As Toronto gears up for UFC 206 on Saturday, fans are feeling a sense of letdown from the emaciated main card—originally intended to feature Anthony Johnson, Daniel Cormier and Rashad Evans—now headlined by Max Holloway vs. Anthony Pettis.
There was, however, a sliver of hope we would see the return of a Canadian legend—Georges St-Pierre—in a gripping last-chance match to take the middleweight title from Michael Bisping.
"I was aiming for [UFC 206] in Toronto," St-Pierre told me when he visited Toronto for The Gentlemen’s Expo in mid-November. "We had talks about fighting Michael Bisping. I even met [UFC President] Dana White personally."
St-Pierre took things a step further, meeting Ari Emanuel and the other new owners of the UFC.
"They made an offer, we made a counteroffer, but we didn’t hear any response from them," St-Pierre said.
Given St-Pierre's roughly three-year absence from the Octagon, new ownership believed a large marketing budget was necessary to reintroduce him to new fans. To counter this, St-Pierre's team floated a reasonable offer that was heavier on a split of UFC 206's profits rather than looking for guaranteed money upfront.
Unfortunately, GSP remains frozen out of the picture, as negotiations with new UFC owners WME-IMG have broken down.
Many questions are buzzing around: Will St-Pierre, who is now 35 years old, return—and if so, why continue to take risks in a damaging, unforgiving arena like MMA?
"I was keeping myself in great shape," St-Pierre said of his preparations for a potential match with Bisping.
On closer inspection, there were telltale bruises on his face from training.
"I’ve been sparring hard, until today. Today, I lost hope."
This is where the skullduggery, the disingenuous nature of MMA promotion (former UFC matchmaker Joe Silva was notorious for his strongman politics), rears its head. As much as we want to believe there could be fair negotiations with both sides agreeing to split the difference, all kinds of ugly scenarios were possible.
"Maybe they were going to come back to us with the offer we made and say, 'Now we want Georges St-Pierre to fight in Toronto!' and if I say, 'I'm not ready,' they will say, 'See? He's not ready; he doesn’t want to fight.'"
St-Pierre was prescient in suggesting that an unseen turn of events might require his services, as Ariel Helwani of MMA Fighting reported Nov. 25 that UFC 206 headliner Daniel Cormier was injured and scrapped from the card.
According to St-Pierre's management, after UFC 206 lost its main event, there was no attempt to contact St-Pierre in order to reach a deal.
The complete silence from the UFC resulted in a much-publicized (and speculated on) appearance by St-Pierre at rival promoter Bellator's Nov. 19 event.
Now the stakes are even higher with St-Pierre lending his name and support to the newly announced Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA) helmed by Bjorn Rebney. The MMAAA is a newly formed association that seeks to empower active fighters financially and provide retired fighters with some measure of security. We have yet to see a concrete plan on how the MMAAA will achieve its goals, but St-Pierre is fully behind the association.
St-Pierre has a tattoo on his chest that he got when he was 16 years old. According to him, it means "jiu-jitsu."
"It’s a yin and yang kind of thing. I can be very mean, very tough, very hard, but I can also be very gentleman-like." Sensing a moment to promote his brand, St-Pierre smiled and pounced on the moment. "Gentlemen Expo. I can fit in here."
Looking back, it seems like the young St-Pierre did not easily fit in anywhere, especially in school where he was frequently bullied often by his peers. Eventually, the day came when it was time to stand up for himself. I can recall a story about elementary school St-Pierre regaled me with the first time I interviewed him in Montreal days after he dispatched Matt Serra in a rematch to regain the UFC welterweight title in 2008.
"One day when school finished, I was with my friend. He was a nerd, you know? Not a fighter. We get out of the school to take the bus, and there were three guys lined up against the wall, like three to four years older than us. I pass by to get the bus, and I hear (makes spitting sound three times). I keep walking with my friend, and then I say, 'Hey, Mathieu, I think they spit on us.' He knows that I am crazy, so he says, 'No no, no. They haven’t! They haven’t!' And I’m like, 'Turn around. Yeah, look at this, they spit on us. Let's go back and ask them what's their problem.' And he was like, 'No, you’re crazy. We're going to get our ass kicked. I’m not going.'"
