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On 3-year anniversary of Georges St-Pierre's last fight, we're still doing things the hard way
Three years ago today the greatest welterweight in MMA history stood in the cage after a successful UFC title defense and told us that he’d decided to step away for a little while.
It was Nov. 16, 2013. Zuffa still owned the UFC. Donald J. Trump was still just the guy on “The Apprentice.” Georges St-Pierre was still the UFC welterweight champ, though he’d had a little bit of a scare thanks to the heavy hands of Johny Hendricks, whose star was still on the rise at UFC 167.
After eeking out a somewhat questionable split-decision victory to retain his UFC welterweight title, St-Pierre (25-2 MMA, 19-2 UFC) stood in the cage with a face that looked like 10 pounds of spoiled fruit and told us that he needed some time off.
He chose these words carefully. He always did. He never used the dreaded r-word, even when the question was put to him directly. He never explicitly promised us a comeback, either. He just sort of left. This didn’t go over so great.
UFC President Dana White showed up at the post-fight press conference before St-Pierre did and raged until his entire head changed colors. He raged against St-Pierre for his noncommittal approach. He raged against the judges for giving him the win in the first place. He raged against the Nevada State Athletic Commission for a list of grievances both real and imagined.
Before it was over, White had called on the governor of Nevada to step in and right this wrong. And again, that was all before GSP even walked through the door to explain his side of the story.
“You don’t just say ‘I’ll take some time off. Maybe I’ll be back, maybe I won’t,’” White told reporters. “You owe it to the fans, you owe it to that belt, you owe it to this company, and you owe it to Johny Hendricks to give him that opportunity to fight again.”
Now here we are three years later, and GSP has said he’d like to fulfill those obligations while the UFC president continued to insist that he’s not serious about a comeback, and the end result is him declaring himself a free agent while the UFC gears up for a likely court battle. Funny how time changes things. Time and money – especially money.
The forces behind the present stalemate are no mystery. When St-Pierre left the UFC, he was a business unto himself, raking in big-money sponsors that significantly boosted his per-fight paychecks. Now every UFC fighter is a Reebok fighter, and for this they receive a paltry sum that, to a man with GSP’s past sponsor experience, must feel like someone’s trying to hand him a plate of bread crumbs while telling him happy Thanksgiving.
St-Pierre wants a new contract to reflect this new reality. The UFC, somewhat bafflingly, seems to have decided that it only wants to promote a proven legend of the sport if it can get him at 2013 prices. And so here we are.
If you’d asked me back on that November night when St-Pierre first announced his self-imposed sabbatical, I would have told you that, if and when he did return, it would probably be because the UFC had lured him back with more money. Now it seems like the exact opposite has happened. In an era when Conor McGregor tells the UFC to jump and then specifies the desired height, somehow it’s an all-time great’s request for a raise that has led to this impasse.
It’s dumb, is what it is, but that’s the fight game sometimes. Give it a cash cow, and all it sees is hamburger.
So now it’s November again, and St-Pierre’s still gone, with no return date in sight. His last fight feels like it took place in a different geologic era, and in MMA terms maybe it did. Maybe the sport that can’t solve the simple problem of welcoming him back doesn’t deserve him.
But I keep thinking of that November night in Vegas, back when White was foaming at the mouth over St-Pierre’s plans for his own future.
“There’s no, ‘I’m going to go on a cruise, or I’m going to be gone for two years,’” White said at that press conference. “‘I’m going to take a hiatus. I’m going to take a leave of absence.’ Whatever the hell it was that he was saying, that’s not how it works. It doesn’t work that way.”
With a legend’s absence now at three years and counting, this would be a fine time to figure out how it does work. And soon, before another November rolls around and we’re reminded again how the daylight fades fast this time of year.