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Top MMA storylines of 2017: 3. The return of Georges St-Pierre

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Most of the crowd had already filed out of Madison Square Garden, into the Manhattan night. The reporters on press row were at their laptops, typing their stories feverishly.

It was about 25 minutes since Georges St-Pierre returned from four years away from the Octagon to win the UFC middleweight title in his comeback fight against Michael Bisping. And GSP was still inside the cage with his coach Firas Zahabi, drinking it all in.

St-Pierre dropped Bisping in the third round with a left hook at UFC 217 in New York. He scurried into top position, landing vicious elbows from guard. Bisping tried to get up, but St-Pierre was still fresh and he took the Brit’s back. Seconds later, GSP sinked in a choke and Bisping was unconscious.

The former welterweight champion had won a second title in a different weight class. He joined Conor McGregor, Randy Couture and B.J. Penn as the only UFC fighters to ever do that.

GSP did it differently than the rest, too. He never lost the welterweight belt in the cage, vacating it in 2013 to take a sabbatical from the sport. The Canadian superstar ceased to use the word “retire,” but few expected him to come back. Especially after the months turned into years. Even fewer could have ever imagined him coming back and securing another title in a division he seemingly didn’t have any interest in during his prime.

After flirting with a comeback for just about all of 2016, when this year began it was going to be a matter of when — not if — St-Pierre would make his comeback. Bisping was going to be the opponent, the middleweight title was going to be on the line. It was just a matter of hammering out a date.

In March, the UFC called a press conference for GSP and Bisping to promote the event. The plan at the time was to have that bout headline UFC 213, the marquee event of the UFC’s annual International Fight Week extravaganza in July. That was not to be and with that date an impossibility, the UFC threatened to move in a different direction.

St-Pierre said all along that he would not be able to return until later in the year, revealing that he had an eye issue to take care of before entering the Octagon again. For a time, it seemed like Bisping would next face the winner of the interim middleweight title fight between Robert Whittaker and Yoel Romero at UFC 213, won by Whittaker.

UFC president Dana White said later in July that welterweight champion Tyron Woodley would secure a title fight with GSP — a big money fight, at that, because of St-Pierre’s popularity — if he beat Demian Maia at UFC 214.

Woodley won, but in strategic, tactical fashion. One that was apparently not to White’s liking. At the post-fight press conference in Anaheim, Calif., White said Woodley had lost the chance to face GSP and Bisping would be the returning legend’s opponent. That came just days after White said the ship had sailed on GSP vs. Bisping altogether.

Less than a week later, “Rush” vs. “The Count” was official. And it would be at UFC 217 in New York, the UFC’s second event at Madison Square Garden. The promotion needed a major fight for MSG; you have to bring the big guns to headline on Broadway. And the fan favorite St-Pierre against the willing villain Bisping more than fit that bill.

The result was one of the UFC’s biggest pay-per-view events of the year, right there with the card featuring Daniel Cormier vs. Jon Jones at UFC 214. The promotion knew they had a money maker on its hands, but the show defied expectations.

So did St-Pierre. He came into the bout as the underdog and rightfully so. Here was a career welterweight, albeit the best one ever, moving up 15 pounds and returning after four years away from the sport. If GSP had won, it would be a victory rarely, if ever, seen in combat sports.

And he did, in scintillating fashion on the grandest stage in New York. GSP, gold around his waist, walking quietly around the cage nearly a half hour after his submission win feels like a classic moment in MMA history. The victory itself will surely go down in the annals of the sport as a hallmark moment.

What followed doesn’t take anything away from what happened Nov. 4 or GSP’s legacy. In many ways, it was fairly expected.

Earlier this month, about four months after beating Bisping, St-Pierre vacated the middleweight title, citing a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis. GSP said his attempt to gain weight to make 185 pounds likely messed up his digestive system. He would not be able to compete at that weight again and his return timetable (in any weight class) was unknown.

Most, including White, didn’t think St-Pierre would ever defend the middleweight title. Whittaker was made the undisputed champion and he’ll defend the belt against former champ Luke Rockhold in the main event of UFC 221 on Feb. 10 in Perth, Western Australia. The division will go on.

For the second time in UFC history, a year will end with St-Pierre giving up a title voluntarily with his fighting future uncertain. Despite the circumstances, If this is it for GSP’s venerable career, he gave MMA fans a moment they won’t soon forget.

And if it is truly over, what GSP did in 2017 — coming back after four years to win more gold — might have cemented him as the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time.

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