When he left, he was the biggest drawing card in the UFC, and one of three men who would have been in the argument at the time, with Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva, to be the greatest fighter in the history of the sport.
It doesn't sound like a long time, but in MMA, four years is an eternity. UFC realized it a few months ago when they did a marketing study and found out that a shockingly large percentage of their pay-per-view buyers over the last few years either didn't know St-Pierre, or had no emotional ties to him.
The people brought into the sport by Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey had no knowledge of the period from 2006 — when St-Pierre completely dominated the UFC's toughest fighter of that era, Matt Hughes, in every aspect of the game, in winning the welterweight title — through the Hendricks fight.
So the unanswered question with St-Pierre regards the audience that he specifically drew from years ago. Will they come back on Saturday night, either out of curiosity, or if they believe he will become one of the few men in history to win UFC championships in two different weight classes?
Like all transcendent stars, St-Pierre brought with him something more than just fighting skill. He'd come out in his karate gi and headband, and was clearly an athlete at a different level from his competitors. He looked different. He moved different. The young St-Pierre's background was karate, which by that point in time was thought of as an art form that the wrestlers, judokas and jiu-jitsu players of the old days would eat for lunch.
St-Pierre never competed in the sport of wrestling for one day in his life, yet he would go into the cage with world-class wrestlers and outwrestle them. He actually once toyed with the idea of taking a sabbatical in his prime and of trying to go to the Olympics in wrestling. He'd go in with established jiu-jitsu champions and make mincemeat of them on the ground. The top strikers would get out-struck, and then would be taken down and rendered helpless for the rest of the fight. He had the poster-boy physique. Training footage would be shown to give the indication he could do it all as an athlete — sprint, do gymnastics, lift weights — and do any form of combat at a high-level. He'd box with world-class boxers, kickbox with the best in that discipline, and wrestle with the Canadian Olympic team.
During his two reigns as welterweight champion, there was a formula. St-Pierre would routinely face big-talking opponents who would come across as villains in the buildup. He was the closest thing the company had to a real-life white knight, right down to the color of his gi and headband. People would say that St-Pierre lacked personality or charisma, yet by the ultimate arbiter of those traits, fan reaction and drawing power, he must have had both in spades. The response when he'd come out to fight was deafening. Sure, he was a Canadian national hero, but he was in Sacramento, Calif., the night he won the title from Hughes, and with the exception of Urijah Faber fights, it's doubtful the old Arco Arena ever exploded louder for a fight than for St-Pierre’s title win. With the exception of Brock Lesnar, there was nobody of his era who could draw anywhere close to the numbers he'd pull in.
While “GSP” did strong business with the likes of Hughes and Matt Serra, the buildup of his second fight with then-lightweight champion B.J. Penn, a rare champion vs. champion fight, was among the best in UFC history. That was the bout that firmly established that fighters other than heavyweights and light heavyweights could pull in the top numbers. It still ranks as one of the greatest promotional jobs for a fight in UFC history. The contrast of the talented but clearly not as dedicated Penn having fun with his friends in the tropical paradise of Hawaii, placed against the almost machine-level dedication of St-Pierre training in snowy Quebec, captured the imagination of the public like only a few fights in UFC history had up to that point in time. The ratings for their Countdown shows were larger than most live fights today.
From that point on, St-Pierre was always either the biggest or second-biggest star in the company. He could be counted on to draw from 600,000 to 1 million pay-per-view buys every time out. He didn't take a lot of chances after his knockout loss to Serra in 2007, which he proved a fluke by destroying Serra in the rematch, and did the same to everyone else for the next several years. At his peak, his wrestling was so dominant that many of his fights weren't crowd pleasing, yet, he'd still draw big every time out.
While platitudes like national hero are passed around far too frequently in fighting sports, St-Pierre was clearly that. When he would fight in the U.S., the place was lined with Canadian flags. Per capita, when it came to television ratings and pay-per-view buys, during most of the St-Pierre era, no country was bigger for the UFC than Canada. In a country mad for hockey, it was St-Pierre who was voted the country's athlete of the year in 2009, 2010 and 2011. He almost single-handedly made MMA a major sport in Canada, and some would argue, when he left, caused it to fall back to a secondary sport.
When he finally was able to fight in Toronto in 2011, they sold out the 56,000 seats at Rogers Centre as soon as tickets were put on sale. Stadium officials said that based on the number of calls they had gotten for tickets, they estimated they could have sold 105,000 tickets to that show that first weekend alone. With the exception of the Olympics, no sports event in Canada ever did the $12 million gate that St-Pierre’s fight with Jake Shields did.
