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Georges St-Pierre very much the returning superstar in the eyes of his peers

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

NEW YORK — Walt Harris got to rub shoulders with one of his idols earlier this week and, a few days before his fight at UFC 217, he already felt like a winner.

Harris, you see, is a huge Georges St-Pierre fan. And he told MMA Fighting that he begged UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard to get him on this card at Madison Square Garden, partly because the man he admires so much is in a headlining spot.

“I’m fighting with GSP, I’m signing posters [Tuesday] night with GSP,” said Harris, who fights Mark Godbeer on Saturday night. “It’s just like, dude this is what it’s all about for me. I’m a fan, too. I’ve been trying to keep it in perspective, stay focused on my job. But I’m also taking it in like, wow, looking at it like God is blessing you, you gotta roll with it, be in the right spot, be ready.”

Michael Bisping jokingly asked during the UFC 217 press conference Thursday if anyone really cared that St-Pierre, his opponent, was coming back after four years away.

Conspicuous that afternoon inside the Theater at Madison Square Garden was a GSP street team, a group of 20-somethings dressed in St-Pierre’s traditional walkout garb of a gi and martial arts headband. While some were authentic MMA fans, they were part of a marketing campaign and paid to attend the presser. On the backs of their gis were the UFC-owned website GSPReturns.com.

Perhaps St-Pierre’s return to the Octagon hasn’t resonated as much as it should among mainstream fans and sports fans. Even MMA fans seem jaded, almost forgetting what GSP once meant to mixed martial arts.

There is no such feeling among the UFC 217 fighters, some of which are — to adopt a pro-wrestling term — marking out over St-Pierre’s presence. GSP hasn’t fought since 2013 and he held the UFC welterweight title for six years prior. So, many of the current day MMA athletes were inspired by him before ever stepping into a cage to fight.

“I grew up watching him versus BJ Penn and Matt Hughes back in the day,” said 27-year-old Randy Brown, who fights Mickey Gall at UFC 217. “He’s still here getting it in. That’s good to see.”

As Harris was gushing about how much he loved St-Pierre, Ovince Saint Preux, who was sitting within earshot, leaned over and exclaimed, “Me too!” There is no one GSP memory that stands out to Harris. It’s just the whole “Rush” package.

“All of them are amazing,” Harris said. “I would say when he won the title, the fight he won the title. Just watching him revolutionize the game, how he changed the game as far as how we train, how we get ready for fights. He’s just dope, man. He’s just a cool dude. Everything he does is just on a whole other level. He’s French Canadian, he’s got that whole swag. He’s just one of my favorites.”

Corey Anderson said he first watched GSP against Hughes. At the time, Anderson was wrestling at Hughes’ alma mater and the entire team went to a Buffalo Wild Wings to watch the bout. St-Pierre won, which was a bitter pill for the Hughes fans. But Anderson ended up really liking GSP, courtesy of his coach Steven Bradley, who wanted Anderson to emulate the Canadian superstar in the cage.

“He would always make me study film,” said Anderson, who fights Saint Preux this weekend. “He sent me film every day. Every film was GSP. ‘Watch how he's punching into his shot, watch how if a guy runs at him, he changes levels.’

“I grew up in this sport, I got into the sport, watching GSP and his style. I definitely became a fan, because I mimicked myself after him for so long.”

Stephen Thompson, who trained with St-Pierre at Tristar Gym in Montreal, thinks it’s absurd that some fans don’t understand the significant of GSP and his comeback.

“Having a good relationship with him, being up there at Tristar and training with him, he’s a lifelong martial artist,” said Thompson, who meets Jorge Masvidal at UFC 217. “So even though he’s been out for four years, the guy is still training. He has his own gym. He still comes down to New York to train with John Danaher. He’s always growing. You may even see an even better Georges St-Pierre. Or maybe a Georges St-Pierre with different strengths this time. I think he’s always evolving.”

This particular fight is a tough one for Godbeer. St-Pierre, he said, is a personal favorite. But Bisping is from England, like he is. Godbeer is a bit torn.

“I’ve always been a big GSP fan, but I’m split for this one,” he said. “Obviously, Bisping is a British guy, I’m British. I gotta stick with my countryman. But it’s hard, because GSP is one of the all-time greats as well. I hope that they both have an absolute cracking fight, one of those fights where there’s not actually a loser, you know what I mean? That’s how I’d like to see it.”

Harris got to hang out with St-Pierre a bit Tuesday night signing promotional posters, a typically mundane fight week responsibility. The heavyweight fighter, though, didn’t want to overstep his boundaries. But he did left GSP know, after all is said and done at UFC 217, he’s going to be asking for something very important.

“I haven’t done it yet, but I’m gonna do it,” Harris said. “I said, ‘I know you’re busy, you just got here, but when you get done, I need that selfie for the collage.’”

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