Georges St-Pierre, longtime UFC welterweight champion and one of the greatest fighters of all time, is back.
The UFC has never needed St-Pierre more. In his three years away from the sport, two new stars—Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor—have risen. Rousey has since crashed back down to earth, while McGregor is in no hurry to fight in the Octagon after an active 2016, setting his sights instead on a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.
Jon Jones is on the sidelines until July 2017 following a suspension by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Anderson Silva, who turns 42 in April, has aged out of stardom. Neither Diaz brother appears to be in any hurry to return. While young fighters like Cody Garbrandt are promising, no new box-office draws have yet emerged to supplement McGregor and replace the old guard.
There are several different routes the UFC could go with St-Pierre in his return, though. Will it point him toward big money or welterweight legitimacy? Bleacher Report's Steven Rondina and Patrick Wyman discuss.
Steven: I've got good and bad news for you, Patrick: Georges St-Pierre is back.
The former (but, really, still-reigning) welterweight champion and the UFC have put their differences aside enough to come together for at least one cash-raking session. That's either a complete delight or a serious worry for longtime fans.
St-Pierre's semi-retirement back in 2013 was equal parts nice and depressing. He left with his head up and his waist adorned with a big gold belt, but he also gave fans and pundits a scary audit of the tolls his brain has paid for 11 years in the Octagon.
I think we both agree that, at this point, St-Pierre's return is a matter of "when" and not "if," but I'm curious as to how you're feeling about this. I don't know if this world of BJ Penn vs. Yair Rodriguezes and Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock 3s has numbed me, but I find myself oddly excited at the prospect of seeing, in my book, the GOAT back in the cage.
Patrick: Since we last saw GSP in the cage, his status as the greatest of all time has only been cemented: Anderson Silva broke his leg, tested positive for PEDs and then had a couple of fights in which it was clear how far he'd fallen, while Fedor Emelianenko has looked every day of his age (40) in a couple of underwhelming outings since returning from his own retirement.
St-Pierre is one of the biggest names in UFC history and, to me, the unquestioned GOAT. With Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey on the sidelines, the UFC has never needed St-Pierre more than it needs him now.
That doesn't mean they should toss him right back into the welterweight division in hopes of spicing up a weight class that hasn't been the same since he left. He could easily slot into a fight with the winner of the upcoming Tyron Woodley-Stephen Thompson rematch for the title, or he could fight Michael Bisping for the middleweight title, but I think either would be a waste.
There are other welterweights who deserve a shot at the belt, namely Demian Maia. There are plenty of middleweights who have earned their shot at the crown, including Yoel Romero and Jacare Souza. It makes far more sense to use St-Pierre for exciting, interesting fights that can headline a card and give the halo effect of his stardom to the other fighters out there.
I see two real options: Anderson Silva or a rematch with Nick Diaz. What say you, Steven? Whom do you want to see St-Pierre fight?
Steven: Those are two very good options if the UFC wants to go in the "money fight" direction.
Newer fans may not remember it, but before Cris Cyborg vs. Ronda Rousey and Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor, the biggest superfight imaginable in MMA was Silva vs. GSP. Both men ruled their divisions with an iron fist from 2007 to 2013, and both men were interested in the fight at different times.
It never quite came to fruition, of course. The UFC used the fight as leverage against Silva during his "champion fighting on the prelims" years. By the time that ended, GSP had enough power at the bargaining table to demand a bigger cut of the revenue generated by the biggest fight in MMA history, something the UFC wouldn't acquiesce to.
With both guys in a position to pick their shot, it might be worth dusting this one off.
The same goes for a GSP vs. Diaz 2, though. GSP vs. Diaz 1 was one of the biggest pay-per-views in UFC history and was GSP's biggest by a solid margin. Both men seem to be angling for the biggest fights possible...and they could certainly do a lot worse than this.
Of course, while GSP vs. Silva and GSP vs. Diaz 2 would both mean big money, I think you'd agree that the biggest money fight for anyone out there is Conor McGregor, and the lightweight champion seems to be interested, judging from his recent smack talk.
How interested would you be in a McGregor vs. GSP? And do you think it's possible?
Patrick: Outside of GSP-Diaz 2 and GSP-Silva, which would be my preference from a narrative perspective, McGregor-GSP is probably the biggest single fight the UFC could possibly make right now.
The real question is whether that fight would be the best use of McGregor and St-Pierre as promotional resources and how it relates to the UFC’s strategy moving forward. Is the promotion trying to create the single biggest splash possible at any given time, or does it want to run a succession of profitable, well-received events?
There are arguments to be made for both approaches, but with limited promotional pieces to work with right now, the UFC might be best served to spread out its few marketable stars.
As far as action in the cage is concerned, I'd watch St-Pierre fight just about anyone with great interest. While I don't especially want to see him in there with prime welterweights like Woodley and Thompson—aging is a real thing and St-Pierre [who turns 36 in May] looked shopworn before he stepped away—fights with other veterans like Diaz and Silva would be competitive and intriguing.
A fight with McGregor would be fascinating for a number of reasons. Could the Irishman find ways to deal with St-Pierre's size and wrestling skills? Could an aging St-Pierre handle McGregor's powerful left? I wouldn't mind learning the answers to those questions.
What's your preference, Steven? Which fight makes the most promotional and action sense to you?
Steven: I think you're on to something in saying that the UFC might benefit more from having two big pay-per-view main events than one massive one. The UFC's plans for on-paper contenders like Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov come into the equation here.
The best move for the promotion (and for ol'-fashioned sporting legitimacy) is to send GSP back in the direction of the welterweight title. It isn't the biggest cash grab, sure, and his legacy is secure, regardless of whether he can recapture gold. But GSP's departure killed the credibility and drawing power of the entire 170-pound division, and he could fix it pretty easily.
While Johny Hendricks got a little bit of the rub from being the last man to take a decisive loss to GSP (I will fight you over this), that faded even faster than the rest of his career. Hendricks handed the belt over to Robbie Lawler, and while Lawler's run as champ made him a darling to hardcore fans, he struggled at the box office.
There's a little bit of buzz surrounding Woodley and Thompson and, frankly, having GSP face the winner of their UFC 209 fight would legitimize them as champions (lineal titles mean more now than ever before) and give them at least a bit of a bump as PPV draws. And heck, if GSP wins and reclaims the belt, there's nothing barring him from facing Diaz or McGregor for the welterweight strap down the line.
The matchup that provides the most fun and excitement, though, is just pairing him off with Diaz again. They know how to sell that fight, and Diaz is incapable of being boring in the cage.
Patrick: Not to disagree with your point about St-Pierre bringing sporting legitimacy back to the welterweight division, but is that something the new-look UFC is concerned about? If so, it hasn't made many moves in that direction.
The better argument you made for bringing GSP back to the top of the welterweight division has to do with drawing power. Because he retired on a win, albeit a controversial one, St-Pierre never passed on all the hype and name value he had accrued over the course of his career to a successor.
Even an aged, faded GSP is still the biggest win Woodley or Thompson could hope for. If that's the fight St-Pierre really wants, I suppose he's earned the right to try his hand at the title. For the UFC, you're right—that's the best-case scenario.
If St-Pierre is looking for something less dangerous to his health and more lucrative for his pocketbook, the bouts with Silva and especially Diaz are the way to go. He has history with both fighters. Even a subpar promoter could spin narrative gold out of his years-long back-and-forth with either man.
The UFC is at a low ebb right now, its lowest point since the dog days of 2014. Regardless of how it decides to use him, the promotion desperately needs the name value and box-office profile he brings to the table.