At the end of his title fight with Johny Hendricks, Georges St-Pierre was not right in the head. Already looking like he'd repeatedly run his face into a wall, St-Pierre showed an even scarier sign of the damage he had sustained. In his corner, preparing to step back into the fray against the hardest puncher in his division, GSP asked a telling question:
"What round is it?"
After the fight, which St-Pierre won by virtue of a controversial decision, the distraught welterweight mentioned this incipient brain damage, admitting to having lost time in the cage that night. Struggling to put his words together, even apologizing to announcer Joe Rogan at one point, the champion seemed close to a breaking point.
Then, in a move that might have shocked the MMA world if his support team hadn't hinted at it all week, St-Pierre decided to step away from the sport.
"A lot is going on in my life...,” St-Pierre said in the cage immediately following the fight. “I have to step away. Right now I have to go away for a little bit."
To say UFC promoter Dana White didn't take this news particularly well is an understatement of somewhat epic proportions. White was furious, directing his anger at the Nevada State Athletic Commission, reporters who scored the fight for St-Pierre and even the champion himself. Despite St-Pierre's clear personal and physical struggles, White had only one thing on his mind: getting his unraveling champion back in the cage.
"Did he say he wants to retire? He didn't say 'I'm going to retire. I'm going to hang it up. It's been great everybody. Thanks a lot for all the years. See you later," a furious White said after the fight. "He said 'I'm going to take some time off.'
"No...You don't just say 'I'll take some time off, maybe I'll be back, maybe I won't.' You owe it to the fans, you owe it to that belt, you owe it to this company and you owe it to Johny Hendricks to give him that opportunity to fight again.
"There's no 'I'm going to go on a cruise. I'm going to be gone for two years. I'm going to take a hiatus. I'm going to take a leave of absence,'" White continued, building to a crescendo of impotent rage. "Whatever the hell it was that he was saying. That's not how it works. It doesn't work that way.'"
To his credit, St-Pierre faced the press, and White, after the bout. And, though he wouldn't reveal what was causing him so much pain emotionally, he did give a rundown on the toll the fight had taken on his body and mind.
"I just came out of a freaking war. The guy hits like a truck. My brain got bashed left and right inside of my skull. I need to think...I get very emotional," the champion told the press after the fight. "My right eye became blurry. It's still blurry right now. He punched very hard. He's the hardest puncher I've seen. He hit like a truck. I was hurt. I'm not an egomaniac. I say it when I'm hurt. I'm hurt. He hurt me tonight. Look at me."
Immediately after the press conference, White and UFC owner Lorenzo Fertitta cornered St-Pierre to try to convince him to return to the cage. Fighters are just bags of meat to promoters in combat sports, but St-Pierre is White's lone remaining drawing card. That makes him a particularly important meatbag for the UFC. Something had to be done.
“GSP will not retire after that fight," a defiant White told Fox Sports 1. "He owes it to the fans, he owes it to this company and he owes it Johny Hendricks to do that fight again.”
A decent human being would be worried about St-Pierre's well-being, especially after a fight that left him clearly discombobulated. But it seemed like that was the farthest thing from White's mind. No one at the press conference, except St-Pierre himself, seemed concerned about the gruesome beating he had just experienced or its physical and emotional costs.
There was only one question everyone wanted answered: How soon could they lure the reluctant champion back into the cage?
"His problems aren't as bad as he thinks they are," White told the press after his brief chat with the champ. "They're personal problems...it might seem like the end of the world but it's not."
It seemed—right or wrong—that White had gotten his man. Order was restored in his fiefdom. St-Pierre is likely to come back to the cage, whether it's the right thing for him or not.
I'd hate to think that St-Pierre is fighting for fans or the promotion or anything other than himself and his family. He has a long life to lead after his fighting days are done. To give up even a little bit of his long-term physical and mental well-being is a decision no one should take lightly. And it's certainly not a choice that should be made under duress.
The Octagon is the last place in the world for a man with problems big enough to cost him even a little bit of focus. St-Pierre clearly doesn't belong anywhere near the cage right now. But we'll see him soon enough. There's money to be made. And in the world of combat sports, that's going to trump safety and decency every time.