A few thoughts, in no particular order, on the Georges St-Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks welterweight title bout from Saturday:
1) St-Pierre is a great drawing card for enough reasons that his success feels overdetermined. He's a brilliant fighter who not only hasn't lost in nearly seven years, but didn't lose so much as a round over most of that time; he's thoughtful and personable, nothing at all like what someone who doesn't follow the sport might expect a top fighter to be; he inspires devotion and loyalty in his fellow Canadians, and he benefited from good timing, as he was one of the first top fighters to come into his prime after the sport made it to national television.
Maybe most important is that he's a champion fight enthusiasts can be proud of. For any number of reasons—the determination of promoters to brand it as the sports equivalent of bath salts, the corruption, the fact that it involves people in a cage beating one another senseless—fighting is an embarrassing thing to follow. St-Pierre, who follows through on his intricate strategies with an elegant style based mainly off the jab and the takedown, shows what it can be at its best.
Fighting is worse in many ways than people who just flatly dismiss it realize, but its most popular figure is a perfectly average sized man who hasn't knocked out or submitted anyone since George Bush was still in office, and whose fights offer not a fantasy of consequence-free violence but rigorous displays of restraint and technique. That says something about why it's worth holding out hope for.
2) Like most people who watched the fight, I figured Hendricks clearly won, and was in disbelief when the judges called it for the champion. So it goes; judges are notoriously bad at judging fights, and anyway in this case that the outcome was clear didn't mean it wasn't close, which was the interesting thing, because St-Pierre doesn't have close fights.
Going into the bout, it seemed like this would be both St-Pierre's most difficult defense and a manageable challenge. Hendricks is a ferocious power puncher and a highly credentialed wrestler, capable of knocking anyone out in a minute but also notorious for his sketchy conditioning. St-Pierre's plan would be to ride out the first two rounds, then take over in the final three; he would incessantly jab early on to establish distance and keep clear of Hendricks's hooks and crosses, then take the fight to the ground and establish top control as the fight dragged on. If it didn't play out that way, you thought, it would be because he got clipped.
Hendricks, though, not only had the better of the first two rounds, but also took the fourth, and there was no point at which St-Pierre seemed even close to pulling away from an opponent who, if he had a lot more in the tank than anyone had really expected he would, was still visibly tiring. Four years ago, St-Pierre would have won going away, but he's 32 now, and he isn't what he was.
3) If this is the predictable consequence of an athlete aging out of his physical prime, it may also have something to do with the costs of his style. St-Pierre has now spent 5:28:12 in the cage, the most of anyone in UFC history by far. Since he first won the welterweight title, he's taken, in addition to who knows how many shots in training, 875 strikes in competition, per the official statistics, with nearly half—412—now having come in his last three bouts. This was a tremendous contest, the most compelling St-Pierre has ever had, but even if you scored it for him you'd have allowed, as soon as the final bell rang, that this was clearly the end of something, and that he's now a somewhat lesser version of himself.
4) The fight was rendered essentially irrelevant by what happened as soon as the dubious verdict was announced and commentator Joe Rogan came into the cage to interview the champion. Asked if this was his toughest fight yet, St-Pierre agreed, then said that he couldn't really remember a lot of what happened in the fight, and that he couldn't see out of one of his eyes. As Rogan was walking off, St-Pierre wrested the microphone from him.
"I need to hang up my gloves for a little bit," he said, "at least, make a point of my life." He alluded to private matters that he wasn't willing to explain in public right then; he said that he'd been knocked around, and made clear that he wasn't quite in the frame of mind to explain his reasoning; he reiterated that he would be going away for a while, and perhaps returning, and said that he wanted to thank his promoters and the fans and Johny Hendricks. It sounded something like a retirement, but not quite one; his stammering and repetitions made him seem like someone being seized by a neurological event, and it was strange and uncomfortable to watch. It reminded you that behind all the theories you may have about science and technique, this is a sport that involves people drilling their reflexes so that they can work through brain trauma without having any idea what they're doing and then talk about their emotions with Joe Rogan in front of millions of people.
5) Directly after this, Ariel Helwani—a pseudo-journalist who works for SB Nation and also for Fox, which broadcasts fights, and so maintains a role as something like the Mean Gene Okerlund of the sport while also enjoying a nominal independence—got an interview with promoter Dana White. After nearly three minutes of talk about the sketchy decision, Helwani got around to asking White—or "Dana," as the pseudo-press tends to style him—about his champion having announced something like a retirement while making mention of symptoms of brain damage.
