The return of one of the UFC's all-time greats went from strange to stranger last week. Just a month after capturing the UFC middleweight title with a dramatic win over Michael Bisping, Georges St-Pierre willfully handed the belt back to the company and unceremoniously crowned up-and-coming Australian Robert Whittaker as the new "undisputed" UFC middleweight champion.
On the one hand, it wasn't especially surprising. As a medium-sized 170-pound welterweight, St-Pierre's staying power in the 185-pound middleweight division was always in doubt. Just as importantly, the division lacks star power in 2017, with many of its old favorites indisposed and none of its newer talent commanding any sort of celebrity.
On the other hand, St-Pierre is a fighter who rose to fame through his five-year reign as welterweight champion, handily dispatching contender after contender. Just giving away his title without a second thought feels...out of character.
With that in mind, Bleacher Report's Steven Rondina and Matthew Ryder are here to make sense of St-Pierre's decision and discuss how fans, fighters and promoters should feel about the latest title shake-up.
Steven: Welp, he did it. Georges St-Pierre successfully pulled off one of the best heists in MMA history. He kicked down the door to the middleweight division, took the title, escaped into the night and left behind nothing but memories and a "super-pissed" Dana White.
Though of course, the UFC president is not alone in that.
Lots of fans, pundits and (I'd bet) fighters are a tad grumpy over the news that GSP is vacating the middleweight title just 31 days after winning it at UFC 217. So Matthew, where do you stand on this? What did you think of the news at the time and how are you feeling about it now?
Matthew: I guess I feel a little ambivalent about the whole thing.
I mean, I don't love what Georges is doing here, but as our former colleague Mike Chiappetta so beautifully explicated in his postmortem of this whole mess for MMA Fighting: "When absurdity is part of the business plan, it's all fun until it's not."
If that's the perspective you have on modern UFC business and matchmaking—and for me, it is—it's hard to be too broken up about all this.
Further, if we're being entirely forthright in our assessment of the GSP return, I'd suggest the whole thing was one giant, bungled mess anyway, temporarily broken up by the 14 or so minutes he spent actually fighting and beating Michael Bisping.
The media buildup was abysmal. The hype for the fight was uninspiring. The event, up until the last minute, felt like a guaranteed bust. Georges was planning his escape from the middleweight division in the cage with the belt on his shoulder. Within a month, the escape was complete.
With all that said: His winning was a hell of a moment on a hell of a night at UFC 217, and the likely UFC 221 main event of Robert Whittaker vs. Luke Rockhold (on February 11 in Australia) feels like a pretty legitimate way to get things back on track early in 2018, so I'm not overly mad about it all.
Or maybe I'm just tired of all the silliness that UFC matchmaking gave us in 2017. I don't even know anymore.
Steven: Honestly, I love everything GSP did. When you zoom out and look at how this developed, this was a complete triumph for fighters over tyrannical promoters. From the who to the when to the where, St-Pierre called his shot and made it (often against the wishes of UFC brass).
Maybe I wouldn't feel like that if UFC 217 wasn't a massive success on every level, but that's ultimately not a discussion we need to have.
And as you touched upon, GSP is ultimately leaving the middleweight division better than he entered it. Whittaker is a deserving champion on an amazing run. His upcoming fight with Rockhold is very interesting. There are strong contenders just a win away from a title shot in Kelvin Gastelum and Chris Weidman.
Sure, it didn't fit the traditional championship succession mold, but this is still what we want the division to look like at the end of the day. The only person with a valid gripe in all this by my count is the now-undisputed champ Whittaker, who misses out on a big-time title unification bout, but even then I'm not going to blame ol' Rush for not wanting to waste one of the few fights he has left before retirement on somebody that adds nothing to his legacy or his bottom line.
So is there really a problem to this? Am I missing something?
Matthew: I didn't really consider it from the perspective of a fighter sticking it to a promoter I don't much care for, and I have to say: From that perspective, it is pretty sweet.
I envision Dana, some shade of red-purple slowly crawling from his cheeks on up to his pristine dome, tiny beads of sweat on his forehead and upper lip, vibrating in his chair while some poor intern stands a few feet away in his office having fearfully just uttered the words: "Sir, Mr. St-Pierre just called; he's forfeiting the title."
That's amusing to me.
What's also amusing to me is the opportunity for Whittaker, whom we both obviously seem to appreciate in all of this, and for other middleweights who have long been waiting for their chance while Bisping was fighting Dan Henderson and GSP, and GSP was...well, he actually didn't really do much of anything in his reign for guys to hate on.
The only drawback I see is how it empowers fighters to kind of do whatever they want, but I can't even make a good case that such a thing is a drawback. The UFC has held all the cards for almost as long as there's been a UFC, and it really only started to change when Conor McGregor showed up and took over.
Georges came back, negotiated under the rules McGregor created while he was retired, got a title and got paid, and is now back in the realm of doing whatever he wants until the phone rings and the right amount of money or the right opponent is mentioned by the voice on the other end.
So long as that opponent isn't a boxer, I'm OK with that.
Steven: Indeed, it's worth closing out this discussion with a friendly reminder that all of the matchmaking woes in MMA today are the fault of the UFC.
GSP didn't first pitch the idea of a wacky matchup with Bisping; the UFC did. GSP didn't draw up the contracts that strongly encourage fighters like Bisping to hold out for blockbuster PPV bouts; the UFC did. GSP didn't undermine the lineal succession of titles; the UFC did.
MMA is often called "the fight game" and, as the boardroom of casino moguls might suggest, it was long a game rigged in the house's favor.
St-Pierre, though, showed up, pulled the lever and hit the jackpot. Nobody should blame him for turning down Dana's "double or nothing" demands.