On Saturday night, Georges "GSP" St-Pierre, arguably the greatest fighter in UFC history and the promotion's long-standing welterweight champion, will make the long walk to the UFC Octagon for the first time in almost four years.
At the age of 32, after a dozen consecutive victories and nine straight successful title defenses, St-Pierre called it quits.
He returns to a different landscape.
The cage will still be 750 square feet. The rounds will still be five minutes in duration. One of the world's best fighters, middleweight champion Michael Bisping, will be standing across the cage to greet him.
Almost everything else, from his weight class to the UFC's ownership, will be dramatically different.
The return of a bona fide legend should be a big deal for a sport in desperate need of stars—but somehow it doesn't quite seem like it. Does GSP still matter? And does he belong in modern MMA?
B/R senior writers Jonathan Snowden and Chad Dundas discuss his legend, legacy and likelihood of shocking the world and reclaiming his place at the top of the sport.
Does GSP Still Matter?
Last year, powered by Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and the surprise return of WWE star Brock Lesnar, the UFC was at an all-time box office high. It was no longer a business with the potential to do big things—it was a fully realized juggernaut.
Or so it seemed.
A year later, Rousey has all but disappeared, Lesnar is suspended after a failed drug test and McGregor was last seen in the boxing ring. The bright future 2016 promised was suddenly hazy.
The UFC needs St-Pierre to matter. The promotion is built on pay-per-view, and now more than ever, it's a star-driven business. St-Pierre was a star, one of the sport's biggest.
Need some perspective on how long has it been since St-Pierre stepped into the cage? The last time he defended his welterweight title, mixed martial arts wasn't even legal in the state of New York.
UFC 217 will be held in Madison Square Garden.
When GSP walked away, McGregor had fought just a single time in the UFC, on a humble Facebook preliminary card. His dream of winning multiple UFC titles was distant and unlikely to come true.
Today, he's St-Pierre's replacement as the face of the sport.
When St-Pierre stepped away, citing concerns about performance-enhancing drugs, lost time and personal issues, he was in his physical prime. Now he's the old guard, back to re-establish his place in the pecking order.
It's something that has worked for UFC before.
In the early 2000s, the UFC catapulted to success on the backs of returning legends like Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie. The same trick may not work a second time.
According to industry insider Dave Meltzer (h/t Jason Nawara of Uproxx), it's not just that MMA fans aren't interested in GSP's return—it's that they don't even know who he is:
"UFC did a marketing study and there was a result that surprised a lot of people, and spoke to the changes in the fanbase and rapid turnaround. There was a shockingly high percentage of the current PPV buying audience that had never heard of St-Pierre. As it turned out, a large percentage of the PPV audience around today came into the sport with Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, and have no historical knowledge of it prior to that point in time."
GSP, for his part, doesn't seem especially concerned.
"They're going to know me after I win," he told Mike Bohn and Matt Erickson of MMAjunkie.
The UFC, most likely, is far less sanguine. A lot is riding on a St-Pierre win here, both for him and the company. While fame and fortune may not be what motivates him, a victory at UFC 217 is one more in a war for historical supremacy.
Where Does GSP Rank Among the Greats?
Even before the end of his time as UFC welterweight champion, many of the arguments against St-Pierre as the greatest MMA fighter of all time were based more on style than substance.
Chances are, if you dismissed GSP as a potential GOAT in 2013, it was probably because you didn't like the way he fought.
Back in those days, it was easier to side with Anderson Silva or Fedor Emelianenko because they knocked people out or with Jon Jones because he did spinning stuff.
The ensuing four years haven't made St-Pierre's candidacy for all-time great status any less convincing.
While he's been out, Silva has gone 1-3-1 and tested positive for steroids. Emelianenko sat idle during his own retirement from the sport before returning to nab a pair of wins in smaller overseas promotions and then losing to Matt Mitrione via first-round KO in his Bellator MMA debut.
Ironically, Jones has gone 3-0-1 while arguably having the rockiest ride. He spent nearly a year on the shelf in the wake of a hit-and-run car crash and has also failed three UFC drug tests—two for performance enhancers and one for cocaine. Jones' future is as unclear as ever, owing to a pending suspension to be levied after his latest failed test.
St-Pierre's legacy may have gotten a boost when he elected to simply stay home while the rest of his competition self-destructed.
If he manages to buck the odds Saturday and defeat Bisping, it would put him on a short list, along with Randy Couture, BJ Penn and McGregor, of the only UFC fighters to win titles in two weight classes.
It would also move him even with Bisping for most total wins in UFC history, at 20.
Once you also consider the utter dominance of his nine welterweight title defenses and six-and-a-half years with the 170-pound strap, a second title in a heavier division might make it difficult to deny St-Pierre the throne as MMA's all-time great.
Even if he loses to Bisping on Saturday, it may not affect his reputation all that much.
Fans will know St-Pierre took a chance by moving up to middleweight to fight Bisping. If he's defeated, he would still have a handful of great options for a next fight, including the long-awaited matchup with Silva, a potential meeting with McGregor or a chance to regain the welterweight title against Tyron Woodley.
The only thing that could undermine St-Pierre's legacy would be a prolonged losing streak that makes it clear he's unable to compete with the MMA fighters of 2017.
He should do what he can to avoid the mistakes of Silva, Emelianenko and Jones. If he can manage that, his stock should only rise.
