Brick by brick: The redemption of Georges St-Pierre
After scraping through against Johnny Hendricks at UFC 167 by the skin of his teeth, then Welterweight king Georges St-Pierre chose to step away from active competition citing a number of reasons.
He claimed that he didn’t have the passion for the sport any longer. He said he was disenchanted with the lack of stringent drug testing. He even pointed to other commitments outside of the Octagon that needed his undivided time and application.
In truth, however, it seemed like he upped and left the sport of MMA because the gulf between him and the competition was slowly, but surely, being sliced off.
In other words, to borrow from a popular Christopher Nolan reference, GSP chose to ride off into the sunset still a hero instead of overstaying his welcome and risk becoming a villain.
It was a tactical retreat that was very much par for course from a fighter who had carved out a career by always staying a step ahead of his opponents.
However, even when announcing his decision to the world immediately after the fight, GSP determinedly kept the word ‘retirement’ out of his mouth.
The post-fight interviewer Joe Rogan kept prodding him, hoping to squeeze an admission that would confirm what the world had just witnessed -- that he just didn’t have it in him to be a world-beating colossus in the cage anymore.
But even when the world was going gaga over Hendricks’ irrepressible performance, raising a furore over controversial judging that had ensured the Welterweight Title didn’t change hands and exchanging knowing glances over the signs of GSP’s decline…one man refused to be sucked into all of the frenzy.
His face was battered, his pride too by the looks of it. But even in that vulnerable moment, a moment that practically begged self-reflection, all we got to see from Georges St-Pierre was a man who determinedly stuck to his statement.
“I need to hang up my gloves for a little bit “, he said.
There was no mention of retirement. There was no mention of when he would return either.
And that’s how the MMA fraternity left it off with him four and a half years ago.
It was in late 2016 when we began to hear the murmurings from Georges’ camp again.
He was still training on a regular basis. He was still as tenacious as ever on the mat. Despite progressing at a breakneck pace in the years since UFC 167, the game had still not passed him by.
His coach Firas Zahabi made it a point not to rule out Georges’ return to fighting in any interview he was a part of.
St-Pierre, on the other hand, still remained non-committal despite betraying a mischievous glint in his eye whenever he was pressed to address the rumours of a comeback.
He may have been on the periphery of the sport for the best part of half a decade but GSP, it would seem, had still kept himself within touching distance of fighting shape.
Even then, there was more ambiguity than clarity on the whole situation. A whole lot of conjecture and political gamesmanship rather than definite dates and viable opponents.
A tug-of-war duly ensued between the St-Pierre camp and the UFC.
In his absence, thanks to the gumption of one ballsy Irishman, fighters had realized that they wielded a measure of negotiating power after all.
A huge star in his home country of Canada and one of the first real superstars in the UFC, it was inevitable that the best deal possible had to be brokered before Georges realistically entertained thoughts of a return.
But once the financial wrinkles were ironed out, with Reebok’s paltry sponsorship deal at the eye of the storm (yet again), all that remained was confirming when he would return and, more importantly, against whom.
For many of us, the answer would have been painfully obvious. When St-Pierre left the sport, he was still the undisputed king at Welterweight.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that he’d want to continue right where he left off.
Only, as usual, the man had a plan of his own.
There were a number of conclusions that one could have drawn from St-Pierre’s decision to contest his homecoming bout in a weight class above the one that he so capably ruled.
For one, cutting down those extra 15 pounds could have become a tad more difficult for a 36-year old body than it would have been for a 32-year-old one. Middleweight Champion Michael Bisping, with a mouth big enough to rival his heart, was also the perfect dance partner to whip up a marketing storm and sell the fight.
But perhaps most importantly, despite claiming that he was a better version than the one we had last laid eyes on, GSP was prudent enough to pick a stylistic challenge that was favourable to him after the lengthy layoff.
While possessing grit and determination in abundance, Michael Bisping wasn’t the most dexterous kickboxer that St-Pierre had faced. He wasn’t the most powerful puncher that the Canadian had crossed paths with. And he certainly wasn’t the best wrestler either.
Having chanced past an ageing Anderson Silva, capitalized on Luke Rockhold’s laxness and chalked off a retiring Dan Henderson from his bucket list, Michael Bisping was just the right man, in the right spot, at the right time.
It was a happy coincidence that allowed Georges St-Pierre to time his UFC return, much like he did his takedowns, to near-perfection.
UFC 217 will go down in the history books as one of the promotion’s most memorable salvos.
Apart from being only the second UFC event to enlist the hallowed grounds of Madison Square Garden, it was also a night that played host to finishes in all three of the headlining Title fights.
The formerly indomitable and undefeated Joanna J?drzejczyk met her match and then some at the hands of Rose Namajunas.
Cody Garbrandt was sent packing in a bitter, see-saw grudge match against former teammate TJ Dillashaw.
And finally, the Octagon door slammed shut behind Georges St-Pierre as the returning legend would do battle, once again.
His jab was as snappy as ever, his power seemed to be augmented with the extra weight he had piled on and his takedowns, as always, were efficiency personified.
But unlike Bisping's prognostication, he didn’t attempt to see off the fight by just playing it safe using his wrestling alone.
St-Pierre stood toe-to-toe with Bisping and traded punches, eventually felling the former Champion with a nasty left hook, before choking him unconscious.
After four and a half years on the shelf, fighting up a weight class against one of the winningest fighters in the UFC roster, Georges St-Pierre would mark his comeback with the familiar feeling of having a Title belt strapped around his waist.
But the image of him standing in the middle of the Octagon once again draped in UFC gold, evoked memories of that fateful day at UFC 167 when he barely scraped through against Johny Hendricks by the skin of his teeth.
Again, as it was then, his face was battered and bruised.
Again, Joe Rogan stood with a microphone held to his face after the fight, prodding him in the hope that he would reveal his plans for the future.
But in that moment, as the world went gaga over his irrepressible performance, it would seem that Georges St-Pierre had come full circle after all.