, but when you’re in the Octagon and you feel his power and the caliber of wrestler he is, you have to be careful.
“What happened in those fights happened. I can’t change it. People bring it up to me all the time, like, ‘Hey man! You could be champion right now!’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, but I’m not.'”
Although a trilogy bout with Woodley doesn’t appear likely anytime soon, Thompson clearly hasn’t lost much ground in the rankings. Masvidal is 3-1 in his last four and would have been granted a title shot had he won his last fight against Demian Maia in May.
Thompson, who fights out of Simpsonville, South Carolina, says he likes the matchup and where a win would place him in the division.
The UFC has announced the winner of a bout between Robbie Lawler and Rafael dos Anjos on Dec. 16 will get the next title shot, but Thompson sees different ways he could enter that conversation. There’s a little bit of an unknown at the moment, as Woodley is currently out indefinitely with a shoulder injury.
“Maybe I get the loser of that fight — or maybe Tyron is out longer than expected and fight Lawler for the official No. 1 contender spot,” Thompson said. “I’ve been a big fan of Robbie since before I was even in the UFC. And I thought that’s who I would fight for the title, before Tyron went and knocked him out. I think he beats dos Anjos and who knows, maybe I still get to fight him. That’s just what I’m thinking.”
Jorge Masvidal could probably roll straight out of bed and win a fistfight. Nothing phases the guy and there’s very little he hasn’t seen.
Note, however, the “very little” part of that sentence. As well-versed as Masvidal is, he hasn’t quite seen everything — and that was apparent in his last fight.
Demian Maia is one of the most one-dimensional welterweights in the UFC, but he got it done against Masvidal in May. Masvidal himself has admitted Maia identified a hole in his game during that split decision win.
Exploiting any deficiency in Masvidal’s well-rounded game is hard to do. Maia did it. Can Stephen Thompson?
Because in a fight between two relatively traditional-style welterweights, Masvidal is always a good bet. His takedown defense, submission defense, cardio, chin, punching power — all of it’s good. But Thompson is world-class great in one particular area. Will that be the difference once again in a close Masvidal fight?
Tyron Woodley dealt with Thompson’s karate with an ultra-conservative game plan along the fence. He fought Thompson twice like that, and didn’t lose either one. But the reality for Masvidal is that he will probably need to move forward to win.
Masvidal isn’t an overpowering wrestler, but he applies pressure under control. As much as fans might not want to hear this, he’s patient — and should be here. If anyone can have success walking Thompson down without wasting energy or exposing himself to counterpunches, it might be Masvidal. And as great as Thompson is defensively, anyone who fights with his hands as low as he does is vulnerable to being clipped.
Stylistically overall, it’s hard not to favor Thompson slightly. It’s his specific skillset Masvidal has to adjust to, not vice versa. And Thompson remains one of the better chess players in the game.
Prediction: Thompson via decision