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UFC 217 co-main event breakdown: Cody Garbrandt vs. T.J. Dillashaw

Cody Garbrandt, T.J. Dillashaw Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

It’s no secret that the UFC is suffering from a dearth of superstars, fighters who can move pay-per-view units by their mere presence. When WME-IMG completed its purchase of the UFC, that’s a problem they likely never saw coming. And even if they did, they probably assumed they would be able to apply the same techniques they use in Hollywood to help cultivate new ones. But MMA doesn’t work the same way. Fighters have to have a certain charisma, an innate ability to connect with both fans and media, and they have to win. Along the way, it helps to have a rival.

If WME-IMG has their way, Cody Garbrandt will be the first fighter to break out on their watch. Combining a showman’s flair with an interesting back story, and add in a distinctive look and an undefeated record, and Garbrandt has many of the traits that have historically added up to a big drawing card.

Garbrandt (11-0) captured the UFC bantamweight belt last December, and in his first title defense at Saturday’s UFC 217, takes on teammate-turned-rival T.J. Dillashaw (14-3) in the co-main event of a show held in Madison Square Garden, a pairing designed to maximize his exposure.

Everything is set up for Garbrandt; now he just has to win.

Garbrandt’s plan is simple: he wants to box. That’s for good reason: his hands are quick, precise and powerful. Even though he’s only fought six times in the UFC, he has notched seven knockdowns, a division record. And his power has proven true no matter the opponent; even against divisional great Dominick Cruz, Garbrandt dropped him twice en route to a clear decision win.

In MMA, two hands shouldn’t be able to dominate a more diverse striking repertoire, mainly because kicks can change the distance gap substantially, but Garbrandt has proven a kind of cage generalship that is rarely seen. When he surprised Cruz, the knockdowns were momentous, sure, but hardly the reason he won. Instead, Garbrandt was repeatedly able to dictate and win exchanges against one of the most brilliant tacticians of the last decade. He did so by forcing Cruz to play the aggressor, drawing him forward and then, when Cruz was expecting him to back step, attacking.

Garbrandt had full confidence in his ability to duck and weave Cruz’s strikes and fire back effective offense, and while Cruz still maintained some level of elusiveness, Garbrandt’s straight punches often found their mark.

The approach was interesting because in some of his earlier fights, Garbrandt didn’t appear comfortable while moving backwards. Perhaps because in this case, he was controlling the action he felt a certain ease with the way the action was unfolding.

According to FightMetric numbers, Garbrandt only lands about 38 percent of his strikes, and despite success as a youth wrestler, rarely emphasizes the takedown. In his approach, he is a throwback to Chuck Liddell, who used his wrestling in reverse to keep himself upright, but has little interest and using the weapon offensively. That said, his striking game is profoundly different in the way he employs it. Garbrandt has a traditional boxing base, but adds some flourish to his angles and understands how to adjust punches to reach their target.

It’s been a popular opinion to suggest that because Garbrandt handled Cruz, he should have similar success against Dillashaw, who employs many of the same movements and mannerisms as Cruz. To be sure, it’s about the best preparatory fight he could have taken. But Dillashaw does add some wrinkles that are unique to him.

The first differentiator is power. Dillashaw has five knockdowns in UFC action, as well as five knockout wins. Among bantamweights, that is elite power. Perhaps not on Garbrandt’s level, but still among the best.

The second differentiator is that Dillashaw’s footwork is more focused on opening offensive angles than defensive escapes. This is borne out by the statistics. Most power punchers cannot maintain a high pace throughout a fight, but for his career, Dillashaw averages 5.38 significant strikes landed per minute, a number just shy of the top 10 in UFC history. His output is so remarkable that it leads to a strike differential of +2.44 per minute, which is ninth all-time, just ahead of UFC 217 headliner Georges St-Pierre. He’s landed over 100 strikes in six of his last seven fights. It’s an output that can prove overwhelming.

Dillashaw has a shifty style that is heavy on feints and misdirection. He attempts to pull his opponent toward him, to force them to overextend until they are in his offensive wheelhouse. From there, he has a pretty varied arsenal of strikes at his disposal, including a sharp and straight right as well as a looping one, depending on the situation. He also liberally uses kicks to the body and head.

Dillashaw has confounded several opponents by switching stances, moving from his standard orthodox to southpaw for short stretches. The technique has mostly served him as a change of pace, and against Garbrandt, who has a wicked left hook to both the body and head, it could be a tactic he abandons.

I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention the possible effects of the feud between them. This is one that is actually real, based upon their past as training partners at Team Alpha Male. Historically, when two fighters involved in a heated rivalry finally meet in the cage, it’s either complete fireworks or matching cases of caution. With so much at stake here, we shouldn’t be surprised if these two spend extended periods circling each other and trying to bait the other into making the first move.

But who knows, really? One of the best things about watching sports is the unpredictability. If you had watched Garbrandt’s pre-Cruz fights, you would have felt that his comfort zone was the all-out offensive blitz. He’d create wild exchanges and eventually land a thunder shot. It was why so many couldn’t visualize a path for victory for him against Cruz. And then at fight time, he executed a sublime, dare I say “finesse” game plan that confounded Cruz.

With that, he showed levels to his game that we never knew existed. So how will he approach Dillashaw? In some ways, he has the mental edge in this fight, because not only is he the champion but he has also seen way more of Dillashaw than Dillashaw has of him. He can watch on video how Dillashaw likes to lead, as well as how he reacts to certain moments. Dillashaw, meanwhile, had to reboot any thinking he had on Garbrandt after his title win.

Could we see some hybrid approach from Garbrandt, where he plants himself in the pocket at times and invites a firefight, and where he sometimes retreats to a counter style?

Given the potential five-round fight, I don’t think Garbrandt could keep up an ultra-aggressive offensive setup. He began to fade around the fifth round of the Cruz fight, and remember, Dillashaw never stops. So it would behoove Garbrandt to pull back and find rest spots along the way.

For Dillashaw, he may want to push and push and push some more. Power fades with fatigue, movement is compromised.

So how does it play out? Garbrandt seems to love the spotlight. And despite his seemingly fiery attitude heading into the Cruz fight, he fought brilliantly. He doesn’t seem like he’ll be baited into mistakes out of eagerness to make things happen against someone he apparently despises. I think we may see a case where Dillashaw lands more volume, but Garbrandt scores the more impactful strikes. The crispness of Garbrandt’s punches almost guarantees that will happen a close-quarters fight. And somewhere along the way, as Dillashaw moves into a combination, Garbrandt will land a counter that changes the fight and moves him a step closer to superstar status. The pick is Garbrandt via third-round TKO.

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