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Georges St-Pierre’s return is timely, and full of questions

UFC 167 photos Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

On the one hand, it’s timely that Georges St-Pierre is coming back. The UFC as a product could use the boost, as its small constellation of stars is right now behind some pretty heavy cloud cover. St-Pierre is a welcome distraction from Conor’s $100 million boxing foray with Floyd and Ronda’s general withdrawal from the game. With Brock Lesnar now retired from MMA, and Jon Jones suspended until July, it’s nice to deal in a fifth player.

Then again — gawwwdammit, GSP.

You were gone, bro! You were out. If B.J. Penn’s comeback bout with Yair Rodriguez reminded us of anything, it’s that there’s only different shades of humiliation to be found at the finish line in the fight game. Why come back to such a cruel environment, where so many bruisers are mashing their fists, hoping to take home your faculties like so many souvenirs?

St-Pierre’s situation is a weird one, and it’s easy to be conflicted, depending on your point of view. For all those years St-Pierre dominated the UFC with a stubborn, obsessive desire to be the best. After his UFC 69 loss to Matt Serra he guarded against complacency like no champion before him. He made himself mad with its encroachment, and patiently reminded reporters who looked past names like Dan Hardy and Nick Diaz that each opponent was formidable, and that there was a reason they were challenging him. He was that kind of big-picture good, always trying to understand his own mind (even the dark places), the perception of his brand, and the seriousness of his quest.

At the same time, he was infinitely given to the details, finding that loose thread that would unravel the whole fighter. Who can forget the game plan of breaking down Penn’s lactic acid in his shoulders at UFC 94? GSP sold focus as a pay-per-view draw. He sold drive and detail. He sold his own obsessiveness.

But November 2013 was a long time ago. That was when he narrowly defeated Johny Hendricks or, in the minds of many, narrowly lost. In any case, he was a mess after the Hendricks encounter. Hendricks and GSP carved into each other’s life forces that night — just like Hendricks and Robbie Lawler did after, and then Lawler and Rory MacDonald, and Lawler and Carlos Condit. The welterweights had grown into killing machines at a time St-Pierre was mentally checking out. It was a dangerous combo.

It still is.

The last glimpse of GSP at UFC 167 wasn’t the dominant figure we were used to. Hendricks represented the closing in of the others. Dana White was angry after that Hendricks fight, thinking he’d won, and St-Pierre was clearly ready for an extended hiatus. He wanted change in the sport before he’d come back. And even then, there were no promises he would.

Over three years passed. USADA came aboard to test the roster out of competition, one of the measures GSP called for upon walking away. Reebok came aboard, which complicated his return. The UFC sold, which complicated it further. His contract was outdated, and needed reworked. Bringing GSP back to the fold was not an easy task.

And for a minute there, given the rift between him and the UFC, it looked like GSP’s bigger fight would occur outside the cage — that his mark would be better made in bringing wholesale changes to some of the archaic things going on in MMA. He and some fellow fighters formed the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA). That undertaking felt very GSP, the quietly seething competitor who was fighting for fighters (rather than fighting fighters).

Many people got used to the idea that he was gone.

Yet St-Pierre’s returning to compete again, some time in the third quarter of 2017. He’ll be 36 when he makes his return, and it’ll be nearly four years between fights. Ring rust will be an automatic talking point, but a less obvious one might be fan’s shifting taste in aesthetics. Given his run and where it started, GSP’s aura blinded many people to his style. Will it be nearly as compelling, in the world of Conor McGregor, if he grounds out the first guy he faces for five straight rounds like he used to? Will people cease to see GSP as GSP the icon, and see instead the man who hadn’t finished an opponent for the last four years in competition?

Maybe that all goes into the overall allure. To not only check in on just where GSP is at upon his return, but where we are as an MMA audience.

Then there are the niggling details. Will he want to make a run at the welterweight title, or the middleweight title, or engage in some fun (money) fights? We know that Michael Bisping would love to fight St-Pierre, and that would be for a title (which kind of covers all terrain). A fight with Conor McGregor would do big business in a business gone wild. And if the UFC was ever going to book Anderson Silva against St-Pierre — the greatest the sport had known before Jones came along — there really is no better time than now. Silva is 41 years old and coming off a gift of a win. St-Pierre is coming back from four years away, and is five years his junior. Silva seems ready to fight anybody. St-Pierre need only sign the dotted line.

Right now GSP against Tyron Woodley feels like hatchet-work, given where Woodley is and GSP was when we last saw him. It’s doubtful he’d fight Stephen Thompson, given their friendship, and Demian Maia might not be the kind of fight GSP is looking for. Nick Diaz? That has a kind of romantic fun, but the image of the last fight was pretty one-sided.

Whatever the UFC decides, it’ll be good to have Georges St-Pierre on the promo poster again. That hyphenated name will stand out in a landscape where Jimi Manuwa vs. Corey Anderson and Artem Lobov vs. Cub Swanson are main events. St-Pierre is coming back at the best time possible for the UFC. It needs stars in 2017, especially beloved names like Georges St-Pierre’s.

And if you’re conflicted on it, look on the bright side: If we can’t have graceful exits in this game, we can at least have grand re-entrances.

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