The Great Divide is a reoccurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which our own writers debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.
This week, our own Shaun Al-Shatti and Mike Chiappetta reflect on Georges St-Pierre’s official retirement and wonder: Is GSP vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov one of the biggest missed fights in mixed martial arts and UFC history?
Al-Shatti: It’s no secret that Georges St-Pierre wanted to test himself against Khabib Nurmagomedov before he walked away from mixed martial arts. There were always little hints along the way — tiny puzzle pieces St-Pierre dropped here and there, subtle and ever calculating, but easy enough to piece together for those who could read between the lines. Toward the end, he grew more open with his request. But it wasn’t until Thursday’s retirement press conference that he said it outright: He wanted his last fight to be against Nurmagomedov, his wishes were reciprocated by the undefeated lightweight king, and Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre could very well have been a reality if only UFC officials had gotten on-board.
But they did not, and so it was not.
So we ask today, Mike: Was that the right call? Did we miss out on something special by never seeing The Pride of Montérégie stare down the indomitable Dagestani champion?
I say yes.
Even within the short history of this sport, there is a lengthy list of fights that should’ve been made but never were. Georges St-Pierre owns at least one other example on that list — his much-discussed, ill-fated meeting with Anderson Silva was the original superfight of superfights. That pairing was 10 years too early. Transplant both of those men in their primes into today’s era and the UFC moves heaven and earth to get it done.
But even including all those blockbusters-that-never-were — from Couture vs. Emelianenko to Rousey vs. Cyborg — I must admit that Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre leaves me among the most wistful. Perhaps it’s because it was right there for the making.
There was no contractual legalese standing in the way, no divisional dilemma or Russian hangers-on with outrageous demands preventing the fight from happening. St-Pierre and Nurmagomedov both wanted it, and the UFC had options aplenty. Worried about tying up the lightweight pecking order? Do it at a catchweight or for the inaugural 165-pound strap. Worried about St-Pierre riding off into the sunset with another belt affixed around his waist? Make it a non-title bout. St-Pierre said Thursday that his fixation was always about Khabib, not a third belt. In any of these scenarios, a perfect interim lightweight title fight was sitting right there in the front row with Tony Ferguson vs. Dustin Poirier — two worthy contenders who already aren’t getting their much-deserved shot any time soon.
If you need to hold up a division unnecessarily, you do it for a living legend widely considered to be one of the greatest fighters of all-time; not a sideshow WWE performer who treats mixed martial arts like his own personal sidepiece.
Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre could have been one of the most brilliant sporting spectacles of our time, an genuine legacy fight for both men involved. One final stand for St-Pierre, the last carrier of the old guard, against the most domineering leader of the new. The man who beats the unbeatable fighters against the man who has never once been bested. A sublime style matchup between two athletes whose strengths mingle and intertwine perfectly with one another, and the million of little unanswerable questions that would have dominated the leadup. With Nurmagomedov fresh from racking up the highest-selling pay-per-view in UFC history with his dalliance against Conor McGregor, a shot against the sport’s foremost all-timer could have been the one final step Nurmagomedov needs to push him into the realm of the rare transcendent star — or St-Pierre could’ve shocked the world, become the “1” in 27-1 and ended any G.O.A.T. debates from now until the end of the time.
But most of all, Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre simply would’ve been a big moment for a sport that needs big moments. The sort of mythical matchmaking MMA rarely gets, where even in the moment, everyone involved understands they are privy to a split-second in time that will be spoken of with reverence for decades to come.
That’s why I’m sad it didn’t happen. Because it should’ve. MMA deserved it.
I understand the UFC’s reservations. The lightweight division is clogged up and St-Pierre already burned the organization twice with his handling of titles. But GSP is the one figure above all else who deserves the opportunity to try something like this — the one legend still standing without a blemish on his résumé, without a checkered past of PED use, or domestic violence, or problems with the law. If anyone owns a lifetime pass to jump the queue and attempt the impossible, it’s him. And after Thursday’s admission that Khabib is indeed the one opponent he wanted all along, Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre will forever — at least to me — be among the most grievous examples of fights that got away.
