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Ever since Georges St-Pierre said earlier this year that he was considering a return to the UFC, Dana White has taken a hard-to-understand stance against it.
St-Pierre is the former UFC welterweight champion and one of the top five fighters in mixed martial arts history. He took a sabbatical from the sport after a controversial 2013 victory over Johny Hendricks in Las Vegas at a time when he was the sport’s biggest draw.
That is the kind of fighter whom White often bends over backward to appease. Look at the way he handles Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey. They’re his two biggest draws now and have led the UFC to unparalleled success.
It’s trouncing boxing now, outdrawing the sweet science regularly, clobbering it with television ratings and blowing it away in terms of pay-per-view sales.
There are three combat sports pay-per-view shows in November. A Manny Pacquiao boxing match kicks off the month on Nov. 5, and a hotly anticipated light heavyweight title match between Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev is set for Nov. 19. But it’s the show in between, UFC 205 on Nov. 12 at Madison Square Garden in New York, that will be the big winner. That pay-per-view will double, and perhaps triple, the combined total of the two boxing shows.
Bank on it.
McGregor and Rousey are such big draws that White allows them, and not without justification, to largely call their own shots.
He’s not doing that, though, with St-Pierre. That he’s not is as puzzling as it is misguided.
During an interview Monday on “The MMA Hour,” St-Pierre said he became a free agent after the UFC failed to meet a deadline to offer him a fight.
White did not return messages from Yahoo Sports seeking comment, though that was hardly an indication that he was caught off-guard. Finally, the UFC released an unattributed statement in which it essentially said it believes St-Pierre is still contractually obligated to it.
“Georges St-Pierre remains under an existing agreement with Zuffa, LLC as his MMA promoter,” the statement read. “Zuffa intends to honor its agreement with St-Pierre and reserves its rights under the law to have St-Pierre do the same.”
Translation: If St-Pierre attempts to sign with Bellator, or any other MMA promotion, the UFC will drag him to court.
When St-Pierre first made his intentions about returning to competition known, White took an odd approach: He kept publicly doubting his one-time star. He suggested that St-Pierre’s heart wasn’t in it, and repeatedly said that St-Pierre never loved fighting.
Last week on Fox Sports 1, White squelched the possibility of a returning St-Pierre headlining a Dec. 10 pay-per-view show in Toronto.
“GSP said, ‘I’m going to do a little mini-camp’ and this and that [but] he’s been saying that for three years,” White said to hosts Jay Onrait and Dan O’Toole. “It’s lot of talk. GSP wasn’t loving fighting when he was fighting all the time. This is a sport you just have to. … First of all, it’s a young man’s game. You got to jump out of bed every day and want to kick people’s ass and want to be a world champion. GSP hasn’t had that fire in a very long time.”
Perhaps he hadn’t. But he’d won 12 in a row and 18 of 19 when he walked away after defeating Hendricks at UFC 167 on Nov. 16, 2013. Heart in it or not, his last five wins were over Hendricks, Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit, Jake Shields and Josh Koscheck.
That was pretty good work for a guy who supposedly didn’t want to be doing it.
There’s a reason White has been sloughing off talk of a St-Pierre return, though it’s not clear why.
Perhaps it is financial. St-Pierre signed a deal with Under Armour prior to the UFC’s apparel deal with Reebok. He may have wanted the UFC to pay him the income he’d have lost by losing his Under Armour deal.
That seems unlikely, though, because White was throwing cold water on the talk of a St-Pierre return almost from the beginning. For all the complaints about the way it treats its fighters, the UFC has been able to come to terms with its big stars far more often than not.
But there is something bubbling beneath the surface that has led White to seemingly stand in the way of the return of one of the greatest stars the UFC has ever had. St-Pierre is represented by Creative Artists Agency (CAA), which is the biggest rival to new UFC owner WME/IMG. Perhaps that plays into it somehow.
Whatever it is, White surely isn’t keeping a major drawing card on the sidelines without a reason.
Believe this, though: The UFC will go to the mat with St-Pierre. It will play rough. It will spend whatever it takes to not only win a potential legal battle, but to ground him into submission.
The UFC has done it before. Ask Ken Shamrock. Ask Tito Ortiz. Ask Randy Couture. Ask any one of the fighters who tried to go head-to-head with White and the UFC over the past 15 years.
St-Pierre is 35, and even though he says he’s in his prime, he has a small window of opportunity. Court cases are expensive and take a long time to adjudicate.
The classy thing for the UFC to do would be to get a deal done with St-Pierre as quickly as possible. He’s one of the reasons the company sold for $4 billion-plus in July. He’s one of the many men and women who made it so popular.
He deserves to be accommodated and shown the respect that other professional sports shower on their legends.
Don’t count on it, though. It hasn’t been White’s modus operandi over the years.
St-Pierre is in for a long, arduous and expensive fight.
He’s about to learn that the UFC is every bit as tough in a court as he is in the cage.
And, sadly, that doesn’t leave much cause for optimism for the many fans who are eager to see him fight again.
St-Pierre has scored many wonderful wins in his legendary career. But a betting man would put money on the UFC in this scrap.
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