Georges St-Pierre shocked the MMA world in November 2013 when, at the height of his powers, he declared he was taking a break from the sport. No one knew what the future would hold for arguably the greatest fighter in UFC history, but four years later, he's finally back and ready for then next chapter of his glorious career.
After a dominant run of nine consecutive UFC Welterweight title defenses, St-Pierre revealed he was over it. He was physically and emotionally run down by the pressure of being champion, had frustrations with lackadaisical drug testing in the sport and was also dealing with personal issues outside of fighting. As a result, he voluntarily gave up his belt and proceeded to vanish from the spotlight.
St-Pierre never officially retired after vacating the belt. He always insisted a comeback was in the cards, but more often than not it seemed improbable. When speculating on potential options for his return, though, a matchup with UFC Middleweight champion Michael Bisping was certainly not a fight anyone was clamoring to see.
That's what we're getting for St-Pierre's (25-2 MMA, 19-2 UFC) comeback, though. "Rush" moves up to the 185-pound division for the first time in his career and challenges Bisping (30-7 MMA, 20-7 UFC) in Saturday's UFC 217 pay-per-view headliner at Madison Square Garden in New York City. If St-Pierre wins, he will become just the fourth fighter in UFC history to win titles in two weight classes, joining Conor McGregor, B.J. Penn and Randy Couture. He couldn't dream up a more perfect scenario.
"It will be the best accomplishment of my life," St-Pierre tells Rolling Stone. "Nothing will come first over this. After four years, coming back like this, I think will be the No. 1 on my list. 100 percent, without a doubt. I couldn't wish for a better scenario. I wanted to have the biggest fight possible for my comeback."
Regardless of his reasoning, St-Pierre walking away when he did was a significant moment. Athletes in every sport have trouble knowing when to call it quits, and in an unforgiving environment like MMA, getting out on top is next to impossible. St-Pierre was a model fighter and champion during his reign, but ultimately he couldn't resist the allure of a return.
Why is St-Pierre coming back, though? He claims it's not for the money (he's set to make a lot of it), but more to satisfy his burning desire for competition. The French-Canadian says he never stopped training during his time off and is an enhanced version of the man who won 19 of the 21 times he's stepped in the Octagon.
But why Bisping? St-Pierre ruled the 170-pound division for the better part of a decade, beating all the top names in the weight class. He wanted the tallest task available for his comeback, and in his mind, challenging Bisping at an unfamiliar weight in an unfamiliar environment fits the criteria.
Bisping isn't buying that, though. "The Count" welcomed the fight against St-Pierre with open arms. The chance to spoil the comeback of one of the greatest stars in MMA history and further add to his resume was impossible to turn down.
But Bisping is also a cynic. Of all the high-level fighters in the sport, there are few with his level of humility and self-awareness. The Brit's UFC title reign came together due to a fairytale-like sequence of events. In June 2016 he was offered a short-notice title shot against Luke Rockhold at UFC 199. Rockhold had handily beaten Bisping roughly 18 months earlier, and the odds indicated the rematch would go the same. Bisping shocked the world, though, by starching Rockhold in less than three minutes for the 2016 "Upset of the Year."
Ever since Bisping has been a target a criticism from many fans. He made his first title defense against Dan Henderson, who was ranked outside the top 10, at UFC 204 in October 2016, and hasn't fought since. Bisping claims he would have fought anyone next, but St-Pierre specifically asked for him. He was eager to oblige, knowing full well he's being perceived as a winnable fight.
"The truth of the matter is Georges fell into the trap of what a lot of people fall into," Bisping says. "You fell into the trap of thinking he can beat me – that's it. That's why you want to fight me. That's why you kept asking (UFC President) Dana (White) for me. Nobody else, because you think you can beat me. You think in your little tiny pea-brain that you can beat me. But you can't.
"That will be the mistake you make, the trap that a lot of people fall into. They see me on TV, they say, 'This guy is beatable.' But what you can't see is what I’ve got in (my heart and my mind). You're going to find out that you never should have come back, pal."
Although there are fair complaints about the UFC overlooking legitimate title contenders in favor of granting St-Pierre an immediate crack at the gold in a division he's never fought in, the fight is happening, and there are many intriguing aspects at play. The most compelling, of course, is how St-Pierre will perform after 1,449 days away from the cage.
When he left, St-Pierre was the winningest fighter in UFC history and was a nearly unstoppable force who could attack opponents both on the feet and the ground. Fighting is not necessarily something that needs to be relearned, but the effects of time off has historically proven real.
St-Pierre didn't decide to come back on a whim, though. He said he's been working diligently to add functional mass to his frame for the new division and has acquired skills which will allow him to handle bigger opponents. Because of that, the concept of ring rust is not a concern within St-Pierre's camp.
