After months of questions, legal wrangling and bitter words from company brass, longtime welterweight champion and possible greatest fighter of all time Georges St-Pierre is officially back with the UFC.
His return shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone.
St-Pierre is one of the single biggest attractions in the history of MMA, and the UFC has always been willing to accept established draws into the fold at any stage in their career: from novelties such as James Toney, Kimbo Slice and CM Punk to legitimate fighters such as Ronda Rousey.
And in this WME-IMG era? It was always a matter of when, not if.
What comes as a bit of a shock is that St-Pierre will likely return by making his 185-pound debut against Michael Bisping and will challenge him for the UFC middleweight title.
The pairing has inspired widespread debate and discussion from every angle and, like the rest of the MMA universe, the Bleacher Report MMA team had a mix of reactions to the news. With that in mind, Scott Harris, Steven Rondina and Jonathan Snowden are here, sans filters, to give their takes on the news.
Steven Rondina: At one point, I was an MMA purist. I looked at the UFC as a legitimate sports organization, and I bought into "the best fight the best" mentality that has become a rallying cry among hardcore fans in recent months.
I'm not sure when, exactly, that changed. It might have been when the UFC refused to sign top welterweight Ben Askren because Dana White didn't like him. Maybe it was when it signed CM Punk? Or maybe it was one of the many instances where the UFC actively tried to undermine one of its elite fighters for political or personal reasons?
Either way, when news of a fight announcement comes across my inbox and Twitter feed, I don't ask myself whether it is "sporting" enough for my taste. I didn't try to weigh St-Pierre's resume against the accomplishments of his contemporaries in an attempt to determine whether he "deserves" a shot at the middleweight title currently held by Bisping.
These days, I ponder three things. Is this fight competitive? Do both fighters get something out of the matchup? And will I be entertained?
In my mind, Bisping vs. St-Pierre is a big yes across the board.
Bisping vs. GSP should be a solid contest between two seasoned vets who, despite lacking flashy in-cage skills, should be able to deliver a compelling chess match of a fight. There are interesting storylines on both sides, with both men having the opportunity to add to their respective legacies with a win here. Finally, despite some well-founded negativity about his return, there is cause to be bullish about what a refreshed and perfectly prepared GSP is capable of.
Of course, I'm not going to lie and say I had my fingers crossed for this one. I would much, much rather have seen a blockbuster rematch in GSP vs. Nick Diaz or the long-awaited GSP vs. Anderson Silva. What's more, I feel bad for Yoel Romero, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and the other middleweight contenders who are left to twiddle their thumbs due to this announcement.
The bottom line in my book, though, is that this is an interesting fight that should deliver some excellent, high-level MMA action. What more could you want from a UFC where CM Punk is on the roster and Askren isn't?
Scott Harris: I think everyone gets it. As Clint Eastwood noted in Unforgiven, deserve's got nothing to do with it. GSP-Bisping is a money play. That's the way it has always gone and the way it will always go.
Just because you understand it, though, doesn't mean you have to like it. It's a bad matchup. It's not even the biggest "money fight" the UFC could have made with St-Pierre, and it misses the forest for the trees.
But back to square one. There's no firm sense of when this fight will happen, and until it does, it puts a stopper in perhaps the UFC's most exciting division. Romero is a monster. Ditto Jacare. Ex-champ Luke Rockhold is a star. And don't forget about Silva. Why would you want to ice down these exciting competitors? Isn't the WME-IMG mission to create and develop stars? This does not accomplish that.
Bisping is 38 years old. In the eight months he's worn the belt, he hasn't faced anyone in the top five of the UFC rankings. GSP will be no exception. Bisping is a great fighter with a great underdog story, but a win over a natural welterweight coming off a three-plus-year layoff doesn't really polish his brand. And vice versa, for that matter.
But regarding Bisping, what does a win over a rusty, unranked St-Pierre do for his legacy in the eyes of casual fans? And even if it does have an effect, how long will it last when he's pushing 40 and has this legion of dragons at his door that he refuses to face or put over? It seems odd that the UFC would want to put so many eggs in the Bisping basket.
And what if he defeats St-Pierre? So much for the big comeback. This is a scenario where the loser will lose a lot, and the winner won't gain much at all—unless you view UFC title belts as some be-all, end-all of MMA glory.
Furthermore, Bisping is not a major draw to that casual fan. St-Pierre most decidedly is. You could have matched St-Pierre against a half-empty sack of flower, made the date in Montreal and let the cash wash over you like a high tide. A title shot down the road with Bisping or whomever would have been all the more lucrative at that point.
All of that said, I think the fight could be interesting, with obvious tension existing between St-Pierre's wrestling and Bisping's stick-and-move boxing. But in making this matchup the way that they did, UFC owners are showing they'd rather have two dimes now than a quarter down the road.
Jonathan Snowden: St-Pierre, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and bona fide legend of the sport, a man who helped carry an industry to the precipice of mainstream culture, certainly deserves a title shot. Athletically he's one of the greatest fighters of all time, combining an uncommon physical prowess, savvy strategy and bizarrely long arms into an almost unbeatable package. He walked away from the sport a champion, on a winning streak that spanned more than six years and 12 fights against the best competition in the world.
A star of St-Pierre's magnitude deserves an opportunity to fight the best. He belongs in the cage with any man.
The online outrage surrounding this fight, the product of a small group of people deeply immersed in an MMA bubble where people know or care about the likes of Jacare, is kind of funny to me. Not only is this fight perfectly acceptable as an athletic contest, it's consistent with the way UFC has been doing business for 15 years.
UFC has always granted returning stars high-profile bouts against the best contemporary fighters in the sport. Ken Shamrock returned to challenge Tito Ortiz for the light heavyweight title, forcing contender Chuck Liddell to wait in line. Royce Gracie made his first Octagon appearance in over a decade against welterweight champion Matt Hughes, ironically forcing St-Pierre into a holding pattern as he awaited a title shot of his own.
Every time this happens, the hardest of the hardcore howl in impotent rage. And each time, UFC has to hire extra staff just to count all the money that pours in. Shamrock and Ortiz set box-office records for the Zuffa era. Hughes more than tripled his previous pay-per-view buyrate. This is a proven strategy, and there's no reason to expect UFC to change directions under WME-IMG.
Bisping, mediocre as the main draw much like Hughes, makes a very good B-side. If his name alone doesn't compel fan interest, his title belt will. And he's the ideal foil for GSP, the villain MMA's perfect hero requires.
In some ways, this fight transcends previous money fights of its ilk. While Gracie and Shamrock were rightfully underdogs, St-Pierre is a slight favorite in early betting odds. Can Bisping defend St-Pierre's takedown attempts? How will GSP respond to not having an absurd reach advantage? Will his jab earn Bisping's respect?
This isn't mere spectacle. It's sport, conducted at the highest level. And I can't wait to see it.
Odds courtesy of OddsShark.