The retirement of Georges St-Pierre, the longtime UFC welterweight champion and something like a consensus pick for the greatest fighter of all time, was as close as the sport of MMA gets to a happy ending.
Yes, St-Pierre left on the heels of a controversial decision win over eventual champion Johny Hendricks, his face bruised and his reputation dinged. Nevertheless, he departed on a victory, with his head held high and the windy blusterings of UFC president Dana White about the illegitimacy of the win and the necessity of a rematch ringing in his ears. The title and the mystique of the champion belonged to St-Pierre, not the UFC, and they were his as he rode off into a sunny future.
Hollywood beckoned, offering a supporting role as Batroc the Leaper in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and, generally, a far more promising second act than most fighters get. Far more typical is the long decline into sad irrelevance, usually accompanied by the snapping of limbs, faceplant knockouts, and grinding, hard-to-watch decision losses where it becomes clear the once-great champion just doesn’t have it anymore, all made worse by the occasional flashes of brilliance that remind the fans of just how special that fighter used to be.
St-Pierre avoided all that. He left on top, as shaky as that last win might have been, and seemed happy making documentaries about dinosaurs, one of his passions (yes, seriously), and traveling the world as a wealthy martial artist with the time and financial resources to pursue his interests free of the pressures of being a professional athlete in a grueling, vicious sport.
This is one piece of what makes St-Pierre’s return to the UFC to face Michael Bisping for the middleweight title puzzling. On some level, it’s inherently sad to see one of the few happy stories of MMA retirement—one of the rare fighters who departed with a full bank account (as far as we know), a massive public profile, and a plan for the future—head back to the Octagon.
The return of the retired star has happened often enough in combat sports that it’s a trope and a narrative all its own. Muhammad Ali sat out for more than two years between his rematch with Leon Spinks and his horrifying fight with Larry Holmes, and George Foreman was out of boxing for a decade. Floyd Mayweather is currently toying with the idea of a return to face Conor McGregor. In MMA, Randy Couture left the sport for a bare year before returning to defeat Tim Sylvia and win the heavyweight title, while the great Fedor Emelianenko sat out for more than three until returning for a series of increasingly sad bouts in the last year.
There really is life after fighting, St-Pierre seemed to say—until there isn’t. Like so many before him, he’s back in the game. Whether he needs the money, misses the competition, thinks he can still do it at the highest level, was presented with a financial opportunity too big to overlook, or some combination of all of them, he made the decision to return.
So here we are, with a 35-year-old former champion who hasn’t fought in more than three years making his comeback in a weight class in which he’s never competed. St-Pierre will face the champion of that division, who, by the way, is a 38-year-old former gatekeeper who gained the title by knocking out the overconfident and injured Luke Rockhold on three weeks’ notice. In his first title defense last October, Bisping won a razor-thin decision against a hand-picked opponent, the 46-year-old Dan Henderson.
This wasn’t a performance that inspired much confidence in Bisping’s ability to hang onto the belt. Gravel-voiced Cuban Olympic wrestler Yoel Romero, one of the more terrifying physical specimens in the history of the sport and a deserving top contender for the title, was widely considered to be something like a lock to smash Bisping into a thousand bloody and broken pieces. Romero even cheekily set up a GoFundMe to pay for Bisping’s medical expenses and a retirement party.
Instead of Romero, who has won eight fights in a row in an insane streak that includes a flying-knee decapitation of former champion Chris Weidman in his last outing, Bisping will face St-Pierre, who has never once competed at middleweight.
The matchup is indefensible on sporting grounds. While MMA has never been a pure sport, the idea of the most deserving fighters getting the opportunity to prove they’re the top dog has long been a core part of its appeal, especially to the longtime fans who provide the bedrock of the UFC’s viewership and its most reliable audience for both TV and pay-per-view. It’s not necessarily a huge audience, but it is an important one: Those are the fans who pay to watch flyweight dynamo Demetrious Johnson and strawweight wrecking ball Joanna Jedrzejczyk, the online evangelists who spread GIFs and highlights of up-and-coming talents and tune in for otherwise underwhelming Fox Sports 1 Fight Night cards to watch fights that lead toward runs at a title.
The claim that the UFC champion is the best fighter in the world at that weight, taking on credible challengers on a regular schedule, has long coexisted with fun matchups designed to sell tickets and pay-per-views. That relationship is sometimes uneasy, but for the most part the need for cash-grabbing entertainment sits alongside the quest for sporting legitimacy in a comfortable symbiosis. Stockton hero Nick Diaz and a faded Anderson Silva can headline a pay-per-view; former professional wrestler CM Punk can add some pay-per-view buys to a card with a heavyweight title fight in the main-event slot; Dancing with the Stars contestant Paige VanZant isn’t an elite fighter, but she’s a star who pulled eyeballs to an otherwise credible event on Fox last December; Conor McGregor can have a rematch with Nate Diaz at 170 pounds and set buyrate records.
With this matchup between Bisping and St-Pierre, however, the UFC’s long shift toward entertainment and away from sport finally feels like it’s hit a tipping point.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We don’t need to make an pious, moralizing value judgment, and this is hardly David Arquette winning the WCW belt on Thunder.
