On Saturday night, Georges St-Pierre—one of the most beloved champions in UFC history—will make his first walk to the octagon in more than four years at UFC 2017 at Madison Square Garden. He will be trying to take the middleweight title from its current leaseholder, Michael Bisping, who has been antagonizing St-Pierre since the fight was announced in March. GSP’s return is a big deal, given that he is one of the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artists of all time.
Or, at least, it should be a big deal. It’s kind of weird, given the context of his situation and all that has changed since we last saw him. In MMA years, a four-year layoff feels like a century.
In 2013, when he was just 32 years old, St-Pierre walked away from MMA as the UFC’s long-standing welterweight champion. It was bittersweet, if for no other reason than he was still on top. He had won a dozen fights in a row, including nine title defenses, and had proved himself to be one of MMA’s top draws. As a nerdy kid from a farm in Saint-Isidore, Quebec, his unlikely rise had long since made him royalty in Canada. In a fight with everyman contender Jake Shields at UFC 129 in Toronto, GSP single-handedly shattered the attendance and gate records, drawing nearly 56,000 people to the Rogers Centre and a turnstile of $12 million. He also sold 800,000 PPVs for that show, the kind of lofty number he routinely pulled.
In that sense, it was tough to see the UFC’s Trojan horse—who helped break MMA into the margins of mainstream sports through sheer force of clean-cut professionalism and … well, literal force—just casually step aside after his narrow split-decision victory over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167. If there was reluctance to let St-Pierre back away, it was because people weren’t yet prepared to think about a UFC landscape without him. With middleweight champ Anderson Silva having lost his title a few months earlier to Chris Weidman, the two most celebrated champions in UFC history were all of a sudden no longer holding belts. Worse, no other welterweight had the appeal that St-Pierre did. He had come to symbolize the ideal mixed martial artist, a freshly laundered gi in a sea of tattoos and skull T-shirts. He was the supreme athlete distancing himself from the free-swinging barroom brawler, the one who could demonstrate to a general audience the immense difference between the two.
For years St-Pierre classed up the joint. He wore suits to press conferences and spoke respectfully of opposition with a lilting French Canadian accent. If people had previously thought that mixed martial artists were nothing more than crazed maniacs making a little scratch between prison sentences, St-Pierre changed all that. In many ways, GSP was the right guy at the right time, the fighter strong enough to deadlift a thousand stereotypes off the octagon all at once.
So his exit was met with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it was refreshing: With fighting offering so few graceful outs, it was applaudable that GSP didn’t have to be bludgeoned into retirement. Admitting he was an overthinker who obsessed over his opposition, he said he needed a break for mental health reasons, that he wasn’t enjoying himself like he once had. He called it a “hiatus,” with no promise of return. But his exit was nonetheless jarring. When he decided to forfeit his belt and take a leave of absence from fighting, he left a division he had on lockdown for so long up for grabs and a big void in a sport driven by its stars.
Many didn’t think he’d ever return, given that he was nearing the exit doors of his prime the last time we saw him. Hendricks had marked him up pretty good with his left hand at UFC 167; many thought Hendricks had won the fight—and so had Carlos Condit not long before that at UFC 154. Though St-Pierre was still winning, he wasn’t doing it nearly as convincingly as he once had; he was a fighter beginning to slip. That was where he left off. Then the years went by, and, in St-Pierre’s absence, he began to feel like a throwback to a simpler time. In some ways, the game changer is now an outdated model.
The UFC is no longer under the avuncular gaze of Lorenzo Fertitta, but rather the cold, corporate conglomerate of WME-IMG. The UFC’s partnership with Reebok has all but killed the sponsorship game, and the UFC now employs a third-party anti-doping agency to test its athletes randomly and exhaustively in USADA (something GSP fought for while still active).
But the biggest fundamental difference might be this: Tastes have evolved, not only in what people want to see in a fight, but what they covet in a star. These days professionalism in the UFC—or at least the illusion of professionalism—is all but frowned upon. People want trash talk, knockouts, and spontaneous audacity, the kind of fighter who wins and has the foresight to drum up drama three fights down the line. On Saturday, GSP returns as the original pro in the time of iconoclasts.
