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When Georges St. Pierre was last seen inside the Octagon, a battered, bruised, and clearly emotionally and/or mentally troubled man was expressing his need to take time away from mixed martial arts. Despite the controversial nature of his split decision win over Johny Hendricks that night at UFC 167, his need for some sort of reprieve was understandable. St. Pierre had made a strong case as the greatest champion the sport had ever seen, with nine consecutive title defenses and victories over a who’s who of welterweight notables. He also sustained more damage in his last three fights than he had during his entire career to that point. Since November 16, 2013, the sport has been speculating about if and when he would return.
Nearly four years later, the speculation will end at UFC 217 in Madison Square Garden. The former titleholder at 170 pounds on Nov. 4 will attempt to the join Randy Couture, B.J. Penn and Conor McGregor as the only two-division champions in Ultimate Fighting Championship history, as he challenges Michael Bisping for the middleweight crown. As enticing as this prospect may be to some of the more diehard fans of the sport, this should at least have some appeal outside of that bubble. St. Pierre was once a reliable pay-per-view draw, one of the few to consistently surpass 700,000 buys as a headliner or co-headliner.
However, what are the true costs in the Canadian returning to the cage? Beyond the $60 price tag for an HD stream, what is being sacrificed to bring back the legend? The long-awaited comeback of GSP seems to have some unexpected costs that the promotion had not factored in when making this match.
One bill the UFC and its fans are footing: the chaotic conditions that have rippled through multiple weight classes as a result of St. Pierre’s return. Obviously, the middleweight division is seeing an unprecedented amount of turmoil. The emerging 185-pound contenders have been essentially stuck in a logjam since Bisping unexpectedly dethroned Luke Rockhold at UFC 199 and elected to have his first defense against the No. 13-ranked contender in Dan Henderson. The protests from Rockhold, Yoel Romero, Ronaldo Souza and Chris Weidman, among others, were loud and justified. While many sided with the aforementioned top contenders in the division, others excused the matchup, citing Henderson’s status as a legend and his memorable knockout of Bisping at UFC 100. Bisping got his revenge in front of hometown fans at UFC 204, and the division was expected to move on in a logical fashion.
Since speculation surfaced that St. Pierre would return in a middleweight title fight, subsequent bouts have halted the momentum of Romero and Souza while adding even more roadblocks for Weidman’s pursuits. Gegard Mousasi, who is fighting under the Bellator MMA flag this Friday, was on a five-fight winning streak and would have been an easy pick as a possible challenger for Bisping when he was simply allowed to walk away from the promotion. Would the UFC have let so many contenders fall by the wayside if the red carpet wasn’t being rolled out for St. Pierre? Would the creation of Robert Whittaker’s interim title even be necessary if the powers that be weren’t anticipating a blockbuster GSP return?
The GSP-Bisping matchup has also caused unwanted chaos in the weight class St. Pierre once called home. The welterweight division found normalcy in a very natural way when Hendricks -- many felt he deserved the nod against St. Pierre -- took the throne. However, the belt changed hands from Hendricks to American Top Team products Robbie Lawler and Tyron Woodley, and rumors of St. Pierre’s return became a major talking point in the division. As Woodley settled into his place as champion, his calls to fight the former titleholder were met with widespread ire. The logic seemed simple enough. If the former welterweight champion was returning to competition, shouldn’t it be in a fight to reclaim the belt he never lost? Since winning the title, Woodley has defended it on three occasions against deserving top contenders. However, his risk-adverse approach was met with venom by fans and UFC President Dana White. If White had not waved the St. Pierre carrot in front of Woodley -- it was a huge part of the buildup to his bout against Demian Maia at UFC 214 -- ahead of his most recent appearance, would the two-time NCAA All-American have used such a safe style to protect his title and the promise of huge money fight with St. Pierre?
St. Pierre’s return has even impacted the lightweight division. Since McGregor knocked out Eddie Alvarez for the title, the 155-pound weight class has been in flux, the superstar leaving the sport to challenge himself as a boxer against Floyd Mayweather Jr. The “Notorious” Irishman hasn’t been quiet about his intentions to make history and collect belts. The welterweight title has been on his radar since before Woodley took the throne, as rumors once swirled about a possible fight with Lawler. With St. Pierre back in circulation and with McGregor at the height of his power and influence, the UFC could potentially set up a mega fight between two of the sport’s top draws. A trilogy bout with Nate Diaz will always be on the table; Tony Ferguson now holds the interim lightweight title, creating a path to a unification bout at 155 pounds; and former sparring partner Paulie Malignaggi is in the mix for the McGregor lotter, so long as the latter has an interest in returning to the boxing ring. However, if GSP gets past Bisping, McGregor would almost certainly be intrigued by the middleweight title. As a result, the lightweight division remains in flux.
The UFC must also look at a potential St. Pierre-related impact on the Reebok deal. One of the major sticking points in the GSP negotiations was reportedly his long-standing apparel agreement with Under Armour. In St. Pierre’s absence, Reebok became the exclusive in-cage clothing provider for the UFC. It will be interesting to see what compromises, if any, have been made. It could result in a domino effect. What if St. Pierre is allowed to wear the Under Armour logo at open workouts, weigh-ins or during his walk-in? What if the UA logo is placed alongside Reebok? What if the Reebok payout is significantly higher to compensate for lost revenue to other sponsors? As fighters become increasingly vocal and defiant about the sponsorship market and overall pay in the UFC, these are questions the promotion simply may want to avoid answering.
When examining all angles related to his return, St. Pierre re-entering the UFC has already come at a tremendous cost. The marketing campaign for UFC 217 has been in full force since the Mayweather-McGregor bout in late August. The two pay-per-view cards in between received little to no promotional push. UFC 215 and 216 featured title bouts, yet the estimated buyrates were 100,000 to 120,000, respectively. Without a doubt, those are dismal figures. How much blame can the UFC take for these low buyrates, considering the upcoming event at Madison Square Garden was given preferential treatment on the promotional front?
With the sport starving for more star power and the UFC’s new parent company even hungrier for financial success, St. Pierre was welcomed back with open arms -- and understandably so. However, the all-or-nothing mentality being shown by leadership should trouble anyone weighing long-term impacts. We have already seen GSP’s return serve as a catalyst for the poor promotion of current champions and potential stars; and we have seen a talent-rich middleweight division get marginalized while its best fighters remain on standby. The future could hold even more negative consequences.
We are likely to see an increase in the dissatisfaction among current fighters. Chaos in the rankings and the delegitimizing of championships could hurt the long-term public interest and drawing power in several divisions. In an effort to score one massive payday, the UFC could be opening Pandora’s Box without any concrete ideas for how to recover from the fallout. Simply put, if UFC 217 is not an unequivocal blockbuster success, it could signal long-term issues for the organization.