Titles are promotional tools. The promotion has played a bit loose with title shots in the past: It granted former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar a shot at Jose Aldo’s featherweight belt following not one but two losses, for example. Ronda Rousey got one against Amanda Nunes earlier this year after eating a heavy dose of Holly Holm’s shin in her previous fight. McGregor had gone 1-1 against career gatekeeper Nate Diaz and had never fought at 155 pounds in the UFC before getting his shot at Eddie Alvarez last November and utterly dismantling the champion.
Still, it’s a mistake to underrate the importance of this booking as a turning point for what the UFC is willing to tolerate. The difference in those past cases has been a lack of credible title challengers; without a clear-cut top contender, why not give the shot to someone with a profile who can sell a few extra pay-per-views and add some shine to the challenger even if they lose?
This is different. There are credible alternative challengers who have done everything they can to stake a claim on being the best middleweight fighter on the planet. Despite that, the UFC has decided that the middleweight title has more use as a means to promote a fight between two well-known veterans who can draw big money on pay-per-view than as a way of building a profile for talented but lesser-known fighters like Romero, Jacare Souza, or Robert Whittaker, some of the other deserving competitors populating the middleweight division.
There’s a clear reason for this shift: money. Lots of it. Cold, hard stacks of it. The UFC is betting that St-Pierre vs. Bisping will sell so much more than Bisping vs. a deserving challenger that any long-term hit to the perceived value of a UFC title belt will be offset by the short-term financial gains.
WME-IMG spent an exorbitant amount of money purchasing the UFC in 2016, paying upwards of $4 billion for a consistently profitable business. The problem with the amount WME-IMG paid, and how it paid that money, is the enormous debt that goes along with it. The interest payments alone are substantial, and to make matters worse, the promotion also has ridiculous revenue goals in place to snag a substantial “earn-out” of $250 million by the end of 2018.
The new owners are cutting staff left and right and letting fighters they don’t regard as essential walk in free agency. They’re penny-pinching by, among other things, refusing to send fighters video of their opponents and forcing them to pay out of pocket for its Fight Pass video service, snagging a cool $95.88 per fighter per year.
WME-IMG would almost certainly be taking these steps even if the new owners hadn’t drastically overestimated the amount of revenue they could count on the UFC to provide. 2015 and 2016 were banner years for the UFC, almost entirely because of the emergence of McGregor and Rousey as bona fide pay-per-view attractions; Rousey sold 3.7 million pay-per-views in her four outings in 2015 and 2016, while McGregor sold 6.575 million over five events in that same stretch.
Those are staggering numbers that account for roughly 60 percent of all pay-per-views sold in those two years. While the UFC’s pay-per-view business is still profitable without them, Rousey and McGregor are the difference between a machine that prints money and one that’s simply a nice asset for a diversified corporate conglomerate. WME-IMG paid $4 billion for the former, but with Rousey’s profile damaged by two devastating losses and McGregor on the sidelines for the foreseeable future as he chases a $100 million fight with Mayweather, the new owners are getting the latter.
That’s why the UFC needed St-Pierre back. He was never the star that McGregor and Rousey have become in terms of drawing power, but his potential for bringing in somewhere north of 600,000 buys in a landscape where everyone else is struggling to pull 300,000 is noteworthy. Against Bisping, a weak A-side but a potentially fantastic B-side, that number could easily rise to a million.
All of this creates an atmosphere where WME-IMG is incentivized to value the UFC’s short-term profits over everything else. It’s the logic of overly financialized, conglomerative capitalism in the twenty-first century at its most obvious and naked, where quarter-to-quarter profit expectations drive out all other considerations, including the reputation of the brand and even the long-term viability of the product itself. These decisions serve only the bottom line of the larger conglomerate, not the interests of the subdivision or even the sports fan.
Using the middleweight title like this to set up a fight between a legitimate star like St-Pierre and a mid-tier draw like Bisping is one thing. Assuming the plan is for the winner to fight the ghost of Anderson Silva with a title on the line, the most logical next step for either Bisping or St-Pierre, what long-term value will the middleweight belt have after that? Is the plan just to shuttle that particular title between a series of well-known veterans without ever letting someone who could actually compete into the 2020s have a shot at the belt? How will fans’ views of UFC titles shift, knowing that the fighter who holds the belt isn’t necessarily one of the five or even ten best fighters in the division?
There’s real precedent in the UFC for the negative consequences of decisions like this. In 2010, the promotion decided to ramp up its presence on pay-per-view, running 15 events instead of the 13 it had the year before. It had a successful year, largely thanks to the efforts of Brock Lesnar and St-Pierre, and the UFC went to 16 pay-per-views in 2011. It was a short-term grab at more profits, and in that sense, it succeeded. In the long run, however, putting a bunch of crappy, subpar cards on pay-per-view, and demanding $59.99 for them, sucked the bottom out of the market and devalued the UFC brand. They lost hundreds of thousands of dedicated fans who decided to either stop watching altogether or to watch on illegal streams, and that set the basic shape of the pay-per-view market to this day. Fans now only pay for certain name-brand fighters, and it was the UFC’s short- term profit motives that drove that shift.
So that’s how we’ll end up with Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping staring at each other across the Octagon at some point in 2017. It’s the end of what had seemed like a happy retirement, the culmination of the UFC’s long shift toward entertainment and away from sport, and a representation of business strategy based on short-term profits above all else.
Of course I’ll watch, though. It’s Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping. Who doesn’t want to see that?