"I always believed Georges had a lot of fight left in him; it was just a matter of him taking some time off," St-Pierre's longtime head coach Firas Zahabi says. "If he had a limited amount of experience I believe time off could be a major issue. He's been competing since he was six or seven years old. For him, it's like riding a bike. I don't believe ring rust is an issue in this fight."
St-Pierre denies Bisping's notion that he was looking to cherry-pick an easy win for his comeback. He admits he views Bisping as a matchup with more upside for his career than other potential options, and given the stakes, it's hard to disagree.
When St-Pierre left his was the UFC's all-time wins leader, with 19 to his credit. He's also landed more takedowns than any fighter in UFC history and has competed in and won more championship fights. During his time off, several fighters have tied St-Pierre's wins record. Only one more has surpassed him, and coincidentally, that's Bisping.
St-Pierre knows he's risking a blemish on his pristine resume, but he's determined to get his wins record back. Moreover, his goal is not only to beat Bisping, but also hand him a loss so deflating that it spells the end of his career.
"Michael Bisping is going to retire after I beat him," St-Pierre says. "I want to win the title. I'm happy that I got everything lined up for a fight and it's the best training I can do and lifestyle and everything. I'm happy to be here. I'm very scared and stressed and afraid to fail, but that feeling makes me better. I'm happy to be here."
For Bisping, the upside of fighting St-Pierre is simple: He gets to add funds to his bank account, add to his UFC wins record and beat a transcendent name in the sport. Bisping will tie the record for most UFC fights with his 28th at UFC 217. His contributions to the sport in terms of breaking down barriers in the United Kingdom as well as his status as a colorful and charismatic personality are hard to ignore, but his success in the cage is trending into legendary territory.
A win would make Bisping the only fighter in MMA history to hold wins over all-time greats St-Pierre and Anderson Silva. Because of that, Bisping has plenty to fight for.
The Talk and the Fight
Bisping vs. St-Pierre was first announced in March. Over the course of the year the fight has taken many turns. The match was on-again and off-again several times, but ultimately it's happening. Bisping has relentlessly pestered St-Pierre since Day 1, questioning his motivations for fighting again and much more.
Both men have made the bold claim they will retire each other at UFC 217. However, that's not so much trash talk than a potential truth, because Bisping, 38, and St-Pierre, 36, have both said retirement could be around the corner depending on the outcome of the contest.
Confidence in not lacking from either man. However, Bisping says faltering on such a big stage is simply not an option.
"I don't want to get my ass kicked in front of the world – that's motivation enough," Bisping says. "I pride myself on being a fighter. That's what I do better than anything else in this world, I fight. And I'll be fucking damned if Georges St-Pierre is going to beat me on a world stage, and on top of that, knock me out. So I don't need any more motivation. I don't need any more pressure."
St-Pierre can't say it quite as eloquently, but his passion is hard to mistake. Although St-Pierre has shown some uncharacteristic moments in the lead up to the fight, such as pushing Bisping during multiple press conference staredowns, he insists emotions aren't going to have an impact on his performance.
When the St-Pierre of old entered the Octagon he was almost robotic. He would break opponents down in a methodical manner until there was nothing left to offer. He plans to pick up where he left off, but also intends on making a statement.
"He's begging me to stand and bang with him because it's the only way he can win, and even there it's not guaranteed he's going to win," St-Pierre says. "He's got a lot more things to worry about than I have about him. I can take him down, strike him, submit him. I can do all these things. Cardio has never been an issue for me. I’ve got a lot more weapons than he does. He's only bigger, that’s it. I got a lot more weapons. My fight IQ is much higher than his.”
Bisping, naturally, finds comedy in the notion of St-Pierre getting the better of him.
"For Georges to use the worried 'terrifying' about himself is the most laughable thing I've ever heard," Bisping says. "Georges is a very technical guy, but there's nothing terrifying about him in the slightest. There's nothing remotely scary about him whatsoever. I'll stand there on my feet and I'm going to knock him out.
"If Georges beats me in this fight I'll be the first to hold his hand up and say, 'Congratulations, well done.' Because I've got no excuses. I'm the best version of myself physically, mentally, athletically. I just don't see how Georges wins this fight."
Bisping may not see it, but St-Pierre has ever bit of confidence his comeback will go according to plan, because he's one of the most intelligent and resourceful fighters in UFC history. The potential St-Pierre's future with a victory is immense, and he wants to capitalize on it. Bisping has promised to make St-Pierre regret putting his gloves back on, but St-Pierre promised it will be a worthwhile endeavor.
"I'm not planning on losing anytime soon," St-Pierre said. "I don't lose. I do not lose. I take a fight at a time. I used to see too much ahead of time. I'm trying to have fun and live in the present moment. It doesn't get bigger than this. Michael Bisping middleweight title, Madison Square Garden – it's a dream come true."
Mike Bohn is Rolling Stone's combat sports reporter. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.