Here are some of the reasons why:
Conor McGregor Came Along
Just a few months before GSP checked out of the fight game, Conor McGregor made his UFC debut against Marcus Brimage. By McGregor’s second fight, a preliminary bout against Max Holloway in Boston, the UFC was already dropping the lights on him like he was a main event. When the UFC tailored a Dublin-based event in McGregor’s return fight after a torn ACL, he’d already set fire to every top-10 featherweight on his Twitter feed—making enemies with every contender and vowing world domination.
McGregor’s high-volume antics inadvertently made GSP feel like a rerun of Gomer Pyle. He not only backed up his words, but he had a keen sense of career escalation; he cackled, threw water bottles, snatched belts, made headlines, wore mink, won titles. He was the anti-GSP, an Irish Bacchus come not to sanitize the sport, but to exacerbate it, rule over it, and bring out its pent-up deviance. By doing that, he also made MMA better understand its own psychology. McGregor swept in like a drug that made everyone lose their inhibitions and start doing wild things around the bonfire. He was fighting Nate Diaz on a lark, then Diaz again and breaking PPV records, and it all played out like guilty pleasure.
And the UFC ate it up. It rode McGregor to each new summit, using him as a showpiece in the $4 billion sale in 2016. McGregor made history by beating Eddie Alvarez to add a lightweight title to his collection in the UFC’s maiden visit to Madison Square Garden last year and then followed that up with fighting’s most extravagant event in years—a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather this past August. The ringing of that fight is still in people’s ears.
While GSP inspired fighters to become more dedicated to their craft, McGregor inspired a roster full of showmen. But he wasn’t the only crossover star on the roster.
Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones Blew Up As Heroes/Antiheroes
Both Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones have gone through full narrative arcs during GSP’s absence. Rousey broke through in 2013 by becoming the UFC’s first female bantamweight champion, and then emerged—from 2013 to 2016—as the UFC’s most transcendent star, scoring six title defenses, a shout-out from Beyoncé, and a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live. St-Pierre may have sold out the Rogers Centre, but he never got a seat on Ellen, nor did he make fight announcements on Good Morning America. Rousey redefined what a crossover star looks like in the UFC. She was being celebrated as “invincible,” which the UFC will tell you is a lot more marketable than “dominant.”
By the time St-Pierre left, Jones had already emerged as the consensus pound-for-pound best on the planet. It lasted through his first clash with Daniel Cormier at UFC 182, which was right before his actual invincibility in the octagon gave way to his extreme vulnerability in life. During his title run into 2015, his coach, Mike Winkeljohn, was known to say that the only man who could beat Jon Jones was Jon Jones. As this became the case—recurringly, with felony hit-and-runs, drug busts, DUIs, tainted “dick pills,” etc.—people tuned in for every one of his resurrections and head-slapped themselves louder each time he blew it. His latest came at UFC 214 in July, when he beat Cormier in the rematch to win back the light heavyweight title, only to have it stripped when it was revealed that he failed a prefight PED test. The PPV did in the range of 800,000 buys; for a frame of reference, UFC 215 the next month did in the vicinity of 100,000.
Rousey ended up crashing in a different way, losing her title to Holly Holm at UFC 193 in late 2015 and then removing herself from the spotlight. Even still, her return against Amanda Nunes at UFC 207 last December did around 1.1 million PPV buys because—like Jones—people either loved her or loved to hate her.
People still buzz at the mention of Jones and Rousey, who alternated between heroes and antiheroes. Even though GSP competed in the UFC for nearly 10 years, he never could drop below his designation of a hero.
He Was So Close to Getting Out … It Kind of Hurts to See Him Return
A lot of people—including me—thought that St-Pierre’s early exit from the fight game was perfect. So few people go out on top, having made enough money not to be tempted back and who can do good things for the sport once out. St-Pierre did have some crusades he worked on—namely remaining vocal about more thorough testing for PEDs and helping launch the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association last year (which has since gone quiet)—but the itch to get back in there was evident for the last couple of years.
