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UFC 217 main event breakdown: Michael Bisping vs. Georges St-Pierre

Michael Bisping will try to defend his title against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 217.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After 1,450 days of traveling the world, practicing gymnastics and studying dinosaurs, Georges St-Pierre is back to the mixed martial arts. Let that number sink in. The last time St-Pierre fought - Nov. 16, 2013 - was an eternity ago in UFC time.

At the time, Ronda Rousey was still establishing the beginning of her title reign, testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) had yet to be banned, and athletes could still design their own fight gear. At the time, St-Pierre was just 32 years old. Seemingly in the midst of a dominant title reign, his hiatus, announced in the aftermath of a close win over Johny Hendricks, came as a shock to executives and fans alike. The suddenness of the decision led to speculation about GSP’s health and motivation, as well as whether he would ever return. Days stretched into months; months extended into years. Finally, he returns at age 36, both older and larger.

After an entire career spent as a welterweight, eventually becoming the consensus best 170-pound fighter ever, St-Pierre is fighting up at middleweight, and challenging the even older, 38-year-old Michael Bisping for his belt in the UFC 217 main event.

In the history of the UFC, St-Pierre’s disappearance and subsequent return are unprecedented; no one has left at the height of his power as a champion, then taken so much time off before coming back. That time off also includes at least two surgeries, one to his knee, one to his eye.

With the passage of that much time along with injury considerations, any attempt to meaningfully predict St-Pierre’s performance levels is a fool’s errand. All we can do is examine his historical strengths and extrapolate how, if they arrive with him, they will fare against Bisping.

St-Pierre became a legend through an all-around game that could well and truly exploit whatever openings an opponent offered. Once a powerful kickboxer, he refined his style to a more conservative approach predicated on the jab, explosive takedowns, and overpowering top control.

At his best, St-Pierre could put on a standup clinic against his opponents. Remember when he beat Josh Koscheck so thoroughly he broke his orbital bone? Remember when he dropped Thiago Alves with a two-piece? Remember when he crushed B.J. Penn? All of that was set up a little at a time, St-Pierre establishing his weapons individually and forcing his opponent to overload on information.

Against Koscheck, for example, he first established then jab, then introduced a lead hook, sprinkling in low kicks all the while. While St-Pierre became best known for his takedowns and groundwork over the last stretch of his career, he’s never quite received the credit he deserved for his striking repertoire.

In the early part of his UFC run, he was both explosive and dynamic, with a high-powered arsenal. After losing the belt via knockout to Matt Serra, he still occasionally flashed those same techniques, but largely chose a more conservative route. Over his last 10 fights, he completed 61 takedowns. While that number is eye-opening, it’s not as important as his overall success rate. St-Pierre historically completes 73.7 percent of his takedown tries, according to FightMetric, ranking second in UFC history.

While the quantity of takedowns eventually drew yawns from some critics who viewed GSP as risk-averse, the effectiveness of his tactics cannot be argued. By definition, his accuracy percentage proves that he was picking the correct spots and correctly executing the technique at a stunning clip.

It became somewhat robotic but fascinating to watch him execute similar sequences time after time: jab, jab, jab, duck under an overextended counter, takedown, groundwork. He’d do this for five rounds and walk away mostly undamaged afterward, with only a few scratches.

In that final 10-fight stretch, the only fighter who meaningfully and consistently disrupted that momentum was Hendricks, who fought St-Pierre tooth and nail to a bitter split-decision loss.

That brings us to Bisping, who returns after a year away to attempt his second title defense. To be blunt about it, everything will rest on Bisping’s ability to disrupt GSP’s wrestling in the same way Hendricks did.

In that regard, the evidence is mixed. For his career, Bisping has stopped 64 percent of takedown attempts, per FightMetric. That number does not rank among the all-time UFC leaders, but he’s found more success in recent fights (and against better opposition), successfully defending 75 percent of tries over his last five fights.

He’ll also be at significant size advantage. Once a light-heavyweight, Bisping is 6-foot-1 and walks around at near 210 pounds. By contrast, St-Pierre is 5-foot-11 and during his last run, said his walkaround weight was approximately 185 pounds.

While takedowns are more a function of timing and technique over size, Bisping will have more muscle than a typical GSP foe to resist. Aside from that, Bisping has always excelled at returning to his feet quickly in the event of a takedown.

If Bisping can find success in staying upright, the rest of the fight will work toward his preferences. A high-volume pace-setter, Bisping lands 4.44 significant strikes per minute while favoring a kickboxing style that is not too dissimilar from his opponent. He sets up behind a jab, introduces a right cross to the proceedings, and uses a high kick from distance.

In recent years, however, it’s a lead left hook that has become his signature strike used to significant effect, most memorably against Luke Rockhold in his June 2016 title win. It is a little-known fact that Bisping is left-handed, but was taught as a child to fight in an orthodox stance. While that stuck, his increased usage of his lead hand as a power hand is a new wrinkle that St-Pierre will need to be cognizant of.

Throughout his career, St-Pierre is the least-hit fighter in UFC history, avoiding a record 73 percent of significant strikes thrown against him. As previously mentioned, Bisping has landed the most strikes in UFC history. So something has to give.

From the outset, I said that attempting to predict St-Pierre’s performance level is impossible. His body may be rejuvenated, or he may look as if he’s slow and rusty. While he has consistently trained during his time away, recreational training does not equate to the everyday grind pros endure.

Four years is an eternity for an athlete. Even thought St-Pierre is an all-time great, it’s hard to imagine how he can handle both attempting to return sharp and fighting the biggest opponent of his career. If Bisping was an athlete who fades in the late rounds, that would favor St-Pierre. If he had horrendous takedown defense, GSP’s chances would look great. But Bisping is complete enough to frustrate St-Pierre’s wrestling, land significant strikes on his feet, and keep a hard pace for 25 minutes. When in doubt, expect the more active fighter to be the sharper one. In a close fight, Bisping wins a decision.

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