One night back in the mid-‘00s, I was browsing the new releases aisle at my local Blockbuster when a gleaming DVD of UFC 50: The War of ’04 caught my eye. This was years before mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) exploded into the public eye, and though the fights themselves took place months before, these DVDs were my only way of watching them from Australia. I didn’t know the outcomes going in, so it was as good to me as watching live.
The DVD cover showed a young French-Canadian fighter going up against the dominant former welterweight champion, Matt Hughes. The fight was for the vacant title, and the kid from Quebec was making his third appearance inside the Octagon. He gave it his all, managing to land a spinning back kick and a takedown on Hughes. But the wily veteran’s experience won out that night, as he submitted the up-and-comer via a slick spinning arm-bar with one second left in the first round.
The young fighter suffered his first loss that day, and to me he looked like just another hapless victim on the champ’s impressive ledger. Another highlight reel also-ran, I thought. He admitted that it was a hard task mentally to go up against his idol Hughes. My dad, who was watching beside me, saw otherwise. That French-Canadian guy, he said more than once, will hold the belt one day. He repeated it again and again. Mark his words.
Fast forward 13 years later, and that young kid is now the 36-year-old UFC middleweight champion of the world. Yesterday at Madison Square Garden, the man known as Georges St-Pierre pulled off a phenomenal win in finishing Michael Bisping with a rear-naked choke in the third round. Not only was it GSP’s first fight at middleweight, but it was his first time back in the cage after a near four-year hiatus. And, like a good dad does, my father got to repeat his ‘I told you so’ routine once again.
If you’ve been watching the sport since before 2013, then I don’t need to tell you about GSP’s past life as welterweight champ. Just two years after that first loss, he overcame his hero worship and defeated Hughes. In turn, he became his own superhero and ushered in a new era of dominance. Besides a brief snafu against Matt Serra, GSP was king of the welterweights for five years and nine consecutive title defenses. Name a top welterweight from that era, and you’ll spot St-Pierre’s name in their loss column—B.J. Penn, Thiago Alves, Nick Diaz, Dan Hardy, Jon Fitch and more all fought and lost against the king.
That first fight against Hughes, I realize now, was the beginning of a new era in the sport. Hughes back then represented the ideal MMA fighter: a strong background that dictated his game (farm-boy strength and wrestling, in his case), serviceable enough skills in other areas, and the backing of a big team—at one point, the Miletich stable where Hughes trained held nearly all the belts in the UFC.
GSP, meanwhile, was a peek at the future, that of the true mixed martial artist. The fighter whose skill in all areas was nearly equal. One who wasn’t hindered by the petty team politics that dominated the sport in the ‘90s and ‘00s, but instead trained with anyone who could help him improve. It’s crazy to think that in 2017 with a new title around his waist, the not-so-young Quebecois still upholds that idea. His corner for the Bisping fight included Manny Pacquiao’s trainer Freddie Roach and John Danaher, currently one of the most dynamic and dominant coaches in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The once-young kid, now a veteran, remains on the cutting edge of the sport and is still a student of the game.
As for the question of who GSP should fight next, UFC president Dana White has said that up next is interim title holder Robert Whittaker, who now occupies the hungry young lion spot where the new champ once stood. It wouldn’t be surprising though, given the UFC’s track record, if a big money fight against Conor McGregor is made at welterweight. If nothing else, it’d be a smoke-and-mirrors way of preventing either man from losing their title for promotional (and big money) reasons.
Then there’s the debate of where this win places him in the G.O.A.T. discussion. If you ask me, the Bisping victory places GSP several notches above Jon Jones and neck-and-neck with Anderson Silva. If he defends the belt a few times against top contenders, then he could very well usurp Fedor Emelianenko on my list as the greatest fighter ever to lace up the fingerless gloves.
But for now, just let two things sink in: GSP is back, and he’s champion once again. Long-time fans like me are still coming to grips with those facts, and we’re left wondering what year it is. Welcome back, champ. A lot has changed since you’ve been gone, and we can’t wait to see how you’ll shake up the new MMA landscape.