GSP Was More Than a Fighter—He Was the Smiling Face of Progress in a Dirty World
Today, the UFC is clearly McGregor's promotion. He's the top-drawing fighter ever, a brash, abrasive, gaudy man with a left hand every bit as loud as his custom-made furs.
In many ways, he's St-Pierre's opposite, a Bizarro GSP replacing class with crass and a top-heavy ground game and meat-and-potatoes jab with flashy power punches and spinning kicks. St-Pierre famously dropped to his knees and begged for a chance at redemption. McGregor, perhaps rightfully so, sees opportunity as a right, not a privilege.
Navigating McGregor's world hasn't been easy for St-Pierre. Put him on a dais in front of a hungry media horde, and GSP magically transforms into one of the dullest human beings alive. His inclination is to smile shyly and speak softly in the kind of meaningless jargon only a top athlete can master.
That's why, when I first met him in 2008 on a promotional tour for his superfight with Penn, I wasn't especially excited to sit down for an extended interview. Generic sports speak is no fun for anyone, with predictable questions batted back with the corresponding cliche in a game of verbal tennis.
One-on-one, he was an interesting and engaging conversationalist, even in his second language. In his element, St-Pierre was as compelling outside the cage as he had ever been inside it.
We discussed military history, then a new passion of his, and the development of the composite bow. It had changed warfare forever centuries ago, allowing riders to fire from horseback. He was searching for a similar weapon to disrupt the MMA game and leave his mark, both on history and his opponent's faces.
Instead, his innovation was a consistency some found dull. The exciting techniques that led to his being nicknamed Rush, both because of the feelings he inspired and his hurry to finish the fight, were replaced with formulaic drudgery.
St-Pierre used his jab to batter an opponent, forcing them to close the distance. Then he would switch levels with deceptive quickness and take them to the mat, where he would employ a careful ground-and-pound attack.
His last seven fights all went to the judges' scorecards, a fact that seemed to frustrate even the embattled champion.
"I've gotten better," he told me in a 2013 interview. "More experience. More maturity. But the thing is—my opponents have gotten better as well. Competition is much harder than it used to be. I didn't fight guys like Carlos Condit or Nick Diaz then. I could go through opponents with only my athletic ability. It's different now. ...
"How many people have finished Nick Diaz? Nobody. You know what I mean? The guys I'm fighting are crazy. I do my best. I'm critical of myself. I want to do better and I'm working."
Four years ago, a changing sport was already pressing St-Pierre to his limit. As MMAjunkie's Ben Fowlkes noted, that was 161 UFC events ago. Is there any hope at all in a UFC more complex than ever?
Can St-Pierre Still Be Competitive After 4 Years Away?
The UFC and its fighters have both changed a lot since St-Pierre announced his extended hiatus from MMA near the end of 2013.
In Bisping, St-Pierre may be taking on a member of the Octagon's old guard Saturday at UFC 217, but there are still plenty of reasons to wonder whether the French-Canadian phenom can be competitive in the new-look UFC.
In retrospect, it seems quaint that the last time we saw GSP, he was getting the toughest test of his career from Johny Hendricks. During St-Pierre's four-year absence following that bout at UFC 167, Hendricks has fallen off the map, going 3-5 and fading from welterweight heir apparent to middleweight afterthought (in a weird coincidence, Hendricks will take on up-and-comer Paulo Borrachinha in UFC 217's pay-per-view opener).
Meanwhile, the rest of the UFC has experienced a near-wholesale turnover—especially at the championship level—as the sport continues to evolve and adapt at breakneck speed.
The version of St-Pierre we'll get Saturday will return at 36 from the longest stretch of inactivity in his fighting life. There's no way to know whether the athletic freak who held the welterweight division in his sway during two runs with the title from 2006 to 2013 still lives inside him.
Over 11 straight victories leading up the Hendricks fight, St-Pierre systematically dominated the rest of the best 170-pound fighters in the world. After starting out as a kyokushin karate fighter with no formal wrestling background, he had transformed himself into a smothering and dominant wrestler lauded as one of the best offensive grapplers in MMA history.
Experts often puzzled over his workout regimens and training techniques. Opponents frequently came away feeling cheated—sometimes literally claiming as much.
But that was then.
As a significantly older athlete, St-Pierre dives into a pool of fighters who will be bigger, more skilled and better prepared than anything he's faced before.
Though the sport lacks any definitive statistics to track it, conventional wisdom says the UFC's roster is far better equipped these days to ward off takedowns than it was a decade or even five years ago.
During his heyday, St-Pierre was able to dismantle decorated grapplers like Jon Fitch, Penn, Josh Koscheck and Jake Shields without so much as losing a round. He may find that to be a much more difficult trick in 2017.
If St-Pierre can no longer dictate where and how his bouts are contested from start to finish, what will become of him? Likely nothing good.
That goes double for his prospects in the middleweight division, where he will give up any advantage in size or strength he once enjoyed against the welterweights of yesteryear.
Bisping, for example, is a much larger, stand-up-oriented fighter, who also comes equipped with an underrated takedown defense. It's widely assumed that if St-Pierre can't get him to the mat early and often (and keep him there), this will turn out to be a long night for him.
Will the same prove true of St-Pierre's comeback on the whole?
As he trudges into his late 30s, he'll have to be up to the challenge of keeping pace with a bigger, mostly younger and more skilled crop of competition.
We'll get our first clues of whether he can do it at UFC 217.
If he shows up looking like the same fighter who had to eke out a split-decision win over Hendricks all those years ago (or worse), I'm not sure I like his chances.