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Georges St-Pierre’s situation the latest in UFC’s topsy-turvy year

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

One of the more baffling things about life in the UFC has long been this idea that a bunch of alpha people could so willingly have their professional lives dictated to them without much of a public fuss. For years the feeling was that a fighter would quietly take it, whatever "it" came to mean. Whether it was low pay, or the handing over of likenesses, or obvious favoritism, or any other perceived sleight, complaints rarely reached more than an elevator mumble. It was almost as if the privilege of the station overrode the urge to complain.

It was almost as if there was a memo that said something like this: To fire shots at the UFC was to aim a pistol at your own feet.

Not in 2016. Not in the age of new ownership, and the number four billion, and USADA, and social media, and Reebok, and unions, and free agency, and that sock puppet Colin Cowherd. Not with Scott Coker sitting at the other end with his arms open. It’s not quite mutiny, but it’s definitely in the neighborhood. It’s gotten very difficult to distinguish the strong egos from the fragile ones. Or maybe the realization is that there’s no need to distinguish. At some point, all the egos that make the fight game what it is look exactly the same.

It’s just that the fulfillment of dreams is losing ground to the fulfillment of principle.

Here’s a very small smattering of what’s been going on: Pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva was recently grumbling about the way he was treated after stepping in on short notice to fight Daniel Cormier. Jose Aldo asked to be released from the UFC after being strung along in the Conor McGregor sweepstakes. Rory MacDonald bolted for Bellator, and spoke of his decision like he escaped some form of Siberia. Benson Henderson, ditto. Derrick Lewis said he’d show up at Dana White’s door to collect his show money for the cancelled card in Manila, and he did so without fear.

It goes on. Chael Sonnen stretched out a loophole in his contract and then disappeared through it. Nate Diaz’s biggest year in the sport coincided with him carving the UFC up at every turn. After expressing his displeasure with the UFC, Al Iaquinta just kind of up and quit. Cris Cyborg? Disgruntled. McGregor and the UFC are now two behemoths clashing whenever it’s time to book. All he needs to do is tweet "beg me" and we understand immediately the wielding of power and leverage, all packed so neatly into those two words. Even Frankie Edgar, perhaps the most reasonable person to ever step foot in the Octagon, has made it clear (on numerous occasions) that he’s had just about enough.

There are craters to walk around in Vegas, too. No more Lorenzo Fertitta. Dave Sholler is gone after UFC 205, to the Philadelphia 76ers. Matchmaker Joe Silva is retiring at the end of the year, and Burt Watson’s voice now haunts the corridors at every arena at the live event. Zuffa headquarters has the feel of a "morgue." Nobody’s sure what’s going on with the new ownership, who will be around in 2017 and who won’t. Overseas, UFC employees are being made redundant. Dana White himself right now feels like a hologram of himself. A very rich hologram, drained of vital color.

The new owners, WME-IMG? Mutes.

Nobody’s talking. It’s uncharted territory.

Then of course there’s Georges St-Pierre. Normally tight-lipped, GSP announced he was a free agent on The MMA Hour on Monday, detailing the situation as he understood it. In short, he believes his UFC contract has been terminated after the deadline passed for the promotion to offer him a fight. The UFC responded late Monday night that GSP is still under contract. The question of whether GSP will come back or not — or if he has the will to fight or not, as Dana sees it — looks bound for court, unless there’s a compromise. It’s possible we’ve seen the last of GSP in the Octagon, which means we’re right back to where we were in 2013 when he gave over his welterweight belt and walked away, mumbling the whole way as he went.

What exists now is the ugly in-between, some basic upheaval between the warden and the inmate. GSP’s final fight might be the one we remember most, the one he fought for the rights of fighters — when he stood up to the tyranny that helped make him. He’s now positioned to do that. He doesn’t need money. He doesn’t need to fight again. He can stand up for what he believes, and gain more relevance than he could in a cage. He can go out as not just one of the best pound-for-pound in the game, but perhaps as the game-changer itself.

GSP’s situation — and the giddiness of his fellow fighters at each such development — is 2016 in a nutshell. If it at once seemed counterintuitive to bite the hand that feeds, it’s now become unacceptable to just eat whatever it is the hand is offering. The counters are flying. The alphas are evolving. The space is becoming thoughtful. The principles are turning the dreams into fancy little nothings.

Yet it’s not the end. It’s not the MMA apocalypse. In a seven-week span beginning Nov. 12, the UFC will make its maiden voyage to Madison Square Garden with McGregor in tow, and then close the year with the return of Ronda Rousey. Those are massive events, with the sport’s two biggest stars. The whole thing will go out with a bang. The events remain what it’s all about. It’s not the end.

It’s the beginning of something, even if nobody’s sure exactly what it is. Will the sport change for the better? Hopefully, because right now — with an all-time high of dissension in the ranks — it’s hard to imagine it staying where it is.