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Fedor Emelianenko fights stateside on cable television for Bellator MMA this Saturday in San Jose, California. Georges St. Pierre is on the verge of officially coming back to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. No, it's not 2007 again; it's another reminder that star power has a remarkable half-life in combat sports.
It was five and a half years ago that Emelianenko last fought stateside, as he was punched out by Dan Henderson in the Strikeforce cage in four minutes of chaos. Since then, he has won five times, not barring the fact that Fabio Maldonado knocked him out, beat him senseless and got ripped off by the judges in an instantly historic MMA scandal. He was retired for three and a half years. He is now 40.
Georges St. Pierre hasn't fought since controversially topping Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in November 2013. He's still only 35 years old, he's a historically incredible athlete and he did not recently get smashed on by Maldonado. More than that, Emelianenko can't sell one million pay-per-views or do an eight-figure gate like GSP.
On the surface, it may seem like another iteration of Bellator tending toward carnival freakery while the UFC politicks to create another a more legitimate, historic superfight. Bringing back Emelianenko and St. Pierre represents real desperation from both promotions utilizing them, but said desperation is far more profound for the UFC's new WME-IMG regime than it is for Bellator.
There is no denying that Bellator President Scott Coker and Viacom have been craven and embarrassing at points during this era of Bellator, trotting out Royce Gracie-Ken Shamrock 3; and in Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris-Kevin “Kimbo Slice” Ferguson, it oversaw a fight where both men nearly died in the cage before the latter literally did die of heart failure just weeks later. The promotion just used a farcical Tito Ortiz-Chael Sonnen bout to do a 2.2 million ratings peak. With that said, Bellator's use of Emelianenko is not inherently mockable as it may seem.
Yes, he's 40 and a decade removed from his prime, and I've already made two earlier Maldonado jokes. However, Emelianenko is still a heavyweight. It is instructive that Emelianenko is just a slight underdog, and he is at nearly even odds with Bellator 172 opponent Matt Mitrione, a fighter that is at worst a top-20 heavyweight despite nearly getting knocked out by Carl Seumanutafa in June and being a liability on the ground. Mitrione himself is 38 years old. There's no way to divorce Emelianenko from his context; even if he is in a darkening twilight in his career, “The Last Emperor” is still competing in a moribund heavyweight division.
The former Pride Fighting Championships heavyweight king signed a four-fight deal with Bellator, and it's reasonable if far from a lock that he may get through all of it. As I wrote about last week in detailing Bellator's future as Spike is re-branded as the Paramount Network, Viacom officials are generally pleased with what Coker has done with Bellator and being able to pop ratings, even if it resulted from using washed-up legends and YouTube brawlers. If Emelianenko events can average around 1.5 million viewers and peak for his main events in the neighborhood of two million, I'm sure they'd be ecstatic.
These are not foregone conclusions, especially if Emelianenko is hammered quickly by Mitrione or plays politics with Bellator going forward, whatever the outcome of the bout. However, what Bellator is seeking to achieve by wringing out whatever drawing power is left in Emelianenko are ultimately modest, achievable goals that happen to have an amplified impact for its business.
It is hard to imagine St. Pierre's UFC return as anything but a short arc plot. St. Pierre isn't hurting for money, though obviously stacking more millions is never a bad look, but he's also a fighter who has long vocalized his concerns about brain trauma in MMA and has talked about having bouts of memory loss. He is an athlete who has meticulously managed his brand better than anyone in the sport's history. It seems impossible to think of GSP having four more hypothetical fights in the Octagon.
WME-IMG needs to generate revenue and pay back its loans to make its $4 billion UFC purchase worthwhile, and PPV is where that can happen. Knowing that a PPV card that does one million buys generates approximately $20-25 million in earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA), a St. Pierre return could give the company as much as $30-40 million towards paying off its investment. However, it's just one fight for now and those tens of millions are just ultimately drops in the bucket, especially if the UFC is stuck between a world of rare events that draw one million PPV buys amidst a deluge of cards that can't crack 250,000. With Ronda Rousey gone and Conor McGregor doing whatever it is he's doing with Floyd Mayweather Jr., this is just a luxurious stopgap solution, a temporary tape job in term of fixes.
There is a mini-sweepstakes to be GSP's opponent, with a bunch of UFC champs and stars desperate for that mega payday. Bovada even has odds on GSP's comeback foe if you want to bet. Naturally, UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping is atop the leaderboard at +140, and this is the fight that makes the most sense. As mentioned, St. Pierre has always been measured and calculated in his career decisions, while also being concerned with protecting his public image and legacy at large. Even beyond Bisping's recent public statements that GSP wants to fight him, moving up to capture a UFC title in a second weight class against a stylistically preferable opponent like “The Count” is precisely the sort of shrewd, targeted decision on which St. Pierre's career has been predicated.
Even so, Bisping usually lands 20-25 significant strikes per round and found a way to punch out Luke Rockhold's lights. St. Pierre hasn't fought for several years. It's hardly crazy to think Bisping -- or whoever winds up in the cage with “Rush” -- could kick the whole apple cart over; I mean, Matt Serra did it once. It's very possible St. Pierre would come back, win a middleweight title and retire again, never mind if he got knocked out, roughed up or embarrassed in some way in his return, which would certainly have St. Pierre hanging up the gloves quickly.
The best scenario for the UFC and WME-IMG is that St. Pierre beats Bisping tidily and draws over a million PPV buys. Perhaps then it could capitalize on however revitalized GSP may feel and seduce him into one last fight, maybe against Anderson Silva. Trying to make GSP lightning strike twice seems like the most believable best-case scenario for the promotion, and even that is a tenuous proposition.
It's a more money, more problems situation for the UFC now as WME-IMG tries to recoup its investment in a PPV market absent the stars who can help it do that. Star power may die hard, but GSP alone -- and whatever his brief return may look like -- won't be able to power the UFC's superstructure for very long or pay it off all at once.