And then it was over.
St-Pierre departed with a 25-2 record, and in both of his losses — in his first fight with Hughes, and a loss to Serra that could be argued was the biggest upset in UFC history — he savagely avenged them to the point there was no debate who the better man was. He once went on an 11-fight tear where he only lost three total rounds, a statistic that doesn't do him justice considering every fighter he faced in that streak was a very legitimate top-ranked contender. No fighter in MMA history, not Jon Jones, Silva, Fedor, Demetrious Johnson or anyone else, has beaten as many legitimately top-tier fighters as St-Pierre.
Leading up to his last fight, the 32-year-old St-Pierre was very different. There was all kinds of talk that week that he would be retiring. He teased a major announcement after the fight. He was not at all dominant with Hendricks in a fight that Hendricks clearly did more damage in. The scoring came down to how one scored a very close first round, and while not a robbery based on the realities of the 10-point must system, if the fight was scored as a whole, or if the fight was about which guy you'd rather be when it was over, St-Pierre didn't feel or look like the winner.
St-Pierre had pushed hard for extensive drug testing leading to the Hendricks fight and got no backing, not from the UFC — even though he was at the time their biggest drawing star — nor from the Nevada Athletic Commission. Dana White buried him in the post-fight press conference, wanting to make a Hendricks rematch and saying the decision awarding him the win was ridiculous.
For years, White said that St-Pierre, no matter how much St-Pierre insisted differently when asked, didn't want to fight anymore. For years, there was the tease of a comeback that more and more felt like it would never happen. Then, with time running out on St-Pierre's biological clock, he made a deal to return. It couldn't have come at a better time for UFC, which saw its biggest drawing cards mostly fall by the wayside.
Even though he signed and is fighting, moving up a weight division to challenge Michael Bisping, some still haven't been convinced he wants to fight.
Bisping fits perfectly into the old St-Pierre formula. Had he been able to make 170 pounds, Bisping, with his constant verbal attacks and big name, would have probably drawn better with St-Pierre than any of his prior opponents except Nick Diaz.
On paper, everything looks in place. An all-time great returning after four years, going for his greatest challenge to date — the championship of a division he's clearly too small for, but against a champion who he very well may beat. And if he doesn't win, he's claimed it would be his last fight.
On Friday morning, the day before the fight, there were about 2,500 tickets left for sale in the primary market for UFC 217, including some as cheap as $106. Granted, there was no way the second show in Madison Square Garden was going to have the run on tickets the first show did, where at this stage you'd need $1,000 or more to get in on the secondary market, nor draw another $17 million gate. And it should still be, easily, UFC's biggest gate of the year and no worse than its second-biggest pay-per-view number of the year.
Bisping has been nonstop promoting the fight, taking every angle possible — from his size advantage, to hinting at St-Pierre being a hypocrite on the steroid issue (a tactic Nick Diaz used to deliver the most successful St-Pierre headlined show in history) and playing the arrogant role that works the best against the quieter and more subdued St-Pierre. St-Pierre has claimed he's a much better fighter than ever before. But it's tough convincing people that a 36-year-old, whose attributes were speed, technique, reflexes and athletic ability, is going to be the same, let alone better, after four years off.
At the end of the day, what Saturday's show has is a very deep card, with three title fights, and the lure of it being in Madison Square Garden. But neither of those factors are going to make a big difference in the pay-per-view numbers. UFC has pretty much destroyed the value of championships by diluting the pool, so St-Pierre's actual quest of winning the title a weight class up doesn't mean close to what St-Pierre's regular defenses of a title people believed in years ago meant. Bisping is a major name fighter, who has promoted the fight hard, and is probably St-Pierre’s best opponent possible in a number of ways. He's good enough that people know that a St-Pierre not nearly at his best isn't going to beat him, but he's not so good that people believe a St-Pierre at his best doesn't have a good shot to beat him.
Ultimately, it comes down to two factors. On the day of the show, will the St-Pierre fans of the past have the curiosity to see him again? And will the new fans see this as a show so big that they need to see it?
In the end, that's why the show should be successful, to the level of 700,000 or more buys. St-Pierre approached the magic million mark with Diaz, but the atmosphere the week of that fight made you feel you couldn't miss it.
And the stakes are high. If St-Pierre does win impressively, questions will be answered and he'll be another big draw that the company desperately needs right now. If he doesn't win, by his own words, we've probably seen the last of him, unless he's willing to have the sad fade from grace that Penn, his once big rival, has had, serving as a regular reminder of how quickly time marches on.