You can’t blame UFC president Dana White for being in a good mood in the early morning hours Sunday.
UFC 217 on Saturday night was a smashing success, from both financial and artistic standpoints. On the big stage of New York City’s Madison Square Garden, the company put on one of its most memorable events, a fight card topped by three title bouts which produced three new champions with three thrilling finishes.
The big draw, of course, was the return of one of the sport’s most beloved champions, Georges St-Pierre, after a four-year absence. The Montreal native topped off the night of fantastic fights with a third-round submission of Michael Bisping, winning the UFC middleweight title and making him just the fourth fighter in company history to hold belts in two weight classes.
White indicated that St-Pierre’s return was trending to do well over 1 million pay-per-view buys, including a record number in Canada.
The evening was precisely the shot in the arm the UFC needed after a rough stretch over the past couple months in which PPV buys and television numbers both dropped to alarming lows.
So, flush with Saturday night’s success, the UFC boss tried to get out ahead of the game and engineer GSP’s next fight.
White proclaimed St-Pierre would next meet Robert Whittaker, holder of an interim middleweight belt created while Bisping was out rehabbing a knee injury.
“It’s going to be Whittaker,” White told reporters at the UFC 217 post-fight news conference. “I don’t even know what’s going on with GSP. He was transported to the hospital, so he’s got to get stitches on his nose. …. [St-Pierre] took some big shots from the top position and if he didn’t do that he probably would’ve come out unscratched. So yeah, he’s got to go to the hospital right now. We’ll see how he is and what the status is with him.”
St-Pierre vs. Whittaker looks reasonable enough at first glance: Fans are getting a little sick of the UFC’s knack for creating interim champions at the drop of a hat, and a fight between GSP and Whittaker would settle matters at 185 pounds.
But in the immediate aftermath of his victory, St-Pierre didn’t sound like a fighter committed to the idea of sticking around at 185 pounds for the long haul. The new champion gave up a considerable amount of size to Bisping, and Bisping’s not the largest middleweight out there.
“This is not really my weight,” St-Pierre said in his post-fight interview. “I did it for the challenge. There was a time in my career, I was too busy. The challengers were one after the other and I was too small to go up. Now I’m still welterweight size, but I decided to take a shot, because I put on some muscle mass. There’s a point that it’s too much, but now I’m at the point where it’s OK.”
There’s also this: The UFC needs St-Pierre way more than vice versa at this stage of the game.
St-Pierre’s already demonstrated a willingness to walk away. UFC 167 on Nov. 16, 2013 brought one of the sport’s ugliest scenes. St-Pierre announced he was going to take a break from the sport after a close victory over Johny Hendricks in Las Vegas. An apoplectic White laced into St-Pierre at the post-fight news conference and claimed the fighter had been taken to the hospital, only to have a battered and bruised GSP awkwardly crash the scene.
A few weeks later, St-Pierre announced he was relinquishing the UFC welterweight belt he had held for five years and eight months and took an extended break.
If White couldn’t force St-Pierre to bend to his wishes back then, back when previous UFC ownership had a much tighter grip on their stars than they do today, what makes him think GSP is going to follow orders this time?
The UFC is coming up on a pivotal year, as it will negotiate its next major television deal in 2018. Endeavor (the former WME-IMG) bought the company last year at the tail end of a boom fueled by Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor.
Just over a year later, Rousey’s very likely done. McGregor proved his worth by stepping away and doing blockbuster business boxing Floyd Mayweather Jr., and he’s going to play hardball for his return to the Octagon.
It really only takes two or three superstars to keep the engine churning, so GSP’s spectacular return is a boon that comes at exactly the right moment. If the UFC can count on three or four events headlined by McGregor or St-Pierre, the 2018 outlook is all of a sudden a lot more rosy than it had been just a week ago.
Maybe St-Pierre will want to fight Whittaker next, though his post-fight comments don’t seem to indicate a ton of enthusiasm for continuing at 185. Maybe St-Pierre will go back down to his natural home at 170 pounds and make a run at current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley. Or, who knows? Given the UFC’s inclination to make hotshot superfights, perhaps St-Pierre vs. McGregor is in the offing.
Or St-Pierre could choose to take another extended absence and leave the UFC without a guaranteed million-PPV seller at a pivotal time.
As much as White might want St-Pierre vs. Whittaker, GSP’s next opponent will be whomever he damn well wants to face.
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