At a New York City event on Thursday, UFC chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta succinctly stated the company's position on longtime welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre's future.
"GSP doesn't owe us anything," Fertitta told MMAFighting. If only UFC president Dana White had said the same thing five days earlier.
A bizarre chain of events at UFC 167 in Las Vegas on Nov. 16 unfolded at a dizzying pace. Within the span of an hour, St-Pierre won a controversial split decision over challenger Johny Hendricks and then gave a vague speech in the Octagon announcing a leave of absence for an undetermined length; White ripped into the Nevada commission and St-Pierre at the post-fight news conference; then a banged-up St-Pierre showed up mid-presser and appeared on the verge of a mental breakdown as he hinted at personal issues.
It was a ton of information to digest all at once. But as the dust settled, White's comments toward St-Pierre emerged as the evening's most discussed item.
"You owe it to the fans, you owe it to that belt, you owe it to the company and you owe it to Johny Hendricks to give him that opportunity to fight again," White said.
Despite an intense backlash to the idea that someone who absorbs head trauma for a living owes anyone further fights, White didn't back off his words. On Wednesday's edition of UFC Tonight on FOX Sports 1, White said St-Pierre "made a big mistake, when he said what he said. Shouldn't have said it, didn't make sense, and it left everyone wondering what was going on, including me."
That same day, White went onto popular MMA message board The Underground and jumped into a thread calling for his retirement, telling one poster "Go [expletive] yourself" and another "STFU and go away."
It's hard to imagine NFL commissioner Roger Goodell jumping onto a football fan board and telling a gridiron diehard to STFU. But then, White's realness has always been one of the biggest reasons the UFC has developed such a devoted fan base. His lack of a filter is seen as a refreshing break from our play-it-safe corporate culture and his accessibility makes fans feel their loyalty is a two-way street.
But there's the flip side. Even on good days, White's in-your-face demeanor fuels an MMA Internet subculture in which non-credentialed pseudo-journalists make White public enemy No. 1 and parse his every word, grasping for new ways to paint him as a monster.
Pick on your most popular fighter, though, and you've got a bigger PR problem on your hands than the basement blogger brigade. This was St-Pierre, the company's model employee. This was a fighter who never had a whiff of a scandal, did everything the company has asked of him for a decade, carried the ball for some of the sport's biggest events, and, oh yeah, had just been through a grueling physical battle of attrition.
This wasn't the first time White's words and the company's actions have caused backlash from both the fan base and the media. Another such occurrence was in 2007, in the wake of then-heavyweight champion Randy Couture's attempt to walk out on his contract. While the UFC's actions were vindicated, as Couture returned to the company a little over a year later, the company took a major short-term PR hit by taking on a beloved fighter.
Last year, there was the infamous cancelation of UFC 151, in the wake of the fallout over the Jon Jones-Dan Henderson light heavyweight title fight and lack of a suitable substitute bout. White went ballistic in a conference call and pinned the blame on Jones.
Did the GSP outburst mark the time White finally went too far? If history teaches us anything, it's that the fans always come back around. Couture's return bout, at UFC 91 against Brock Lesnar, did more than a million pay-per-view buys. Jones, with one Fight of the Year-caliber performance against Alexander Gustafsson, got the fans back on his side.
Which brings us back to St-Pierre. Predictably, St-Pierre's vague allusions to personal problems brought celebrity site TMZ out of the woodwork, which reported a grab bag of items this week, ranging from St-Pierre's father being near death, to an unplanned pregnancy with a Montreal-area woman, to a lawsuit filed by a former manager.
TMZ caught St-Pierre at Los Angeles International Airport midweek, and the champion was good-natured in refuting their reports.
"I'm not a dad, I'm not in rehab, and my father is not dying," a smiling GSP told TMZ. "Everybody is in happy and good shape. I'm fine, I'm in tip-top shape. I bruise easy. I'll be back training in the gym at the end of this week."
What that means – other than a return bout with Hendricks should St-Pierre choose to return to action, which would clearly be one of the biggest-selling fights in MMA history – remains to be seen.
As does the length of the champion's sabbatical. In the absence of such info, the level-headed Fertitta was the voice of reason on Thursday.
"Obviously if he chooses to retire, then so be it," Fertitta said. "He'll retire and become somebody that everybody will always look up to as one of the great champions in the UFC. If he decides to fight again, great. I think where the confusion was is that when Georges never communicated to us that he had any plans relative to making an announcement."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoyleMMA