GSP returns to UFC with vintage performance against Bisping

Georges St-Pierre, of Canada, celebrates after winning a middleweight title mixed martial arts bout against England's Michael Bisping at UFC 217 early Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017, in New York. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

NEW YORK — Georges St-Pierre, closing the first round of his first fight in four long years, scored a takedown, scrambled back to his feet, threw a superman punch, and then, like he was just trying stuff in the gym, attempted to land an absurd spinning back kick moments before the horn went off.

Surely, that was the moment St-Pierre reassured anyone who had their doubts — and considering his four-year sabbatical from a rapidly evolving sport, the doubts were legitimate — that his comeback was for real. It was like it was 2010 all over again. It was like St-Pierre was in his prime — creating, transitioning, launching offence from all angles. It was like he never left.

Stepping directly into a title fight Saturday at Madison Square Garden against the insanely game middleweight champion Michael Bisping, St-Pierre put on an absolute throwback of a performance, and walked away with his opponent’s belt at the end of it, becoming only the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold a title in two different divisions

“Obviously, this was not my weight class. I took this fight to challenge myself,” said St-Pierre, who tore through the UFC’s welterweight division for nearly a decade before stepping away from the sport. “And I’m honoured to be champion once again.”

St-Pierre out-struck Bisping 74 to 58, landing more than half the strikes he threw (Bisping landed 40 per cent) and converting on all three of his takedown attempts. He maintained top control for more than three of the fight’s 13 minutes. But it’s worth noting that the bout was mostly contested on the feet, and that St-Pierre fought aggressively, straying far from the safe, boring, wrestling-centred approach many anticipated.

The finish came late in the third round, when St-Pierre caught Bisping with a left hook during a flurry, dropped him, and pounced. Weathering a barrage of strikes, Bisping refused to exit the fight, which forced the adaptable St-Pierre to scramble to his opponent’s back and sink in a rear naked choke to end it.

After the fight, St-Pierre said the left hook he caught Bisping with wasn’t an accident, and that he’d picked up on that hole in the champion’s game on film.

“I studied a lot of Michael’s tape. I knew he had a problem with the shot coming to his right,” St-Pierre said. “So, our plan was to fake him on his left side to attract his attention and strike him on the right. That’s what we did most of the fight.”

The biggest unknown when it came to this night was what St-Pierre would look like after so much time off. Fighters will tell you ring rust is a very real thing, and although Bisping is near the end of his career, he was still a champion and still one of the UFC’s toughest fighters, with unquestioned cardio and a history of persevering through long, brutal fights that wear down his opponents.

“He hurt me very hard. A few times I got stung. I tried to hide it. But, wow,” St-Pierre said, with welts wide open on his forehead and nose. “Michael is the toughest guy I’ve fought. This man is amazing. He’s a true example of hard work and perseverance in this sport.”

It appeared in the early going that Bisping was trying to drag his 36-year-old challenger into deep water, letting the fight come to him in the first round as St-Pierre found his bearings.

St-Pierre certainly looked tentative in those opening minutes, lacking the sheer explosiveness that helped him dominate fights in his prime as he jabbed, circled and searched for his range. But something clicked for him with exactly a minute left in the round, as he attempted, and landed, his first takedown of the night.

Bisping’s an underrated grappler and has a remarkable ability to scramble back to his feet, which he quickly did. But once they were back up St-Pierre threw that trademark superman punch (he is, by the way, perhaps the only fighter on the planet able to consistently score with that technique) and finally looked like his old self.

That boosted a crowd that was already fully behind St-Pierre from merely energized to near bedlam. Bisping stumbled and smiled, perhaps a little in awe himself.

“That’s what I was expecting,” Bisping said afterwards. “He’s always had good striking.”

The second round was Bisping’s. Although the tenacious Englishman struggled to analyze St-Pierre’s attacks through an endless array of slights and feints, he started upping the pressure halfway through the round, challenging St-Pierre’s conditioning.

St-Pierre landed another takedown — a classic jab to single leg from the first page of his playbook — but Bisping exploded up to his feet once again and connected with a strong right. As the round came to a close, the champion looked like the fresher man.

“I did feel him slowing down a little bit,” Bisping said. “I could see it on his face.”

St-Pierre took the fight quickly to the mat in the third, and this time was finally able to keep it there, working extremely hard to maintain top control. But Bisping’s a bastard on his back, and did all kinds of damage in tight, cutting St-Pierre badly with nasty upward elbows and punches.

That’s why, when the contest inevitably returned to the feet midway through the round, blood streamed down St-Pierre’s face. And as the two veterans stood in the centre of the octagon, exchanging jabs and kicks, it looked like the fight was destined to go the distance.

But that’s when St-Pierre pressed, caught Bisping with that left, and took his knees out from under him. The onslaught St-Pierre immediately poured on would’ve stopped less stubborn fighters, but Bisping’s headstrong to a fault, which necessitated the choke that ended it, despite a tap never coming.

“He had a good squeeze — I don’t think he gave me the chance to tap,” Bisping said. “You live by the sword, die by the sword, so to speak.”

St-Pierre didn’t escape the night without significant damage himself, and went directly to hospital after the fight to receive stitches to his nose. For that reason, he was unable to attend the post-fight press conference, which leaves an air of mystery to his next move.

The most sensible fight to make would be a unification bout with interim middleweight title holder Robert Whittaker, which UFC president Dana White has said he’d like to see.

And yet, what happens in the UFC isn’t always what makes the most sense. Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley has made plenty of noise about wanting a date with St-Pierre. And it’s only a matter of time before someone floats the idea of matching St-Pierre up with lightweight champion Conor McGregor, in what would be a clash of two of the sport’s most revered martial artists.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Now, St-Pierre gets to bask in the grandeur of a successful comeback, winning a title in a new division, and further affirming his status as one of the sport’s greatest ever.

It certainly looked like he was trying to soak it all in after the fight, as he idled for nearly 15 minutes in the centre of the octagon, surveying the emptying rafters, hugging his coaches, and admiring the belt around his waist.

As he should. Four years can be an eternity in the UFC. But St-Pierre made it look like no time at all.

“Man, I don’t have a word in my mouth right now,” St-Pierre said in the octagon after the fight. “It’s my dream come true.”

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