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Since Georges St. Pierre retired from active competition nearly four years ago, additional claimants have risen to the title of MMA’s Greatest of All-Time. The unflappable Fedor Emelianenko and dazzling Anderson Silva were already contenders; Jon Jones continued to rack up wins in spite of his personal problems and remains functionally unbeaten; and more recently, some have beaten the drum for flyweight king Demetrious Johnson, who is coming off the most spectacular win of his career.
It’s understandable that GSP doesn’t always get mentioned first when this conversation comes up. Style points may not matter when it comes to wins and losses, but they do matter when it comes to long-term perception. Just look at Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. Some fighters bring up more striking memories when their names are mentioned. That in turn makes it more likely they’ll be mentioned as the greatest.
While winning impressively is clearly important, so much of winning dominantly in an individual sport relates to competition level. This isn’t the NFL where every team -- except perhaps the Browns -- has a certain professional standard. In MMA, you can book complete mismatches so long as there is an athletic commission to approve it. Part of what made Pride Fighting Championships’ biggest superstars stand out is that they were given softer opposition to run through between their tougher fights. That was an intentional choice on the part of Pride.
That same effect can occur in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, as well. When Derrick Lewis’ body shut down on him prior to UFC 216, Fabricio Werdum fought an opponent he would otherwise not compete against in Walt Harris. Werdum made short work of him, and there’s little reason to believe he wouldn’t do the same if he was given a steady diet of lower-level opponents. The point is that competition matters, and that’s why St. Pierre is for my money the best fighter in the history of the sport.
It’s easy to forget, but St. Pierre entered into his first title victory at UFC 65 against Matt Hughes as a betting underdog. That’s because Hughes was widely considered the greatest welterweight of all-time when they competed and was 19-1 in his last 20 fights. St. Pierre ended Hughes’ run and began his own. In a deep and talented welterweight division, St. Pierre beat back one difficult opponent after another and has no unavenged losses. While the names on St. Pierre’s resume are more impressive than his rivals, what’s just as important is when he fought them. It’s much harder to stop fighters when they are at their most competitive and dominant than when they have already suffered big losses and no longer have the aura of invincibility. Time and time again, St. Pierre fought talented fighters who came in supremely confident.
Sean Sherk was 31-1-1 with only one loss to Hughes by decision when St. Pierre took him out in less than two rounds. Jon Fitch was unbeaten for five years and 8-0 in the UFC when St. Pierre picked him apart. B.J. Penn was a fellow champion and considered by many to be the best in the history of his weight class. Thiago Alves had seven straight wins and wielded brutalizing power. Jake Shields was unbeaten for six years and champion in two different organizations at two different weight classes. Johny Hendricks was at the peak of his powers at 15-1 with 10 UFC wins. Some have criticized St. Pierre for playing it safe at times, but he consistently had a much lower margin for error than other great fighters.
GSP’s legacy of greatness makes the direction of his return at UFC 217 this Saturday a bit sad. The decision to challenge Michael Bisping rather than Tyron Woodley was a profound mistake. St. Pierre’s career was defined by the pursuit of greatness. Returning to reconquer the welterweight division that he ruled fit perfectly into that story. Instead, he’s competing in what is largely perceived as a gimmick fight that has limited relevance to St. Pierre’s legacy.
The frustration many have over Bisping not taking on top middleweight contenders has not led to St. Pierre being perceived as the hero who will stop “The Count.” Rather, he’s seen as Bisping’s ally in the game. Moreover, their supposed grudge is viewed as manufactured by two fighters who at heart like and respect each other. There’s nothing wrong with that, but authenticity is more important for a fighter like St. Pierre than a flamboyant showman like Conor McGregor. All in all, it’s disappointing that St. Pierre’s return isn’t being greeted with the universal acclaim and enthusiasm it should merit.
Regardless of how the fight is greeted or perceived, it’s great to have St. Pierre back. Fighters of his caliber just don’t come along that often, and the stakes are always high when they compete. St. Pierre’s resume is already full; there are few accolades left for him to add at this stage. The challenge for him is to go out on his terms. This is something few fighters ever do. They invariably hold on too long, and the fight game is unforgiving to legends past their primes. There’s a tremendous degree of difficulty in a great fighter that always relied on athleticism trying to compete at the top level in his mid to late 30s. Then again, degree of difficulty is the defining characteristic of St. Pierre’s legacy.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.