St-Pierre’s return to star-starved UFC couldn’t come at better time

Canadian fighter Georges St-Pierre (right) and British fighter Michael Bisping 'square off' as UFC President Dana White stands between them as they promote UFC 217 during a news conference in Toronto on Friday October 13, 2017. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — Under the Hockey Hall of Fame’s tall, arching ceiling, and in front of columns of plaques enshrining square-jawed NHLers from decades ago, a couple fighters got down to business in Toronto’s financial district on Friday.

The business of fighting, set for Nov. 4 at Madison Square Garden, where UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping will defend his title against Georges St-Pierre, the Canadian mixed-marital arts legend making his return to the sport after a four-year sabbatical, is still three weeks away.

Rather, Friday was about the business of further convincing people to buy the fight, which headlines perhaps UFC’s deepest card of the year and comes on the heels of two of its most disappointing from a pay-per-view purchase perspective.

UFC 217 will feature tantalizing bouts for purists, including a much-anticipated bantamweight title fight between Cody Garbrandt and T.J. Dillashaw, Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s attempt to defend her strawweight belt for a record-tying sixth time, and a potentially explosive bout between Stephen Thompson and Jorge Masvidal.

But it will also be headlined by the clash between Bisping and St-Pierre, one that doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of middleweight meritocracy, but that the promotion hopes fans simply want to see.

Surely it would be more logical, competitively speaking, for Bisping to face Robert Whittaker, the interim champion who has been picking off middleweight contenders one by one since entering the division three years ago. Or Luke Rockhold, who Bisping knocked out to win the title a year-and-a-half ago in a shocking result, and has since returned from hiatus with designs on recapturing the belt. And that’s not even to mention the insanely athletic Olympic medalist Yoel Romero, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jacare Souza, and the former champion Chris Weidman, who are all waiting patiently in line for the division to get moving.

St-Pierre, meanwhile, has never appeared at middleweight, hasn’t competed since 2013, and comes into this fight with very large questions to answer about whether he’s still the incredibly proficient martial artist he was years ago when he ruled the sport. A win over Bisping and St-Pierre suddenly becomes UFC’s middleweight champion, despite never having fought a middleweight in his life.

But one thing St-Pierre holds over all those other deserving middleweight contenders is his status as one of the sport’s biggest PPV draws in its history, having headlined cards garnering more than 700,000 PPV buys four times.

And that’s important, because in what has been a down year for UFC, the promotion is desperate for a big night. According to MMA Fighting’s Dave Meltzer, early indications are that the last two UFC PPV events are estimated to have drawn only around 250,000 buys combined. Conor McGregor, the sport’s PPV king, hasn’t competed in MMA in nearly a year. Jon Jones is under suspension following a positive drug test. Brock Lesnar is out of the sport following his own doping violation and back in WWE. And Ronda Rousey will likely soon join him.

UFC needs stars, desperately. Which is where St-Pierre comes in and which is why he’s stepped directly into a title shot, directly into headlining a card, and directly into being the focal point of UFC’s promotion for this event, as it tries to turn around a challenging year.

Which made it interesting to witness Friday’s press conference in Toronto — St-Pierre territory — where the 36-year-old was subdued and even a little awkward, sitting upright in crisp blue bespoke, while his opponent, the perpetually underappreciated Bisping, put on a crash course in charisma, exuding commanding confidence as he leaned into the crowd, tugging at his relaxed black jacket while goading practically everyone in the room. St-Pierre is the reason fans crammed into the space to see these two men speak; but Bisping gave them a lot more to talk about.

The 38-year-old champion dominated the room from the beginning, cutting off UFC president Dana White to taunt the Canadian audience for losing interest in mixed martial arts, then prodding St-Pierre to engage and “address your public” just so the Englishman could cut his opponent off as well, unleashing a further barrage of trash talk.

Few in the sport — maybe the world — are as good at this as Bisping, who’s innately comfortable playing the villain, like a cartoonish caricature of the lad in the pub filled with eight pints of courage. It’s a show — but it’s hard not to sit back and enjoy it. St-Pierre may be the big draw and the well-established star in this bout. But Bisping is as strong of a promoter, and as natural of an instigator, as the sport has.

Of course, beneath all the bluster there is an evident excess of mutual respect between these two future hall-of-famers, each champions with 48 UFC fights between them. There is no true disdain here. No matter whose hand is raised at Madison Square Garden, it’s hard to imagine anything less than an enthusiastic display of mutual gratitude and appreciation immediately following the fight.

But respect doesn’t sell PPVs, and reverence doesn’t move tickets, so Bisping did what he does best, as St-Pierre grinned knowingly and went along for the ride. Bisping mocked St-Pierre’s French Canadian accent, he denigrated his fighting style, he lamented that the former welterweight champion hasn’t knocked an opponent out in more than eight years.

That last bit is Bisping’s most worthwhile point, because there are some serious questions to be asked about just how St-Pierre plans to win in New York. Returning to competition after a four-year break, St-Pierre’s fighting a well-rounded, defensively-sound striker with a hard-earned reputation for having some of the best cardio in the sport and fighting with incredible perseverance and composure when tested.

When St-Pierre was at the height of his success years ago, he wore fighters down with a constant, varying attack and mastery of the ground game, putting his opponents in uncomfortable positions that negated their best talents. It’s hard to imagine that working against Bisping, who will have the size and power advantage, and has used effective movement to neutralize wrestlers he’s faced in the past, dragging them into boxing matches, which is what he wants.

St-Pierre says he’ll be a different fighter next month than the last time he was in the octagon, on Nov. 16, 2013, when he won a controversial split decision over Johnny Hendricks to defend his welterweight title for the ninth consecutive time. In that fight, St-Pierre looked as vulnerable as he ever has, eating a significant volume of damage and escaping with a win few felt he deserved. A month later, he announced he was voluntarily vacating the title he’d held for more than five years and stepping away from the sport.

How will he be different? Well, St-Pierre doesn’t have much to gain from publicizing any tactical adjustments he’s made. But we do know he’s brought in famed boxing trainer Freddie Roach — who’s worked with a murderer’s row of fighters from Manny Pacquiao to Oscar De La Hoya — to help him prepare for Bisping’s striking. St-Pierre’s also spent time training with former Strikeforce champion Jake Shields, an accomplished wrestler who pushed St-Pierre to his limits in a tight battle at UFC 129.

Georges St-Pierre UFC

Former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre is considered the greatest welterweight in MMA history.
(Isaac Brekken/AP)

But we also know Bisping has been hammering his takedown defence in preparation for St-Pierre’s excellent wrestling, and that he will certainly be the bigger man on fight night. No one will be shocked to see St-Pierre shoot for a takedown, but it’ll be another thing to see if he can not only get Bisping to the mat, but keep him there.

So, there is very real potential for an intriguing fight here — at the top of an impressively deep card — regardless of disruption to the middleweight pecking order. Big name fights are merely par for the course in today’s UFC — they aren’t going anywhere and you can do worse than to have one involving the ever-entertaining Bisping.

And with Whittaker all but certainly fighting the winner, the purists will soon get to see order restored. For now, we might as well take in the show, and let business be business.