By Zach Arnold | November 27, 2013
At UFC 167, Georges St-Pierre retained his Welterweight title in a controversial split-decision victory over Johny Hendricks. The decision was controversial as a vocal contingent of the MMA community, notably UFC colour analyst Joe Rogan, felt Hendricks won the fight. It was decided in the first round, as the other four rounds were clearly split between the two fighters. Two judges gave round one to GSP, giving him the decision.
A second controversy ensued after St-Pierre’s post-fight interview with Rogan, where GSP reluctantly intimated that he wanted to “step away” from MMA for awhile. Many took this as a retirement announcement, although Georges never used that word. Dana White conducted an interview with the LA Times on November 18th, saying that a rematch between the two is on schedule and a date should be announced within a few weeks. TMZ reported stories about GSP’s father being sick, or Georges and an unknown woman having an unplanned pregnancy. Georges denies all of this. Hendricks has been interviewed saying that if Georges can no longer stand the heat, it’s time for him to step down as Welterweight champ.
Georges has been the Welterweight champ for years now, and in his prime was one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in history. But he no longer seems to be in his prime, as Hendricks, a top-flight wrestler, was able to take Georges down like no other opponent and gave the champ the hardest fight of his career. I feel Georges won the fight, giving him the first round, but the odds of winning a rematch have to be against him.
A division of stability
The Welterweight title has been one of the belts with the most continuity in the UFC, but it seems that a changing of the guard is coming in that division. Despite the division’s consistency, this isn’t the first time there has been turnover at welterweight. In fact, the rivalry between St-Pierre and Hendricks is not unlike the rivalry between St-Pierre and Matt Hughes from a few years ago, with Hughes in St-Pierre’s current role of the established champ and St-Pierre playing Hendricks’s role of the upstart. Everything old is new again.
Like the first meeting between St-Pierre and Hendricks, the first bout between St-Pierre and Hughes ended with the challenger losing. This was at UFC 50, which feels like it happened many millenia ago, but was only back in October 2004. GSP, like Hendricks now, was a welterweight quickly moving up the rankings and displayed great ability in the first round of his fight against Hughes, who at the time was considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters ever. Then a shocking ending, Hughes submitted Georges with an armbar with one second left in the first round, as Georges was clearly unaware of the time remaining.
After the fight, I interviewed Georges’s first manager, Stephane Patry, who commented:
“In my opinion he was really dominating that first round until he got caught. Georges never does that. He trains with black belts in jiu jitsu and Georges never gets caught like that. He wins all the grappling tournaments and beats everybody. He never gets caught like that. When Matt got him, he just panicked. We all panicked when he tapped. I’ve seen Georges in armbars where his arm would almost break and he would never tap out. If you look at the replay, he tapped out before the arm was bent. He just panicked. He freaked out, like ‘Matt Hughes has me in an armbar.’ Panic. I was freaking out because there was one second left. It’s part of the game. Georges learned a lot from that, and that’s the main thing. You learn from it. Some people when they lose a fight, they’re never the same again. But Georges learned from it. We know he learned from it.”
If Hughes hadn’t squeaked out the win, he may have lost later in the fight as in the early minutes it looked like Georges had his number. They fought twice more, at UFC 65 in November 2006 and at UFC 79 in December 2007. GSP finished Hughes in both fights, and the torch was passed.
Hughes had been fighting for years before meeting GSP the first time, even before coming to the UFC and becoming Welterweight champ. I interviewed Monte Cox, Hughes’s manager during his prime, for MaxFighting back in December 2004. Cox told me:
“I saw something in Matt and he fought for me in Extreme Challenge, and I went and saw him Chicago and we talked and I saw him get kinda screwed on a decision, and I said you need a manager and you need to move and come out here and train with [Pat] Miletich. That’s how Matt got started, and he came out and lived with me and my family for over a year at my house.”
