UFC 217: The best MMA fight on paper in 2017 might be Cody Garbrandt-TJ Dillashaw – CBSSports.com

As the chatter continues to build ahead of Saturday’s loaded UFC 217 card from New York’s Madison Square Garden — featuring a trio of title fights — a mini debate has arose over which bout is best in show. 

Despite the combined celebrity of Michael Bisping and a returning Georges St-Pierre in their middleweight championship main event, it’s the fighters right below them atop the marquee — bantamweight titleholder Cody Garbrandt and former champion TJ Dillashaw — who believe they are bringing more to the table. 

“This isn’t a gimme fight, the GSP-Bisping fight is a gimme fight,” Garbrandt said at last week’s media teleconference. “They are just trying to sell tickets. Our fight sells on all avenues, all angles, everywhere. Everyone wants to see this fight. It’s a grudge match. Two fighters going out there. That in itself is the main event. 

“No disrespect to Rose [Namajunas] and [women’s strawweight champion] Joanna [Jedrzejczyk], who are two great fighters, but we are the real main event.”

Dillashaw (14-3), who lost his 135-pound title by disputed split decision to Dominick Cruz in 2016, firmly agreed with Garbrandt (11-0). 

“Like Cody said, me and him are the real main event of this card,” Dillashaw said. “Seventy percent of the fans want to see this more than any other fight on the card so it added up to this for a reason. It’s building our names.”

Considering what’s at stake and the collective talent between them, it’s hard to argue with Garbrandt and Dillashaw in terms of which UFC 217 fight has the greatest potential to steal the show. There’s also a case to be made you can take it even further. 

Saturday’s bantamweight championship just might be the best fight on paper in all of mixed martial arts in 2017. 

Garbrandt, 26, and Dillashaw, 31, are operating at the peak of their powers and rank among the top 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the world. They enter a matchup between dynamic strikers with strong wrestling backgrounds, which could alternate between chess match and shootout at any given point. 

But the crux of what makes this matchup so sexy is the bad blood and backstory between them, which dates back to their days as teammates at Uriah Faber’s Team Alpha Male gym in Sacramento, California. 

Dillashaw, by knocking out former bantamweight king Renan Barao in 2014, became the first Team Alpha Male member to win a UFC championship after a series of close attempts by Faber, Joseph Benavidez and Chad Mendes. 

Garbrandt, with a just a pair of UFC fights under his belt, even famously came to Dillashaw’s aid in September 2015 during filming of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality series and shoved Conor McGregor after “The Notorious,” who was coaching opposite Faber, called Dillashaw “a snake in the grass.” But weeks after the incident, Dillashaw left the camp, choosing to follow departing head coach Duane Ludwig. 

Two years later, their beef is as juicy as ever, with Garbrandt comparing Dillashaw to “a prostitute on the corner bouncing around to different gyms.” The rift between them might also inform how the fight is contested considering the knowledge each fighter has of one another. 

“All my teammates built TJ up to where he is at and they know him like the back of their hand,” said Garbrandt, who outpointed Cruz for the title last December. “They got me ready for Dominick Cruz, they spent countless hours so that I knew him and they taught TJ everything.” 

Dillashaw has taken issue with the “Team Alpha Male vs. everyone” mentality that his former teammates have taken on and chalks it up to nothing more than insecurities. He also believes fighters like Garbrandt are doing themselves a disservice by only training with their own. 

“When you’re stuck in-house, you can’t cross-train with anyone else, you can’t go out and do what I’ve been doing working with other coaches,” Dillashaw said.

After originally following Ludwig to Colorado, Dillashaw made the move in 2017 to Kings MMA in Huntington Beach, California, and believes the overall variety in coaching has helped him evolve.

“I’ve broadened my knowledge,” Dillashaw said. “As long as you’re willing to soak up information and learn from anyone who is worth learning from, that helps you out so much. I can become a new fighter, I can learn new tricks, I can improve my game. 

“I’m always reinventing myself. I feel like my last two fights [dominant decision wins over Raphael Assuncao and John Lineker] were different than in the past. I’m always switching things up for my opponent. The best thing to do is keep your opponent guessing.”

Garbrandt has a different take, however, and believes Dillashaw has regressed since leaving Team Alpha Male.

“He used to go from knocking out people in the fourth and fifth round to when was the last time he knocked someone down on their ass?” Garbrandt said. “He hasn’t even knocked someone down in his last three or four fights so what does that tell you? That’s how his performance has changed.” 

Which fighter is ultimately correct will be decided Saturday inside the cage as both return for the first time since UFC 207 last December. Originally scheduled for July at UFC 213, this fight was postponed due to Garbrandt’s inured back and the champion said he has used the downtime to rebuild his body and heal previous injuries. 

Whether the fight plays out as a technical masterpiece, a brawl or somewhere in between, there’s little doubt it will do anything but entertain. If Garbrandt wins, he’ll be one step closer to the crossover stardom that UFC president Dana White believes he can attain. If Dillshaw comes out on top, he will achieve the redemption he has coveted since the disputed defeat to Cruz saw him skipped over for an immediate rematch. 

It may be going on second to last on Saturday, but Garbrandt knows his fight is the one to watch. 

“Bisping and GSP can travel around and do all the press and media,” Garbrandt said. “I can just sit back and focus on training. I don’t think it needs to be any more overhyped than it’s going to be. It’s a fight that doesn’t need hype or media press behind it. The fight sells itself.”

UFC 217: The best MMA fight on paper in 2017 might be Cody Garbrandt-TJ Dillashaw – CBSSports.com

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