Georges St-Pierre did something that’s never been done over the course of UFC history on Saturday when he returned from a nearly four-year layoff to defeat Michael Bisping and become new UFC Middleweight champion.
It was the perfect way to conclude UFC 217, which took place at Madison Square Garden in New York City and aired on pay-per-view. Three new champions were crowned (a record for a single UFC event), and the outcomes ranged from shocking to thrilling to outright inspirational.
After Rose Namajunas pulled off one of the UFC’s all-time title fight upsets with a first-round knockout of Joanna Jedrzejczyk to claim the UFC Strawweight title, and T.J. Dillashaw knocked out Cody Garbrandt in the second round of their grudge match to win back Bantamweight gold, St-Pierre made his long-awaited return to the Octagon and once again proved his greatness.
St-Pierre has accomplished a lot during his career, but what he did at UFC 217 was unprecedented. Not only did the former longtime UFC Welterweight titleholder come back from a 1,449-day layoff and look as good or better than ever, he managed to move up a weight class and become just the fourth fighter in UFC history to claim belts in two divisions when he choked Bisping out cold with a third-round submission.
The French-Canadian called it “the greatest night” of his career, and for good reason. He joined UFC Hall of Famer Randy Couture as the only fighters in history with three separate title reigns, tied the record for most victories in UFC history (20) and set a new record for most title-fight wins (13).
Although Bisping pestered St-Pierre in the lead-up to the fight, claiming that he would make “Rush” regret coming back to the Octagon, St-Pierre silenced the now-former champion with a sensational performance. At 36, St-Pierre looked refreshed and as skilled as ever, which is a scary proposition for his future competition.
St-Pierre was taken to hospital immediately after the fight due to multiple lacerations on his face. He was unable to speak about his future plans, and while contractually obligated for a title unification bout with interim UFC Middleweight champ Robert Whittaker, there are plenty of options for one of the biggest superstars in the sport.
There were some concerns about whether St-Pierre’s star power had diminished after so much time off. Apparently that wasn’t the case. The New York crowd showered him with “GSP” chants throughout the night, and according to UFC President Dana White, UFC 217 “destroyed” the 1 million pay-per-view mark, which would make it the organization’s most successful event of the year.
Moreover, St-Pierre clearly wasn’t forgotten in his native Canada. White said the card is tracking to set all-time records for sales in “The Great White North,” and St-Pierre’s comeback had such an impact that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even wished him a public congratulations.
Félicitations Georges! Like you never left. You’ve made us proud once again. ?? https://t.co/eK1GA5w2og
— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 5, 2017
St-Pierre’s successful comeback also signified the return of some humility to the UFC’s championship staple. St-Pierre has long been touted as the perfect example of a respectful and honorable champion who can be a role model for others. The two other champions crowned at UFC 217 fit that same mold.
Dillashaw and Namajunas were essentially bullied going into their respective title bouts with Garbrandt and Jedrzejczyk. That seems like an odd term to use given their status as professional fighters, but whether it was a built-in disdain due to past conflicts or simple pre-fight intimidation tactics, both challengers found themselves in situations where they were being relentlessly antagonized.
They refused to broken by the domineering champions, though. After a wild back-and-forth fight, Dillashaw caught his former Team Alpha Male training partner Garbrandt with a fight-ending combination to become the 135-pound champion for the second time.
Dillashaw was chastised by Garbrandt and the rest of his former teammates for leaving the gym on unfavorable terms. He bottled that up and let it go inside the Octagon, putting the first blemish on Garbrandt’s record. The rivals briefly embraced after the bout, and while Garbrandt refused to take back any of his comments, Dillashaw attempted to be the bigger man.
“I respect him as a fighter,” Dillashaw says. “I have not appreciated the accusations and just the crap talk, and trying to diminish my name and who I am. That’s one that I won’t ever forgive him for. I do respect him for being a great competitor and I’m sure we’ll see him again.”
Whether Dillashaw liked it or not, he’s aware conflict sells in the world of combat sports and it’s always going to be part of the game. Namajunas plans on taking an alternative approach during her title reign, and she made that very clear with an emotional post-fight speech.
Instead of relishing in the fact she just knocked out Jedrzejczyk – arguably the greatest female fighter the UFC has ever seen – in roughly three minutes, Namajunas used her platform to deliver a heartfelt message about the state of the sport (and the world).
“There’s just been a lot of trash talking,” Namajunas says. “People aren’t really being true to themselves or honest. Maybe that’s just what they feel they need to do to entertain, but I’m kind of sick of it. I’m sick of all the hate and anger. I feel like we have a duty as fighters to try and be a better example.
“Martial arts is about honor and respect. It takes a lot of courage to get in that cage no matter who you are. I just want to try and set an example in that way. Just with the rest of the world, I think there’s a lot of negativity everywhere you look. It’s just negativity all the time. I’m just trying to be that positive light as much as possible. I’m not perfect, either. But maybe we’ll figure out how to make this world a better place.”
As someone who came through a tumultuous upbringing with physical and emotional turmoil, Namajunas isn’t interested in following in the footsteps of a Conor McGregor and being a boisterous champion. She refused to engage Jedrzejczyk in the lead-up to the fight and let her performance do the talking.
Not every champion will relate to Namajunas’ perspective, but after UFC 217, the company has at least three champions who showed that the quietest person in the room is often the most dangerous. And that’s three more than it had before.