UFC President Dana White announced Wednesday that Georges St-Pierre's return to the Octagon will be a middleweight title fight against Michael Bisping—and, boy, is that going to be an unpopular decision.
Of all the likely candidates for St-Pierre's return—including superfights against Anderson Silva or Conor McGregor—Bisping was unilaterally regarded as the least appealing.
In the wake of White's appearance on ESPN's SportsCenter to confirm this fight, early reviews have been mostly negative:
This unrest is nothing against the 185-pound champion himself but, rather, a compliment to the overall strength of the middleweight division. With top contenders like Yoel Romero and Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza already beating down Bisping's door, there was just no good reason to further stymie that division's already-slow-motion title picture.
That is, except for the two reasons that trump all else right now in the eyes of this fight company and these fighters: money and immortality.
Since winning the title with a surprise knockout of Luke Rockhold at UFC 199 in June 2016, Bisping has eschewed the UFC's official rankings in favor of trying to chase down lucrative matchups for himself. He's defended the title just once, against Dan Henderson at UFC 206 four months ago.
You can't blame Bisping for this approach. At 38 years old, he'd long been considered a nice cog in the middleweight machine but not championship material. Here he's got an unprecedented and unexpected chance to earn a nice bonus after 11 years and 27 fights' worth of service to the UFC.
And for GSP?
Well, what he gets in his return to the Octagon after a three-year absence is a potentially winnable championship fight, a nice payday and a chance at the history books.
If St-Pierre is able to return to action at nearly 36 years old and win another UFC title in a weight class above his natural division, there will simply be no argument against anointing him the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
He's already routinely mentioned on the short list of contenders for that honor alongside former middleweight champion Anderson Silva and former light heavyweight champ Jon Jones. Defeating Bisping would definitively put GSP over the top in that three-horse race—at least for the time being.
Silva's claim to the throne has taken a big hit in recent years.
Back-to-back losses to Chris Weidman at UFC 162 and 168 signaled the end of his career as a truly elite middleweight, but had Silva walked away then, he might still have been able to lay credible claim to greatest-of-all-time status.
Unfortunately, he soldiered on and has gone just 1-4-1 dating back to the middle of 2013 (that record includes the Weidman losses). His only official win in that span came three weeks ago, in a controversial unanimous decision against middling contender Derek Brunson.
Perhaps most damaging, Silva's win over Nick Diaz at UFC 183 was overturned after he tested positive for two banned substances. It's tough to take any case for GOAT seriously from a guy who has tested dirty for performance enhancers.
Jones, meanwhile, is the most gifted athlete and strategist the UFC has ever seen, but he has had a hard time keeping himself on the organization's active roster of late.
He's managed to fight just once a year the past three years and has missed significant time, first while sorting out legal issues stemming from a hit-and-run and then after testing positive for banned substances during the lead-up to a canceled fight against Daniel Cormier at UFC 200.
According to Jones' attorney, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency later substantiated the fighter's claim that the positive test resulted from a tainted dietary supplement, but as of this writing, Jones is still out serving a one-year suspension.
If Jones can return and win back his light heavyweight title at age 30, he'll still have plenty of time to move past both Silva and St-Pierre for consideration as best ever. That future has never appeared less secure than now, however, as Jones' out-of-cage transgressions have taken on considerable momentum and left him facing what might be his last chance with UFC ownership.
For the time being, St-Pierre leads his two closest competitors by a nose. Even before he makes this comeback, the case against him as greatest of all time must be made primarily on style points.
From 2006 to his announced break from the sport at the end of 2013—with the exception of roughly one year spent without the title after a fluke loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69—he ruled the UFC welterweight division with merciless zeal. He defeated 12 consecutive challengers, more often than not taking out the best 170-pound fighters the UFC could find without so much as losing a round.
Critics called it boring, but the truth is, it was amazing. Without any organized background in wrestling, St-Pierre transformed himself from a stand-up-oriented, Kyokushin karate stylist to one of the most dominant grapplers in Octagon history.
He beat wrestlers such as Matt Hughes, Jon Fitch and Johny Hendricks. He beat potent strikers such as Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit. He beat submission aces such as Serra (in their rematch at UFC 83), BJ Penn and Jake Shields.
It didn't matter what they did. St-Pierre beat them all.
Meanwhile, his built-in Canadian audience turned him into the UFC's single biggest pay-per-view draw to that point. It was a different time for the UFC, but GSP's PPV numbers are still staggering. He sold an estimated 625,000 PPVs for his fight against Fitch at UFC 87, 770,000 against Dan Hardy at UFC 111 and 800,000 against Shields at UFC 129.
In today's UFC, there is next to no one who can consistently provide those kinds of numbers, outside of McGregor.
That's one place St-Pierre's detractors fall flat. The notion that MMA fighters need to be "exciting" only exists because of the PPV model. Conventional wisdom preaches that fighters need to impress audiences to convince them to shell out $60 to watch them fight.
But GSP never had a problem with that. In fact, he did it better than anybody else from his era.
Can he still? That remains to be seen.
His accomplishments to this point are nearly peerless, however. Now, if St-Pierre can return from his lengthy hiatus, defeat Bisping and win another UFC title in a different weight class?
With all due respect to Silva and Jones—and to borrow a phrase from longtime MMA announcer Michael Schiavello—that's good night, Irene.