The UFC 167 post-fight news conference was not pleasant. Georges St-Pierre had squeaked by Johny Hendricks in the night’s main event, his 12th consecutive win, his 11th consecutive in a title fight, to retain the UFC welterweight title.
UFC president Dana White fumed at the verdict, angry at the scoring that favored the champion. White, like so many fans and media at cageside, believed that Hendricks had done enough to win the belt. One of the judges, Glenn Trowbridge, agreed with White. He gave Hendricks Rounds 1, 2 and 4 and scored the fight 48-47 for the challenger. But judges Tony Weeks and Sal D’Amato each gave Rounds 1, 3 and 5 to St-Pierre and, as a result, St-Pierre won 48-47 on their cards and took a split decision.
White called the Nevada Athletic Commission atrocious. Hendricks was outraged, appalled that the performance of his life against one of the sport’s greatest stars simply resulted in an undeserved loss.
St-Pierre was glum, his future as a fighter clearly in doubt. His faced was marked with the signs of the battle, a more frequent occurrence since he’d turned 30, but still, this was something not seen previously in his nine years in the UFC.
The image of St-Pierre bruised, swollen and beaten, staring blankly forward as the news conference proceeded is indelible, and a sign that all good things must come to an end.
Sure enough, less than a month later on a Dec. 13, 2013, conference call, St-Pierre announced he was walking away from the sport. He didn’t exactly call it a retirement, but it was obvious this wasn’t a guy who loved what he did for a living any longer.
On Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, St-Pierre will once again make the short climb up the steps and slip into the Octagon to challenge Michael Bisping for the middleweight title in the main event of UFC 217.
In those three years, 11 months and 23 days since St-Pierre last competed, the MMA world has changed significantly. The Ronda Rousey Era essentially came and went. Most of Jon Jones‘ success as a light heavyweight champion came while St-Pierre walked away. Conor McGregor emerged on the scene, setting records in the cage and outselling everyone on pay-per-view, and is now such a mainstream star that he’s talking about co-promoting with the UFC.
St-Pierre had said repeatedly that the pressure of having to defend his titles had been getting to him and that he was angry about the numerous fighters he suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.
The sport has changed in some ways while he was gone – the UFC hired USADA and has instituted the strongest anti-doping program in professional sports, with fighters subject to random tests 24/7/365 – but in many ways, the things that St-Pierre objected to remain.
The pressure is no less. The moment he announced his return, fighters from lightweight to middleweight called him out. If he gets past Bisping, welterweight champion Tyron Woodley wants a piece of him. There has been discussion, though it’s not clear how serious, about a mega-fight with McGregor.
If St-Pierre is the middleweight champ, he’ll face the prospect of a unification bout with interim champion Robert Whittaker, once Whittaker is medically cleared to fight. Luke Rockhold will want a crack at him. So, too, will Chris Weidman, Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza.
It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility for Anderson Silva, the long-time middleweight champion, to ask him for the bout that fans had so long clamored to see.
Given all that, why come back?
“I’m fighting for my legacy and I’m also fighting to be among an elite group of fighters of only a few fighters to hold the title in a few different divisions,” St-Pierre said.
His legacy was secure the moment he left after the Hendricks fight. Nothing he could do will change the fact that he’s widely regarded as one of the five greatest fighters in the sport’s history, perhaps as high as one of the top three.
He’s trying something that his idol, whose identity may surprise you, once accomplished.
St-Pierre was like a school kid when he talked about meeting boxing Hall of Famer Sugar Ray Leonard on the set of a Fox broadcast of a boxing card. Leonard, of course, ended a three-year retirement in 1987 and moved up a class to defeat the seemingly invincible “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler for the middleweight belt.
St-Pierre is essentially trying to duplicate Leonard’s feat, though he’s been out a year longer than Leonard had been.
“He’s my idol,” St-Pierre said of Leonard. “When I talked to him, it was on the set on Fox and I didn’t have the time to talk with him like I wish I could have. He’s amazing. He is my favorite boxer of all-time. If you would give me the chance between Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard who I would like to meet, I’d choose Sugar Ray Leonard.
“He was not the most powerful guy [or] the most athletic guy. But he was just so smart. His footwork was crazy good and technically, he was so smart. I like the fact he was good because of his brain and how he thought the fight [out]. He was athletic, but he was not this crazy athlete like Tommy Hearns. To me, the way he fought is the best way, the way everyone should try to fight.”
Should he beat Bisping, it will be a remarkable feat and among the most significant in UFC history. St-Pierre himself talked about fighting at 155 and spent most of his career at 170. Bisping is the 185-pound champion and was 14-1 as a light heavyweight.
It’s a tall order, but St-Pierre is rejuvenated and confident.
“I believe in imagery and I think a lot about the night of the fight and how it will go down,” St-Pierre said. “I process it over and over so that when it’s fight night, it’s not the first time it’s gone down. I’m very good at imagery. Before I was champion, I used to visualize myself as champion. I’ve seen the movie in my head many times.”
He’s seen himself defeating Bisping, having his hand raised as the New York crowd roars its approval. He’s seen himself walking from the cage with the belt around the waist and speaking triumphantly about his achievement afterward.
He’s ready to win, to become only the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold a championship in two different weight classes.
It’s the same sport but a different era, and that doesn’t matter to St-Pierre.
“I have a clear head and a lot of new tools and I am excited about what I’m going to do,” he said. “This is not a money thing. This is about believing in yourself and doing something you want to do. I’m ready to do this.”