With three title fights, David Castillo and Phil Mackenzie will be previewing three contests for UFC 217 this week instead of the usual two. That doesn’t mean I’m disappointed with the two that previewed as there is a lot of intrigue behind both. Any fan with an awareness of Stephen Thompson and Jorge Masvidal are salivating in anticipation at the clash between the two high-level welterweights. Both are excellent purveyors of violence. There isn’t nearly as much anticipation for the other contest between Johny Hendricks and Paulo Borrachinha, but the narrative of the fight is unique. Which version of Hendricks will show up? Just how good is Borrachinha? There is a wide range of possibilities that one could end.
The main card begins at 10:00 PM ET/7:00 PM PT on Saturday.
Stephen Thompson (13-2-1) vs. Jorge Masvidal (32-12), Welterweight
Coming out on the losing end of one of the worst title fights in the UFC’s history, Thompson is looking to not only come out of the evening with a win, but reestablishing his reputation as one of the most exciting welterweights on the planet. Win or lose, I struggle to see him not regaining that reputation against Masvidal.
Masvidal appeared to have his breakthrough moment when he dispatched of a streaking Donald Cerrone on FOX earlier this year, only to come up short against Demian Maia in his next contest for a crack at Tyron Woodley. One of the most well-rounded fighters in the sport, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly where Masvidal’s greatest strength is. Then again, he uses his all-around skills to his advantage by taking the fight where his opponent is weakest. Case in point: his pressure on Cerrone prevented Cowboy from getting his kick-heavy offense going. He’s also capable of hanging back to strike from the outside or employing a takedown-heavy attack.
Most of the praise going towards Masvidal of late has been in regards to his boxing with the Cerrone contest being pointed to. He maintains good positioning, tight technique, and possesses underrated power. What has gotten Masvidal into trouble in the past has been his willingness to play it safe, believing he is winning the fight through the first two rounds and coasting in the last round. He has been motivated in recent contests against a higher level of competition, largely rendering this issue to be a moot point.
Thompson should still regarded as one of the most dangerous KO specialists regardless of his inability to hurt Woodley in their two contests. His kickboxing background developed his extensive knowledge of angles and distance, allowing him to render Rory MacDonald’s attack largely ineffective despite the Canadian possessing a slight reach advantage. Thompson keeps a jab out there with regularity, using it to set up his dangerous kicking arsenal. It’s doubtful there is a kick out there he is incapable of throwing… and landing. His question mark kick and round kicks are the most common, but he can throw spinning techniques just as effectively. Thompson isn’t seen as a clinch fighter, but he did outmuscle Johny Hendricks from there, showing more strength than most thought he possessed.
The ground game is a bit of a wild card. Masvidal is viewed as the better wrestler, but that’s largely due to his offensive proclivities. He hasn’t resorted to going to the ground very often in recent years, scoring no more than two takedowns in a contest since 2013. However, Thompson has shown brilliant takedown defense ever since his loss to Matt Brown in 2012 as Woodley has been the only one to get him down. Masvidal is probably the better grappler as well, but Thompson has never been submitted, showing slick defensive chops. Thompson has never made a serious effort to submit an opponent, but he has shown some deadly ground-and-pound if he gets the proper position.
It’s hard not to be excited about this fight. Both are exceptionally durable – Thompson has never been finished while Masvidal owns a single KO/TKO loss in his career – and both have exceptional knowledge of striking technique. Neither possesses a major advantage in athletic ability either. Thompson has more power while Masvidal has more experience in an MMA cage. I can justify either one winning it a few various ways logically. So… who wins? I’ll go with Thompson, expecting this to be a standup battle with his kickboxing experience being the difference maker. Thompson via decision
Johny Hendricks (18-7) vs. Paulo Borrachinha (10-0), Middleweight
Four years ago, Hendricks fought Georges St. Pierre tooth and nail in one of the greatest title fights in the UFC’s history. Though he didn’t get his hand raised, the majority of fans and analysts believed he deserved the win and subsequently took the belt when he defeated Robbie Lawler in another instant classic. It appeared Hendricks was going to carry the welterweight belt for a long time, ala the man he damn-near ripped the belt from. Now? He’s fighting at middleweight against a young Brazilian who has made two UFC appearances against lesser competition.
Yes, Hendricks’ fall has been swift and hard, but it has also been his own doing. Undisciplined weight management pushed him up to middleweight and a fallout with his camp, Team Takedown, preceded his fall from grace. Hendricks tried to manage his own camp in the process, finding minimal success. Taking responsibility for his career, Hendricks recently moved to Team Jackson-Wink with hopes of turning himself around.
Hendricks’ power hasn’t been seen for quite a while, last securing a finish back in 2012. When he was putting together lengthy punch-kick combinations during his title fights, it wasn’t as big of a worry as it made it difficult to outpoint the champion. However, falling out of shape sapped his gas tank and he began to look lethargic. Aware of this himself, he has relied heavily on his NCAA wrestling champion pedigree in recent fights, resorting to lay-and-prey once the fight hits the ground. Granted, his striking success has been limited by his lack of size at middleweight, but that doesn’t make up for all of his recent shortcomings.
Though there isn’t nearly as much footage of Borrachinha out there as there is on Hendricks, but what there is clearly shows a highly talented striker. He’s big too, clocking in at 6'1" with a very thick frame. Kicks to mid-section and legs are his choice of attack from the outside – with the occasional jab mixed in there -- while resorting to winging powerful haymakers in closer quarters. Borrachinha has a great feel for spacing, throwing short elbows when unable to get the proper angle on a punch in addition to an improving clinch game. His wrestling is still developing, though he has shown a natural feel for takedowns and the ability to clamber back to his feet quickly should he be the one taken down.
The UFC sees Borrachinha as a future title contender and it isn’t difficult to see why. As Hendricks’ career has spiraled, the UFC is trying to get what value is still left in his name to put Borrachinha over. Hendricks realizes this and is trying to reverse that narrative. Combining Hendricks’ spiral with the size disadvantage he’ll have, it’s easy to see where Borrachinha is the favorite. However, Jackson-Wink have a history of turning around slumping fighters’ careers and Borrachinha has never faced anyone with near the wrestling credentials of Hendricks. Hendricks extends his relevance a bit longer with the upset. Hendricks via decision