Pre-Fight Thoughts: Michael Bisping -vs- Georges St-Pierre
Following Georges St-Pierre's successful — albeit highly controversial — defence of the UFC welterweight championship, at UFC 167, the long-reigning champion stepped away from MMA. Citing concerns about head trauma, and other nonspecific personal issues, Georges St-Pierre specifically refused to use the word "retired," but for all intents and purposes that appeared to be what he had done. Retirements in combat sports have a habit of being very short-lived, GSP's seemed to be legitimate — even if the man himself left the door open.
Over the years, there had been a few hints that GSP may be coming back. Those never panned out, and UFC President Dana White — who was generally sour regarding the former champ, ever since his abrupt hiatus — routinely questioned St-Pierre's desire to return. As time wore on, it looked more and more like both sides were engaged in a public PR battle while the contractual specifics were resolved behind the scenes. This March, it was finally announced that GSP would in fact be returning. At middleweight. And he would be fighting Michael Bisping.
Every bit of those last 3 sentences still feels strange. As selfish as it may be, I really wanted GSP to be done with MMA; the notion of a supremely dominant champion retiring with the belt, avoiding serious brian damage and living a life of financial security is a compelling storyline. That he is even returning at all was a surprise, and the decision to move up a weight class even more so. Georges was not a gigantic welterweight, and would give up significant size to most of the 185-pound division. I assume Georges has little in the way of a weight cut to make 185 while Michael Bisping used to compete at light heavyweight.
This fight is peculiar, as despite the fact I have been a huge fan of GSP since he debutted in the UFC, this bout leaves me a little cold. When GSP stepped away, it was after a fight in which he looked to be losing a step. Gone was a lot of his explosiveness, and he absorbed a lot of damage from Johny Hendricks over the course of 5 hard rounds. While GSP remained successful throughout the tail-end of his run, his performances were visibly diminishing. How he will look after a 4-year break is anyone's guess.
There are two ways this goes: either St-Pierre will look good, the result of proper rest and recupperation after years of gruelling fight camps, or he looks like a slower, less fit shell of his former self and he gets ragdolled. In addition to a long time away from active competition, St-Pierre also underwent another ACL surgery in April of 2014. That GSP was able to come back from one knee surgery, when he was 6 years younger, was impressive enough. The long-term effect of a second surgery is impossible to estimate, but should be considered to some degree. The question is not whether GSP will be better than he was before, rather how much deterioration should we expect?
I will err on the side of optimism, and assume that Georges would not be staging a comeback if he did not truly believe he could do this. This does not feel like an attempt to cash in on past glory before the window of opportunity closes, although I am unsure what GSP's long-term goals truly are — statements about contractually obligated title defences notwithstanding. This bout seems like a case of both fighters assuming the other is the easiest opponent they could find, with the highest monetary reward. So, who is going to be the victim of hubris when all is said and done?
My initial instincts lean towards Georges St-Pierre, given his already legendary career and obvious physical talents. An expert technician, meticulous in preparation and execution, it is very difficult to make a case against St-Pierre in this particular match-up. Michael Bisping is a very unique story in the sport of MMA, as he is anything but a star athlete. Where GSP could have pursued an athletic career in other sports, Bisping managed to succeed on the merits of his toughness and persistence rather than any physical gifts. Michael Bisping is one of those rare instances where hard work was the difference marker.
Amusingly, the only easy fight "The Count" has had was when he knocked out Luke Rockhold to win the title. Bisping's lone title defence, against Dan Henderson — who was nowhere near the top of the middleweight division in 2016 — was an utter war that saw him nearly KO'ed twice. As a result, any concerns about what form GSP will be in have to be weighed with the reality that his opponent does not present an overwhelming threat. One aspect of the fight I am very interested to see play out is the wrestling. St-Pierre's dominance of the welterweight division was due, in large part, to his ability mix takedowns into a very precise, minimalistic striking attack. Michael Bisping possesses some of the best counter-wrestling at 185, something he seems to have worked on extensively since his loss to Chael Sonnen.
Bisping's size and takedown defence could pose serious problems for St-Pierre, leaving him open to accumulating a lot of damage from strikes as a result. I do not expect Bisping to finish GSP, though I could see him getting submitted himself. If the fight is contested on the feet, then I give a slight advantage to Bisping; if GSP is able to get the champ to the ground, then I think "The Count" will be in a lot of trouble. My assumption is that any physical deterioration would affect St-Pierre's ability to shoot and secure a takedown, but if he can overcome this and find ways to grapple then he should be quite advantaged. I expect to see a less explosive fighter, but not a less technical and proficient Georges St-Pierre.
It feels strange that this fight is happening, even on the day of the event. The entire UFC 217 is strong, but there is a strange feeling in the air. I can't quite put my finger on it. I'm not sure if we're about to get a grim reminder that it is better to leave on a high note than try to recapture old glory, or if this will be one of those rare instances where the seemingly impossible happens, and makes the dream believable so we can be let down in the future. This fight is a crucible: who will look more weathered, a 4-years-retired fighter with two fake knees, or fairly active fighter in his very late 30s with a history of enduring damage?
As much as I am not overwhelmed with anticipation for this fight, I do want to see it. I never would have asked for this, but if it's going to happen then I will certainly watch. 2017 has been a year of unceasing absurdity, so the notion that Michael Bisping could close out the year as middleweight champion and holding wins over Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva seems a lot more possible that it normally would. Personally, I am pulling for St-Pierre, even if that means he ostensibly would have to fight Robert Whittaker by winning the 185-pound title.
Published: November 4th, 2017.