"GSP will not retire," said White. "He will not retire after that fight. He owes it to the fans, he owes it to this company, and he owes it to Johny Hendricks to come in and do that fight again."
Of all the possible follow-ups—What the fuck is wrong with you? or How the fuck does he owe anyone anything? or Aren't you concerned about a disoriented St-Pierre having just vividly described what certainly sound like the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury?—Helwani went to, "Immediate rematch?"
"Yes," said White. "The right thing needs to be done here."
6) The problem with criticizing White is that anyone who knows enough about this sport and how he controls it to care is every bit as complicit as he is. I've talked to fighters who are clearly suffering the effects of having competed; I know that the sport is probably as dangerous as football or boxing, and perhaps more so, and all this makes me aware that spending money on it, or writing about it as anything other than an atavism, is indefensible save on some lines about how people can do what they like with their bodies as long as it's consensual, which is true enough but also an evasion of the question, which isn't about whether people have the right to do this but whether they should, and whether anyone should watch it. White is horrifyingly crass, but it's hard to discern any real moral difference between his assertion that there will be a rematch and my willingness to watch one, and he at least has the virtue of sparing everyone any feigned concern.
7) That said, White is an utter embarrassment. At a press conference after the fight, he repeated his point about all the many people to whom St-Pierre owes things, and when someone asked whether it wouldn't be worth finding out what the champion is thinking before trashing him, he said, "No. No it wouldn't." He talked about how much money St-Pierre makes—$12 million a year, reportedly—and how he has a right to retire but not a right to take time off, and how his camp obviously "had some sort of plan," and all sorts of other things, and it had to occur to you that this was capitalism, pustulating right there in front of a crowd of reporters and hangers on who laughed at his wittier rejoinders, many of whom surely thought that you had to admit that he was right, and that St-Pierre did owe something to someone.
About 40 minutes into the press conference, St-Pierre arrived, having come from the hospital, his face ruined. Everyone wanted to know if he'd just retired, what was going on, what he had to say.
"I just came out of a freaking war," he said. "The guy hit like a truck, you know. My brain got bashed left and right inside my skull, so I just need to think, see what's going to happen. I get very emotional."
To his right, Rashad Evans, who for years worked under some of the same trainers St-Pierre did, looked deeply concerned. Maybe he wasn't; I don't know. Someone asked St-Pierre if he felt he had a responsibility to fight Hendricks again.
"I need to make a point, man," St-Pierre said. "I can't, I can't sleep at night now. I'm going crazy. I have issues, man. I need to relax. I need to get out for a while. I don't know what I'm going to do. I feel like I'm going to let everything out now, but I have to keep some of my stuff, some part of my life, personal."
Someone asked if this was an extension of something St-Pierre has talked about in the past, the way he obsesses over each opponent, and lets all the variables, the calculations of what might happen in a fight, consume him. He was about to answer, and then White cut him off.
"Don't answer that question," he said. "Don't ask him that question any more. He doesn't want to answer that question."
"What happened in the fight," St-Pierre said a bit later, "at one point I couldn't see with—it happens sometimes, with my eyes, I don't know, I get punched and one of my vision in my right eye became blurry. It's still blurry right now. And, yeah—it happened quite a while, but he punch very, very hard. He's the hardest puncher I've ever seen. He hit like a truck. I was hurt. I'm not an egomaniac, I say it. When I'm hurt, I'm hurt, and he hurt me a lot tonight. Look at me."
They asked if Hendricks had made him more uncomfortable than anyone else ever had.
"At one point I lost count of the fight, you know," he said. "It was a war. I dig into my resources, my energy to give the best I could, and it took me a lot of courage. I was hurt and I keep going."
8) A bit after the press conference was over, after White had had a chance to talk privately to St-Pierre, a group of reporters gathered around White so that he could take more questions, about what they'd talked about and what was going on. The most popular fighter in the sport had just said he didn't really want to fight, and described anxiety, occasional loss of vision, and memory loss, as well as a concrete awareness that fighting involves suffering traumatic brain injury. White expressed an easy confidence that he'd be back soon enough.
"His problems," he said, "aren't as bad as he thinks they are."
Photo: Associated Press/Isaac Brekken