Examining GSP’s Return to UFC
Georges St-Pierre is on his way back.
St-Pierre announced a leave of absence from fighting in December 2013 and vacated his long-held welterweight championship. He was burnt out, frustrated by UFC’s lack of support for a rigorous drug-testing program, and noted he had experienced episodes of time loss. When he announced his intention to return last year, the odds still seemed in favor his absence being a permanent one as he and UFC were reportedly far apart on financial terms.
Last week, the two sides struck a deal. St-Pierre’s presence is a boost to a UFC that is wading through a rough first half of 2017 without all of its biggest stars. From 2009 to his semi-retirement in 2013, St-Pierre stood out as one of the top two attractions in the promotion, drawing steadily strong pay-per-view sales and box office receipts. His return will be an impactful one for UFC’s bottom line.
There are a number of questions surrounding where St-Pierre stands as a fighter more than three years on. None of them can be answered until he steps in the cage, and most of them likely won’t get answers until his second or third trip back into the octagon. With a return in the second half of the year likely, St-Pierre’s time between fights will total at least 44 months. Combat sports don’t tend to be kind to fighters that return after years-long absences, but there have been exceptions.
Muhammad Ali spent three-and-a-half years outside the ring after refusing induction into the armed forces. Although his returned delivered some of the best wins of his career, some of the most memorable fights in all of combat sports history, and more world titles, experts note Ali was at his best prior to his time away from the ring.
In 1987, Sugar Ray Leonard emerged from a nearly three-year retirement – that which followed a two-year retirement – to fight dominant middleweight champion Marvin Hagler. As far as the scorecards were concerned, Leonard narrowly won the super fight, notching one of the biggest victories of his career. Still, it was not the same Leonard.
On the MMA side, Dominick Cruz returned from an injury-riddled three-year marathon to fight Takeya Mizugaki, and ran through the challenger. More injuries caused another yearlong absence, after which he returned as good as ever and reclaimed the bantamweight title that the injuries had taken from him.
Ali was 28 when he returned. Leonard was a month shy of 31 when he fought Hagler. Cruz was 29 when he beat Mizugaki, and 30 when he took the title from T.J. Dillashaw. If St-Pierre returns on schedule, he will be 36 years old.
The challenges surrounding St-Pierre’s return only begin at age. In 2011, St-Pierre tore his right ACL, an injury that kept him out of the cage for nearly one year. From the beginning of his second championship reign to the ACL tear, opponents averaged 26.28 significant strikes landed against St-Pierre, per Fight Metric’s count. After returning from the injury, St-Pierre proved twice as hittable, absorbing an average of 54 significant strikes over three bouts.
While on his break, St-Pierre continued to train, and in March 2014 he announced he had torn his left ACL. Throughout his career, St-Pierre, without any prior competitive experience in the sport, developed a wrestling game that rivaled the best wrestlers in the sport. The success of his takedowns hinged on a masterful mixture of speed, timing, and unpredictability. He kept opponents guessing between his formidable striking and takedowns, and would smartly anticipate his opponent’s defense of one technique and take advantage of the holes left by that defense. However, his speed fell after his first ACL surgery; it’s one reason that he became more hittable at the same time.
Age and wear and tear – notably that from his second ACL injury – will likely have reduced his speed further. His time away from fighting will likely affect his timing, something fighters returning from long absences struggle to find immediately. The unpredictability that kept opponents off balance hinges on his ability to effectively strike and wrestle. Neither are givens when returning at the highest level.
Opportunities are abound for St-Pierre. He could walk into a title shot at middleweight, welterweight, or according to UFC president Dana White, lightweight. But no matter if his goal is to reclaim his welterweight title, jump around and become a two or three weight world champion, or simply surpass the one or two fighters ahead of him on the all-time greats list, St-Pierre should not immediately jump into a fight with the best opponent available. As we saw with Ronda Rousey, tune up fights have their benefits; it would give St-Pierre a chance to gather his timing and rebuild his confidence – or help him realize retirement is a better option after all – without having to face a tremendously dangerous opponent.
At middleweight, champion Michael Bisping or former champion Anderson Silva are the only opponents that make sense; the remaining contenders pose much more danger. Below that weight class, Nick Diaz and Nate Diaz make sense both at the box office and in the cage. St-Pierre looked far from his best when he fought Nick Diaz in March 2013, but still won a comfortable decision. Nate Diaz has become a big star in the past year, would pose little threat to the St-Pierre that was last seen, and a win for either would set up the biggest money match in mixed martial arts history.
St-Pierre was rumored for a fight with Conor McGregor last year, fueled further by his appearance at ringside for McGregor’s first fight with Nate Diaz. A fight between St-Pierre and McGregor, whether at welterweight, lightweight, or somewhere in between, could be one of the top five biggest combat sports money matches of all-time, and would cruise past UFC records. Bringing St-Pierre back relatively slowly is key, because a devastating loss could derail the golden goose that would be the McGregor fight.
Georges St-Pierre returns with nothing to prove, but also with some tremendous accomplishments possible and mountains of money to be made. He may find that he’s grown too old and that the highest level of the sport has past him by. The cruelty of combat sports deems that the most likely result. It is after all the law of the land that great fighters get old and are beaten up reaching back for an accomplishment they have already achieved. It appeared that St-Pierre had already broken that law – the one great that got out before it got bad.
Now he returns to challenge that law again, only this time with more obstacles: his age and injuries, the youth of his opposition, a sport that continued to evolve rapidly in his absence. If he can get away with it, he will be a hero of heroes, the great of greats. In the more likely event that he doesn’t, he’ll just be one more for the list, and hopefully not worse off for trying.