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With Georges St. Pierre’s return to the Ultimate Fighting Championship finally official, attention has quickly turned to who he will fight. One name has quickly emerged as the favorite: UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. St. Pierre vs. Bisping was discussed as a possibility for UFC 206 in Toronto last year and could be the first big-money MMA fight of the calendar year.
It’s understandable that Bisping-St. Pierre would come up as a possibility for GSP’s return fight. For Bisping, it’s an opportunity to make the biggest paycheck of his career by far, a reward for all his years of service. For St. Pierre, the brash and talkative Bisping fits the mold of the type of opponent with which he has drawn his biggest buy rates. With the UFC struggling to put together major pay-per-view attractions in 2017, Bisping-St. Pierre is probably the biggest of the realistic options for St. Pierre’s first fight. While it’s understandable Bisping-St. Pierre might be on the horizon, it’s still absolutely the wrong move.
One of the underappreciated components of Zuffa’s success while owning and running the UFC was the way that the promotion always kept its eye on the long term. The temptation in individual combat sports is always to prioritize the short term, but that can come at the expense of long-term goals. You can make more money in the short term by spending less on undercards, but you will create fewer stars for the future in the process. As Bellator MMA has demonstrated spectacularly, freak-show fights tend to draw more immediately while eroding future business. The UFC consistently has tried to balance making more money now with building a strong foundation based around the best fighters competing to establish who is number one.
A fight between St. Pierre and Bisping is likely a bigger first fight back than St. Pierre challenging for the welterweight title. The story of the greatest welterweight champion ever returning to challenge for the title he never lost is a better story than St. Pierre going for the middleweight belt, but Bisping is a much bigger star and that would be the likely difference. The problem is what would come after St. Pierre-Bisping, and all possibilities are less desirable for the sport and for St. Pierre himself.
The first possibility is that Bisping defeats St. Pierre. Bisping has talked openly of retirement. The combination of a massive payday, the highest-profile win of his career and the next step of additional title defenses against extremely dangerous but less lucrative challengers would surely tempt Bisping to call it a career. It would be the storybook ending Dan Henderson couldn’t quite pull off against Bisping last year. Even if Bisping did continue to fight, he’s surely at the tail end of his career. By contrast, Tyron Woodley and Stephen Thompson are years younger than Bisping and have fewer professional MMA fights combined than the well-traveled Brit. The odds of creating a new superstar for years to come are more likely at welterweight than middleweight.
The scenarios get significantly worse if St. Pierre defeats Bisping. St. Pierre and the UFC have two basic options. First, they could deprioritize the middleweight title and simply continue finding the most marketable fights for St. Pierre at whatever weight class. That could mean a super fight with Conor McGregor or another fight with a Diaz brother. There’s nothing wrong with those fights in isolation, but it would make a mockery of the middleweight title. More importantly, it would fit into what has become a really problematic growing pattern in the devaluing of UFC titles.
The UFC has bent over backwards to accommodate McGregor in recent years, and it has greatly undermined the featherweight and lightweight titles in the process. Deserving challengers have waited around indefinitely for their shots. Unnecessary interim titles have been created left and right. The featherweight title was ultimately vacated without the champion losing in the Octagon. That approach has spread to other divisions, as well.
The clear message being sent to fans is that the stars are bigger than championships. Doing the same thing with St. Pierre would accentuate the point even more clearly. That’s a big problem given that UFC titles have always been the backbone of the promotion. If fans perceive that UFC titles are props, like boxing titles, it makes it much harder to create new superstars. It’s thus imperative that fans perceive the promotion as working to prove who the best fighter at each weight class is rather than simply doing whatever means the most money in the short term.
The other option if St. Pierre defeated Bisping would be to have St. Pierre defend the middleweight title against the most deserving middleweight challengers. This is arguably even more problematic than having him just relinquish the championship. St. Pierre fought at welterweight his entire UFC career for good reason: It was his most natural weight class. A super fight with Anderson Silva never took place in large measure because of the big weight difference between the two. Now, St. Pierre, in his late 30s after a three-year hiatus, would be taking on the sorts of opponents he wasn’t competing against at the peak of his powers.
St. Pierre taking on the likes of Yoel Romero or Luke Rockhold isn’t good for anyone. There are some massive and highly skilled fighters in the middleweight division, and no one wants to see the beloved St. Pierre take terrible beatings because he’s fighting in the wrong weight class. That was the fate that befell Kazushi Sakuraba, one of St. Pierre’s heroes, because Pride Fighting Championships saw money in Sakuraba competing as the underdog against the best fighters two or three divisions above his natural weight class.
The UFC is surely tempted to make St. Pierre-Bisping, and the fight is likely to feel like the right decision the night it happens. The problem would be the next day. The UFC should resist the urge, take the prudent course and return St. Pierre to his natural weight class or at least avoid getting him entangled with a championship he isn’t going to defend.