It's official, and by now, it's officially sunk in: Georges St-Pierre will be returning to the UFC Octagon. In a year that has so far begun with little of substance to celebrate, the news came as a welcome development.
But now that St-Pierre's flirtations have evolved into a full-blown marriage, it seems time to manage the expectations of his return. St-Pierre isn't likely to step into the cage until the second half of the year, at which point he'll be 36 years old. That isn't ancient, but his age coupled with a layoff that will stretch to nearly four years seems ominous.
Much has happened in the interim, from title switches within his division to wholesale increases in movement and changes in striking patterns that have altered the styles of many of the sport's elite.
Can St-Pierre adapt and evolve, or will he be left by the wayside, another cautionary tale of an athlete who wrote a perfect ending only to let it go to waste?
Joining me to discuss St-Pierre's return to the helter-skelter word of cagefighting is MMA Lead Writer Chad Dundas.
Mike Chiappetta: I have to admit that when St-Pierre first started discussing the possibility of coming back, I was on board. But that was 2015. Yes, he'd already had a long layoff, but it was long enough to recharge his batteries while being short enough to ensure he hadn't missed the last of his prime years.
These days, I don't have the same feeling. By attempting to bridge that four-year gap between UFC bouts, he'll be trying to do something unprecedented in the organization's history. Sure, he can look at Dominick Cruz as inspiration, but when Cruz returned from a nearly three-year sidelining in 2014, he was only 29.
The difference between 29 and 36 in athletes can be massive. This is particularly true as you move toward the lighter weight classes. While Fabricio Werdum won the undisputed UFC heavyweight belt at 37, the oldest man ever to win a welterweight title is current champ Tyron Woodley, who had just turned 34 when he snagged it.
So history is against him.
However, there is some cause for optimism. For one, St-Pierre has stayed in remarkable shape throughout most of his layoff. Sure, he suffered a knee injury shortly after vacating the belt, but anyone who follows him on social media knows he's spent time traveling around the world training with various fighters and coaches.
This is a man who's kept his body in motion, so it's easy to theorize that he won't be suffering from the same kind of ring rust that afflicts athletes who take blocks of time away from the gym.
Moreover, his shift in priorities may well work in his favor. While he was once obsessed with winning and defending the welterweight belt, St-Pierre seems to have more interest in assembling fights that intrigue him from either business or philosophical points of view. Choosing matchups based upon style pairings or other favorable reasons will offer him more room for error than taking on the best available contender time and time again.
The way that St-Pierre and the UFC leadership navigate his return will be interesting to see, Chad. How do you expect them to go about it? I think we all expect the brass to try to capitalize at the box office and pay-per-view registers, but what will that mean in the way they match him up, and will it be good or bad for his win/loss prospects?
Chad Dundas: Obviously, there are a ton of unknowns surrounding St-Pierre's return. For starters, he'll step back into a UFC where not only has the athletic landscape greatly changed but also where new ownership appears to be rapidly altering the fight company's overall value system.
During the years when GSP was in his prime, there was nothing more desirable to be in the UFC than a dominant champion. Nobody played that game better that St-Pierre, keeping the 170-pound title on lock more or less uninterrupted for the better part of seven years. Meanwhile, he used his built-in Canadian fanbase to establish himself as the organization's biggest pay-per-view draw to boot.
These days, titles seem to mean a whole lot less in the grand scheme of things. Marketability is king, and it's that fervent following north of the border that has the UFC interested in bringing a 36-year-old version of St-Pierre off the bench and back into the fold.
I think that new focus on big-money matchups will serve St-Pierre well as his second life in fighting begins. In 2013, near the end of his initial run with the company, it seemed as though walking the razor's edge of being champion had driven him to near madness. Now, those pressures are, if not gone completely, at least changed.
That's a fairly roundabout way to answer your question, Mike, but it seems unlikely we'll ever see St-Pierre return to the rat race of the welterweight title picture. He's already been there and done that, and besides, that's not really why the UFC is bringing him out of retirement.
As you mentioned, we're most likely to see St-Pierre set up in a series of superfights. Judging by the things his longtime coach, Firas Zahabi, told Ariel Helwani on this week's The MMA Hour (via MMA Fighting), it sounds as though middleweight champion Michael Bisping and lightweight champ Conor McGregor are both in the mix for GSP's return fight.
A 185-pound superbout against Anderson Silva is also enjoying some renewed interest.