As it stands right now, St-Pierre (25-2) is among the top three pound-for-pound fighters ever, having presided over the welterweight division for more than five years. Should he defeat Bisping and win the middleweight title, he’ll only strengthen his case. But then he’d have to go on and defend that title against the beasts of the division, starting with 26-year-old killer Robert Whittaker, who’s won eight fights in a row. That fight is enough to give any GSP fan the fidgets. It’s easy to imagine St-Pierre coming to the sad end that he had so deftly avoided back when Hendricks nearly stole his title.
Even though it’s a comeback fight with plenty of big stakes, the place it’s headed is uncomfortable, and that hangs over the fight.
The Fight Is a Little Silly
The first mistake the UFC made was announcing the GSP-Bisping fight in March without a date attached to it. The UFC wanted it to be in the summer, but St-Pierre said all along it wouldn’t be until the fall. Either way, people were fairly merciless in denouncing the fight because (a) Bisping hasn’t defended his title against any existing contender in the middleweight division, and (b) St-Pierre has never competed as a middleweight, so why should he cut the line?
This is one of those WME-IMG specials where not a lot makes sense, but the hope is that it makes dollars. It’s a small-picture play, the kind of thing that feels like another ripple effect from the McGregor Way of Doing Things. It also feels a little bit like smoke and mirrors, even if that’s harder to justify. Bisping—himself on the precipice of retirement—beautifully seized the moment when he got to step up on short notice and fight Luke Rockhold for the title last year at UFC 199, shocking everyone by knocking out Rockhold. All of that was great in the storybook way. The problem is that he got the belt and jumped in a running getaway car, headed down a series of back roads toward noncontenders like the then-46-year-old Dan Henderson and now GSP.
GSP-Bisping looks like a good fight, and there is a title at stake, but you’ve got to be willing to dupe yourself to fill in its meaning.
Appreciation of GSP’s Style Will Likely Not Be Grandfathered Back to 2013
St-Pierre has been dominant, it’s true, but his way of fighting may not be as appreciated all these years removed. Back in the day, when each title defense came with the tension of a teetering tower that could topple at any time, it was easy to admire his genius for what it was—solving the man in front of him.
There were “game plans” that he executed. He learned to not just wrestle, but to outwrestle decorated wrestlers. He took down Thiago Alves at will at UFC 100 and nearly tore Dan Hardy’s arm off on a couple of occasions at UFC 111. He made BJ Penn quit between rounds and broke Josh Koscheck’s orbital bone with his fists. He knew not just the effectiveness of a jab, but its goddamn etymology. With a Kyokushin background, he stood for traditionalism, loyalty, and discipline—the ancient stuff that he helped to modernize. When he walked out in his karate gi and headband for a fight, it inspired a child’s sense of awe. And though it almost never happened, he even lost well. When he got knocked out by Matt Serra in what is still considered one of the biggest upsets in UFC history in 2007 at UFC 69, he began to guard against complacency like a warder to human weakness. He proved the old cliché that a loss makes you better by never losing again.
Back then all of that mattered, because events were spread out and contemplated for more than the 25 minutes they lasted. These days the UFC moves swiftly, and there’s a mosh pit each week of fighters willing to do whatever it takes to get noticed. The way GSP has traditionally kicked ass—five rounds of a wrestling-minded dictation of wills—may not captivate as it once did. The truth is, people love knockouts and slick submissions as much as they do bombast on the microphone. GSP doesn’t do either. His last finish came in 2009 at UFC 94, when Penn couldn’t answer the bell between the fourth and fifth rounds. His last seven fights have all gone the distance, with St-Pierre dictating the action from horn to horn. Attention spans are different in 2017. A wrestling clinic against Bisping may not bring the New York fans out of their seats. A finish would.
Should GSP score a finish of Bisping to become the middleweight champion, all bets are off. But pay special attention to when the mic is in his face after the fight, should that be the case. What he says to the camera will tell us how much he wants to fit in with today’s UFC.