Chiappetta: In the long and storied history of the UFC, there have been many missed opportunities. Some of them were promotional mistakes, some were oversights, and some were the result of timing, injury or contract issues that could not be resolved.
GSP vs. Nurmagomedov could easily have happened. The Canadian wanted it, the Dagestani wanted it, the UFC did not. It’s a bittersweet result. On one hand, if it had come to fruition, it would have meant that deserving contenders like Tony Ferguson and Dustin Poirier would be in for an even longer wait before getting cracks at the UFC lightweight championship. On the other hand, we would have gotten at least one more GSP fight.
While it would be a compelling matchup given their styles, suggesting it has a place among the biggest missed UFC fights ever seems a bit of a stretch. To be sure, it would be a great fight and would probably draw very well at the box office and on pay-per-view. It would indeed be big business for the UFC and for the participants, but among the biggest missed bouts ever? No.
For one thing, most of the monster matchups are ones that come together organically, with fighters charting parallel paths of excellence until having nowhere else to go but toward each other. They are undeniable collision courses, obvious pairings that are demanded by the sport’s observers. Few were banging the drum for a GSP-Nurmagomedov pairing prior to their public declarations that it was something they had mutual interest in.
For another thing, we must discuss the elephant in the room: Age. In watching St-Pierre fight Michael Bisping at UFC 217, he looked powerful, but he also appeared slower, older. It is possible that the extra pounds on his frame weighed him down, but fighting just once in five years generally does not lead to peak performance. While he overcame the problem against a similarly aged Bisping, add in another year-plus layoff since the fight and a younger opponent (Nurmagomedov is 30 to St-Pierre’s 37), and the factors start piling up against him.
Don’t get me wrong; I’d gladly watch GSP vs. Nurmagomedov if the UFC reversed course tomorrow and booked them later this year, and I’m sure many people would. After all, St-Pierre has been a draw for years, pulling in some of the biggest audiences in UFC history. Even after disappearing for nearly a half-decade, when he returned in November 2017, he drew 875,000 pay-per-view buys in his fight against Bisping.
A fight against Nurmagomedov would have afforded St-Pierre the opportunity to become a three-division champion, something that no one has ever done in major MMA. That would have been a noteworthy pursuit, but with the devaluing of the belts over the years, it’s not clear whether it would be enough to draw in a massive audience. Remember that Nurmagomedov has yet to fight anyone after beating Conor McGregor for the belt, so there’s no analytics to suggest he would add anything major to the pull of this promotion.
From a tactical perspective, it would be intriguing. St-Pierre still holds the UFC record for the most consecutive rounds won, with 33. Right behind him on the list is Nurmagomedov, who won 31 straight rounds until McGregor stole the third from him in their UFC 229 matchup. These were two dominant athletes in their respective primes, but their primes don’t match.
This was not a matchup the people demanded, and that’s what separates it from the best that never were. Let’s consider some of the fights that were dreamed about for years that never came to fruition in the UFC: Randy Couture vs. Fedor Emelianenko, Couture vs. Mirko Cro Cop, Jon Jones vs. Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar vs. Emelianenko, Ronda Rousey vs. Cris Cyborg Justino. All of these fights would have been blockbusters. Nurmagomedov isn’t even the top fight that St-Pierre will have missed out on in his career. Fans for years salivated at the thought of him squaring off with Silva when the two were both at the heights of their powers. Between GSP-Silva and GSP-Nurmagomedov, which of those missed fights makes you feel wistful? I’m guessing that most would have loved to have witnessed St-Pierre and Silva. They spent years pining for it and never got it.
This is different. This is an idea that was here and gone before we ever really had the chance to grow into it. Great fight? Yes. Fun fight? Absolutely. Among the very best that never happened? Not quite.
Did the UFC miss the boat by not booking Nurmagomedov vs. St-Pierre?
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