The most eagerly anticipated welterweight title fight in recent memory turned out to be long on action but maddeningly short on answers.
After it was over, well, that’s when things got really weird.
Johny Hendricks pushed Georges St-Pierre to the brink on Saturday at UFC 167, coming about as close as humanly possible to dethroning the longtime 170-pound champion while still having to leave the MGM Grand without the shiny gold belt.
Hendricks stumbled St-Pierre with his vaunted punching power and frustrated him with his championship-level wrestling skills, but he slowed enough down the stretch to allow GSP to claim a controversial split decision (48-47, 47-48, 48-47).
It was St-Pierre’s ninth consecutive title defense, his seventh straight via decision and it meant that—at least officially—he’d cleared the biggest hurdle of his career.
Once the scores had been read, however, a battered, perhaps dazed, St-Pierre provided the evening’s strangest twist. During his in-cage interview with UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, he made several oblique references to personal issues that required his attention and said he planned to take an unspecified amount of time off.
"A lot is going on in my life ...,” St-Pierre said. “I have to step away. Right now I have to go away for a little bit."
Leading up to the fight, speculation had been rampant that GSP would announce his retirement if he defeated Hendricks, or that perhaps he would relinquish the title to chase history at another weight class.
What I was told was GSP wanted to retire with a win and walk away for 1 year or so. Maybe 2. Hopefully we can find out more.— Ariel Helwani (@arielhelwani) November 17, 2013
As it turned out, he did neither of those things. Not really. Nobody knew what to make of his odd post-fight declaration, and since he declined to expand on those statements at the post-fight news conference, we still don’t. The things he did say made a strange situation even stranger and, frankly, a little bit scary.
“I can't sleep at night now,” an emotional St-Pierre told the gathered media. “I have issues. I am going crazy. I need to walk away right now.”
We’ve seen St-Pierre battered in the past, heard his claims that he goes to “a dark place” prior to certain fights and noted that he said he was “obsessed” with the idea of beating Hendricks before UFC 167. This, though, was something different. The champion, his face a mess from the damage Hendricks had wrought, really did seem to be ebbing close to a breakdown, even while on the dais.
It put a weird capper on a fight that already seemed infuriatingly inconclusive, if hotly contested.
Perhaps the only thing that was clear in the end was that Hendricks came just as good as advertised, confirming the widespread public opinion that he would be GSP’s toughest test to date.
The challenger’s best moments came in the second round, when he staggered St-Pierre with an uppercut and appeared on the verge of finishing the fight. Then, as the two exchanged blows in the center of the cage, Hendricks’ mouthpiece came loose and the referee called a brief stop to replace it.
Once the action restarted, St-Pierre seemed to have recovered and appeared to be the fresher fighter as the bout hurtled into the championship rounds. In the fifth, GSP landed his own best punch of the night and was able to briefly put Hendricks on his back, salting away the razor-thin victory.
In the aftermath, Hendricks was frustrated by the loss, but he couldn’t compete with the fury of UFC president Dana White. White opened the post-fight news conference by saying he thought the challenger had won and then ripped into the Nevada State Athletic Commission for overseeing the decision.
“I think the Nevada State Athletic Commission is atrocious,” White said, perhaps speaking half about Saturday's events and half about his complaints of last week when questions arose over whether middleweight contender Vitor Belfort could get licensed for a possible future fight in Nevada.
“I think the governor needs to step in immediately before these guys destroy this sport like they did boxing.”
White also had harsh words for St-Pierre, but he seemed to grow more concerned after GSP returned from the hospital to attend the news conference. The two spoke privately after the press event wrapped, and then White reappeared to downplay St-Pierre’s “issues.”
White said he was confident St-Pierre would reconsider his need to take a vacation and reiterated that he hoped an immediate rematch with Hendricks could be booked soon.
As of this writing, we still have no idea what St-Pierre meant, what his personal problems are or how he plans to handle them. If they are indeed as serious as he made them seem, then here’s hoping he takes the time to get them under control before returning.
After all he’s given this sport over the years, he deserves that much.