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UFC 217 Aftermath: Is Georges St-Pierre the greatest of all time?

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The aftermath of a memorable mixed martial arts event brings an inevitable stampede of superlatives.

Whatever we might have just witnessed was the greatest fight, fighter, event, move, and so on down the line.

We’re pretty quick to proclaim all-time benchmarks in this still-young sport.

Just last month, we started wondering whether Demetrious Johnson had taken his spot as MMA’s new Greatest of All Time, after he pulled off objectively one of the most dazzling moves we’ve ever seen in transitioning from a slam to an armbar to finish Ray Borg for his record 11th UFC flyweight title defense.

But after what went down last night at Madison Square Garden, is there a valid reason not to call Georges St-Pierre the GOAT, recency bias or no?

It’s not just that “GSP” became the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two weight classes when he defeated Michael Bisping for the middleweight title at UFC 217. That alone affirms his spot on the short list.

It’s not just the tremendous heart St-Pierre displayed in winning the fight. The bout appeared to be going south for the former longtime UFC welterweight champion when he started tiring sometime in the second round, then seemed to really be going in a bad way when GSP landed one of his trademark takedowns, only to have Bisping carve him up with elbows from the bottom.

It’s not just that St-Pierre’s ruthless finisher’s touch -- basically suckering Bisping into giving up enough space to land the winning choke -- served to quiet all the critics who called him a play-it-safe fighter while he racked up one successful title defense after another.

It’s certainly in large part down to doing what he did while coming out of a four-year hiatus. So many MMA comebacks are duds. Hell, even Muhammad Ali took tuneup fights when he came back from his time away from the boxing ring, before regaining his title.

All of this matters, but it’s also the bigger picture. It’s the fact that St-Pierre had the confidence in his convictions to walk away at his peak. He wanted a clean sport. He returned to a sport overseen year-round by USADA, and faced a champion in Bisping who thrived once said testing was implemented.

And it’s the little things, the sense of class St-Pierre brought to this all-too-often filthy game. We all chuckled when St-Pierre stopped himself from swearing on television, but it served as a stark reminder of the cesspool we’ve been swimming in during his absence. MMA has turned into a trash talk race to the bottom that, if I’m being honest, the media’s been far too complicit in exploiting for the sake of getting clicks as the journalism industry warps before our very eyes.

For years, Anderson Silva and GSP were neck-and-neck in the GOAT discussion. Silva’s decline in the time since St-Pierre walked away has been painful. Fedor Emelianenko got soft on one too many Zulus, Hong-Man Chois, and Brett Rogerses before going into a steep decline. Jon Jones has self-sabotaged his way out of the debate. Johnson might still get there -- a fight with T.J. Dillashaw would sure help his case -- but his body of work isn’t yet on GSP’s level.

If you have a valid reason why we shouldn’t consider GSP the GOAT as of today, I’d love to hear it.

UFC 217 quotes

“I just finished him in the second round. He doesn’t deserve a rematch.” -- T.J. Dillashaw on vanquished rival Cody Garbrandt.

“Martial arts is not about who’s got the biggest balls. Sorry for my language. It’s about technique, setting traps and intelligence. I was fighting a bigger man and I was trying to prove it tonight to all my fans.” -- GSP in his post-fight interview.

“I’m crushed inside, but life goes on. Life goes on. Every time you fight, one man’s going to win and one man’s going to lose.” — Bisping’s reaction to his loss.

“Don’t compare me to Ronda Rousey. I love her so much and we have a very good relationship but please, let’s leave this bulls**t away.” -- Joanna Jedrzejczyk, whose title reign came up one short of Rousey’s women’s UFC record.

Stock report

Rose Namajunas’ rise has been a joy to behold.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Up: Rose Namajunas The new UFC strawweight champion never had the luxury most fighters had of learning and growing on small shows, away from the spotlight. She got attention immediately as Pat Barry’s girlfriend, and just as fast for what she could do in the cage -- winning a fight via flying armbar in Invicta in just her second pro bout. From there, she found herself fighting Carla Esparza for the inaugural UFC 115-pound title in just her fifth official pro fight. The flip side of this, of course, has been that we’ve all had the pleasure of watching her grow and mature. Namajunas is 5-1 since losing to Esparza. Along the way, she took out the fighters the UFC gave breaks for reasons other than their talents -- she stopped the ridiculous “Sage and Paige” show in 2015 cold by submitting Paige VanZant and made short work of Michelle Waterson. The championship victory by Namajunas, who shrugged off Joanna Jedrzejczyk’s taunts all week, stands as a testament to substance over style.

Up: T.J. Dillashaw Imagine, for a moment, that the judge who scored Dillashaw’s bantamweight title loss to Dominick Cruz two years ago 48-47 for Cruz instead instead went that way for Dillashaw. One judge changing one round would have resulted in a split decision for Dillashaw instead of Cruz. That’s how close we are from Dillashaw having an eight-fight win streak over the course of nearly four years, and a title reign of three and a half. Now, there should be no more disputing Dillashaw’s standing among the sport’s very best competitors. He responded to his razor-thin loss to Cruz by school both Raphael Assuncao (avenging a previous loss) and John Lineker, and showed the heart of a champion in rallying from a near-finish at the end of the first round and winning before Round 2 was out.