Any of those fights will be OK with me, though I confess I have a slight preference for either Silva or McGregor. Bisping would be fine, but there are so many legitimate contenders for the middleweight crown at the moment, it'd be a shame to see that division put into a further holding pattern.
How about you, Mike? Which path for GSP's future strikes you as the most likely? And will the former champion be able to hang in the new UFC? Or is his return destined to make us feel as sad as seeing guys like BJ Penn and Fedor Emelianenko try to overstay their welcomes?
Mike: Your question puts a lot into context because it firmly places GSP in a gray area between championship-caliber fighter and elder statesman heading toward the seniors' tour.
His age suggests he's closer to the latter, although we must firmly acknowledge his dedication to fitness combined with a pullback from the wear-and-tear of the daily MMA grind over the last few years could make him an outlier.
Still, I think we have to assume he's not going to return with the same popping jab and explosive power double-leg takedown that he rode to legend status. We'll see flashes of the old GSP for sure, maybe even stretches, but young and schooled opponents won't be as susceptible to that kind of arsenal as they used to be a few years ago.
The game has changed. Power doubles are still around, but takedown defense has improved enough that someone like Woodley, who has a Division I collegiate wrestling background, has just a 45 percent accuracy rate. And he's the champion.
But that point may be moot if St-Pierre decides he is completely disinterested in fighting as a welterweight. If that's the case, the UFC won't have him fight contenders.
And that opens up the Bisping fight, or Silva or maybe Nick or Nate Diaz. And frankly, any of those—particularly the last three—seem like a better use for St-Pierre and more closely align with his current physical state.
After a career of fighting the hungriest contenders, St-Pierre can approach these kinds of fights in a different way. It will no longer be about proving who is the best in the world, but about a test of martial arts skill combined with a hint of spectacle. It will simply be more fun.
From an athletic standpoint, perhaps that will open him up a bit more. If there is not so much at stake with every punch, kick and takedown, maybe the game plan won't be so rigid. At the least, it will signal to fans that it's OK to temper their expectations of him.
After all, does anyone expect Silva vs. St-Pierre 2017 to be what it might have been eight years ago?
Everyone ages. And even while I expect St-Pierre to age better than most fighters, I am fully prepared to see some withering of his once-brilliant talents. For someone who rarely struck with knockout power over the last half-decade of his career, his margin for error will only decrease further. That means if he's a half-tick slower on his reaction time, he's going to get hit. If his double-leg takedown has lost a few horsepower, it's going to get stopped.
And this is what we should expect to see, a fighter who has been compromised by time and injury. There may be bursts of past greatness but also moments of noticeable erosion. And if he hangs around long enough, yes, even the welterweight G.O.A.T. will end up following the same path as others like Penn.
Am I too doom-and-gloom here, Chad? After all this time away, do you see a realistic road to reclaiming his past form, or is he doomed to repeat the mistakes of other greats who couldn't say goodbye?
Chad: Anybody who has been around this sport for a while greets news of an all-time great's coming out of retirement with some measure of dread. MMA exacts too great a physical toll on its athletes not to fret about it, especially where it concerns a person as likable at St-Pierre.
Compounding those reservations is the perception that GSP had made a clean break from the sport. He was all the way out, with a good deal of money in the bank and a passable career in movies to buoy him.
So, yeah, it can be troubling if you allow your mind to drift too far down that rabbit hole.
The only thing I would take exception to is that it seems we're all judging St-Pierre without actually seeing him compete. I'm trying to keep my mind open until I get some visual evidence to work with.
Mike, you raise some really good questions about whether GSP's takedowns and top-control game will still be effective in the 2017 UFC. That's one of the reasons why I'm glad it doesn't seem like he'll be jumping back into the thick of welterweight competition.
The most likely scenario is that St-Pierre inks a multifight deal with the UFC and returns for a series of high-profile bouts against guys like Silva, McGregor, Bisping and Nick Diaz. All those would score big returns for the organization while—with the possible exception of eating some discombobulating McGregor lefts—putting GSP in comparatively little danger.
With that in mind, maybe I'm in the minority among our colleagues, but I'm pretty bullish about St-Pierre's return. He's historically been arguably the sport's best overall athlete, a guy who transformed himself into one of MMA's most dominant wrestlers while having no competitive background in it.
Do I want to see what he has left in the tank? Absolutely. Will I willingly plunk down a chunk of change to watch him fight any of those aforementioned four men? Gladly.
Will I still feel that way a year from now?
Check back with me then.