The young St-Pierre went back, pretending he had forgotten something and proceeded to sucker-punch one of his tormentors. The group quickly ganged up on him, and he got his "ass whooped."
Although he'd shown his tough side when dealing with schoolyard bullies, it was his gentle tone, mannerisms and attitude that would separate him from many other fighters. Rather than allow negative circumstances to poison him, St-Pierre maintained a positive attitude and professed a message of not carrying anger.
"You know, it was a stupid story, but I am a very proud person, and even though I knew that it was not the right thing to do, they left me alone afterward because I was not an easy target," St-Pierre told me in a quiet office in the Tristar Gym.
It's amazing how his courage transcended beyond that single moment. How he's grown into a man who faced incredible adversity and dispatched legends like Matt Hughes and BJ Penn in the Octagon, defending the UFC welterweight title nine times.
And yet, despite climbing to the steepest summit he could find, he seems to need other challenges. Perhaps now, it's not prizefighting, but seeking to settle the score with the promoters who have exploited fighters, like St-Pierre, since the inception of the sport.
The $4 billion price tag WME-IMG paid for the UFC (sold by the Fertitta brothers) was a rude wake-up call.
UFC fighters now had a clear vision on how their pitiful purses stacked up to the compensation that had been available (also known as "social inequality aversion"). Rage boiled through the UFC roster, and the MMAAA has emerged as one unintended consequence.
You have to wonder about St-Pierre's motivation for wanting to return. Is he jealous of Conor McGregor’s swagger? Does he miss the limelight that is now so lavishly heaped on Conor?
"Conor is actually very funny, very charismatic," St-Pierre said. "It’s never been my game to [be outspoken] when I used to fight, and I was one of the most popular guys."
St-Pierre retired from the sport with a stellar 25-2 record. Early in his career, he thrilled crowds by finishing tough opponents. But when he regained the UFC title against Matt Serra, he seemed to become more conservative, winning eight out of his next nine fights via decision.
Although many people questioned his ability to come back against a game opponent like Michael Bisping, St-Pierre said his coaches and his training partners who have seen him in the gym were not among them.
"I could fight in UFC again...fight in another organization...or never fight again."
Never fight again?
An ordinary life can be hard when you've been riding tidal waves of adrenaline for years. Fighters develop an addiction to their sport that defies logic. Just look at former champions such as B.J. Penn or Anderson Silva for evidence: In their attempts at continued relevance, they seem to rack up more losses, with each one feeling more damning than the last.
"There are two things that motivate me to fight again: the legacy—the fight that elevates me and to be compensated the right way—to get my fair share," St-Pierre said.
If you ask MMA fans about St-Pierre's legacy, you would likely get myriad answers from "greatest welterweight of all time" to "the guy who ducked Anderson Silva." St-Pierre has a significant resume, but the prospect of becoming a two-division champion against Bisping would have been a tempting way to redefine his impact on the sport.
The hardest thing to accept about retirement may be the loss of that sense of belonging. St-Pierre always seemed to be his most complete self when he was in the Octagon. Now, he has substitutes but no real replacement. And that’s a dangerous thing to try to resolve. There should be a happy ending for St-Pierre and other MMA fighters just like him.
Had he beaten Bisping, would he have just said, "One and done"? Other new challenges would beckon—remember, there is always a lure to hook fighters into overstaying their welcome. For instance, St-Pierre vs. McGregor would be a match of epic proportions—the former pay-per-view king vs. the current one—that elevates any numbered UFC PPV event into a Fight of the Decade-type affair.
Right now, however, GSP’s return to the UFC looks unlikely.
Last Wednesday, St-Pierre took part in a conference call to promote the newly announced Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association with Cain Velasquez, Tim Kennedy, T.J. Dillashaw and Donald Cerrone. Although St-Pierre repeated the line he escaped his career "healthy and wealthy," he knows of many fellow fighters who cannot say the same.
"They are not the same person that they were before," he said on the call.
Almost everyone could have won had St-Pierre been the main attraction for UFC 206. Yet the moment—no matter how incredible it could have been—has now passed.