Down: Trash talkers GSP’s win over Michael Bisping capped a night in which, quite frankly, karma came back with a vengeance on the sport’s s**t stirrers. In the leadup to the fights, Jedrzejczyk bullied Namajunas at every turn, so there was something poetic about the fact she tapped to strikes. Garbrandt and his Team Alpha Male teammates just couldn’t let go of Dillashaw leaving and did everything they could to get under his skin; Dillashaw kept to himself and took care of business. Garbrandt even taunted Dillashaw matador-style after dodging a head kick in the second round. But Dillashaw’s second kick didn’t miss. And Bisping, well, he acted like Michael Bisping all through the runup to the fight. I don’t know that last night will be a blip on the radar in MMA’s race to the bottom or if the fever has finally broken on MMA’s reliance on over-the-top trash talk. But for one night, all felt right with the sport.

Up: Paulo Costa. I don’t know about you, but after Costa got done treating Johny Hendricks like a human punching bag, I was fully expecting an interview through an interpreter and a translation of suspect quality. Instead, Costa took the mic in English, thanked his opponent, then proceeded to say he was going to become the next Brazilian legend in the sport. This, coming from a young and photogenic 26-year-old who just so happens to be 11-0 with 11 finishes. The sport desperately needs a new Brazilian headliner, someone who can keep the fans coming to Rio and Sao Paulo and Fortaleza and so on, and we just may have found him.

Interesting stuff

The good thing about the decisive finishes in all three of last night’s championship matches is that it kept the New York State Athletic Commission from getting all NYSAC-y on us. But then, given what went down on the undercard, maybe NYSAC’s getting it’s act together after all.

The heavyweight fight between Curtis Blaydes and Alexey Oleinik came to what at first seemed a bizarre finish, as the bout was stopped for what appeared to be at best a glancing illegal blow. But referee Blake Grice was correct to call timeout, and Oliynyk told the doctor he couldn’t go on, and at that point, you can’t continue the fight. Blades was correctly awarded a TKO win.

Even better, Grice took time to look at replay, newly legalized in New York and a direct response to the UFC 210 fiasco between Gegard Mousasi and Chris Weidman. New York isn’t exactly known for state government humility, so credit the commission for owning their rough start in MMA and taking proactive steps to improve the quality of their work.

Finally, as to the inevitable question of whether UFC 217 was the greatest event in UFC history: No doubt, there has never been quite the three-punch combo the the biggest fights at UFC 217 produced -- especially in contrast to some of the infamously bad three-title fight cards in MMA history. The show was also exactly the breath of fresh air the UFC needed during a period where negative news abounded as there are a ton of intriguing fights the company can make out of this.

At the end of the day, though, I just can’t put UFC 217 ahead of the legendary UFC 189. UFC 189 had just as many twists and turns as 217, but it also had the one thing 217 lacked -- an all-time classic war of a fight, Robbie Lawler’s win over Rory MacDonald that went into the fifth round and is considered by many the greatest fight of all time. That’s enough to break the tie in UFC 189’s favor for me. But UFC 217 just might be the second-best card in UFC history, and that’s certainly not a bad place to be.

Fights I’d like to see next

I mean, where do we start? In the span of one night, we went from wondering what the hell direction the UFC is going to go in to almost having too many good potential matchups to count. Let’s do a rundown here:

Georges St-Pierre: Whoever he wants to fight next. White’s trying to position him for a fight with Robert Whittaker. That would be the fight to make if St-Pierre wants to stay at middleweight. But guess what? It’s not 2013 anymore and White no longer has the leverage to bully GSP into doing anything against his will. St-Pierre already hinted in the Octagon that middleweight isn’t his natural weight class. Whether he wants to fight Whittaker next, or Tyron Woodley, or Conor McGregor, or go chase aliens again for another four years, St-Pierre will decide the course that’s best for him, and there’s little White can do about it.

T.J. Dillashaw: Demetrious Johnson. Johnson’s reasons for turning down the Dillashaw fight over the summer made some sense. White relented, gave “Mighty Mouse” his fight with Ray Borg, and while the finish was an all-time classic, the business results spoke for themselves. Is anyone out there super stoked to see Johnson fight the Henry Cejudo-Sergio Pettis winner? No one is, not even that one guy who will jump in the comments and say he is just to be a contrarian. For all his accomplishments, Johnson still lacks that one signature win in the GOAT discussion. With Dillashaw willing to come down to his domain to make it happen, and with Johnson making a lot of noise this year about money, there’s little reason left for DJ to avoid the fight.

Rose Namajunas: Good question. Do you go with an immediate JJ rematch? If not, Jessica Andrade is just one fight removed from a title shot, and Claudia Gadelha lost to Andrade. A rematch with Karolina Kowalkiewicz, who handed Namajunas her only loss in her last six fights via split decision, might be the answer.

Stephen Thompson: The Robbie Lawler-Rafael dos Anjos loser. Assuming the winner gets Woodley next, the loser getting Thompson would be a fight that helps both with their stock. Barring that, perhaps Carlos Condit, should he defeat Neil Magny at UFC 219.

Michael Bisping: Yoel Romero. Why the hell not? Bisping asked for it in the post-fight press conference, there’s a long-standing history of yapping between the two, and the winner would be catapulted right back into the thick of things.

James Vick: Kevin Lee. Vick’s long overdue to fight a legit name in the lightweight division. Lee needs a bounceback fight after UFC 216 went so wrong. This is just a fight that makes sense.

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