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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
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
St. Pierre taking on the likes of Yoel Romero
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
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.