Hughes started slow as a fighter, coming from a wrestling background and having a difficult time defending against submissions and being inexperienced at stand-up striking. “We’ve had times like back when Matt Hughes was starting, he’d go into a fight, and I’d say in this fight, you can’t take your opponent down. You have to work your stand-up, and that’s what we’re going to gain out of this fight. And Matt would do it.” Hughes’s submissions defense improved so much that when Royce Gracie returned to the UFC to fight Hughes in 2006, Royce had figured Hughes would be a great handpicked opponent since Hughes was still considered among the best in the world, but Royce would have the advantage over Hughes in submissions. Instead, Hughes completely dominated Royce on the ground, earning a stoppage when Royce couldn’t bear to submit.
Covering the fight in June 2006, I wrote, “All the loss does is simply prove something which mixed martial artists have known for quite a few years now: the era of the dominate jiu jitsu grappler is long dead, and the era of the complete mixed martial artist is very much in its prime.” It was another passing of the torch fight.
An improved version of Matt Hughes embodied in the rise of Johny Hendricks
The torch might be passed again when GSP and Hendricks rematch. Hendricks comes from a wrestling background, but having started his career in an era of MMA where cross-training is the norm, he enters the prime years of his career as a more complete fighter than Hughes was at the same age. If Hendricks were to defeat Georges in their next bout, assuming it happens, he would have to be a serious consideration for one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in MMA today, and a representative of the sports rapid and continuing evolution.
And it’s not just evolution in terms of fighting style, but also an evolution in terms of star-making. Hughes had never really been a major draw in the UFC until he was a coach on one of the early seasons of The Ultimate Fighter. He had headlined a number of UFC pay per views in Zuffa’s early days that did terrible buyrates, an example being his win over Sean Sherk at UFC 42 over a decade ago.
Previewing that fight for the Wrestling Observer way back in April 2003, I argued that “neither guy are headline fighters and won’t make the casual fan part with their money for this pay per view like the way a Ken Shamrock fight or Ortiz/Liddell would. Sean Sherk hasn’t even been on live on pay per view yet, just doing dark fights before the UFC events begin since he started with the company. That means he’s basically going from zero to sixty here. Hughes isn’t exactly a top ticket seller either, although if they have an entertaining fight that can change quick for the both of them. Again, if UFC had TV none of this would be a worry. But they don’t.” (Man, times have changed). It wasn’t until later in Hughes’s career, when he was mostly past his prime as the pound-for-pound best guy in the sport, that his name meant something to casual fans and he started drawing numbers.
GSP was one of the special guys who became a major pay per view draw at the same time he was in his athletic prime. That meant he was (and, likely, still is) drawing huge pay per view numbers while he was one of the best fighters in the sport, if not the very best. How his close victory over Hendricks does for his drawing power remains to be seen. If UFC 167 does a good buyrate, it would seem likely that a rematch, with all of the controversy from the first fight to help hype it, would also do well. But part of St-Pierre’s box office appeal is his reputation as one of the best fighters in the sport, and a loss to Hendricks at this stage in GSP’s career combined with the retirement rumours may damage his drawing power for subsequent fights. It remains to be seen.
On the other side of the octagon is Hendricks, whose drawing power could only have been helped by his loss to St-Pierre. Although the Nevada judges felt Hendricks lost, and I agree with the decision, it felt like a moral victory for Hendricks. He hurt GSP more than any other fighter in history, including some of the other all-time greats that GSP has fought and even lost to, particularly Hughes. Hendricks clearly feels he won the fight, and is promoting the hell out of a rematch, as he should.
With Georges’s career coming closer to an end (or, if not his career, the prime years of his career), it would be better for the long-term drawing power of the UFC for Georges to be defeated by Hendricks in the next fight, as Hendricks likely has more great fights ahead of him compared to Georges. Also, a win over Georges in their second fight after scoring a moral victory in the first fight would greatly help Hendricks’s box office appeal, certainly moreso than if he won an interim title, or if he never fights GSP again and ends up defeating someone else for a vacant Welterweight title that Georges never lost.
Of course, this is all speculation. Dana White is insistent that the next fight between the two is on track, and GSP hasn’t said anything otherwise. It would be in Georges’s best interest to take the fight, as retiring now before giving Hendricks a deserved rematch would make Georges appear to be ducking him, which might tarnish GSP’s legacy and would hurt his box office appeal should he decide to come out of retirement. It’s also in Hendricks’s best interest for obvious reasons. And the rematch is obviously in UFC’s best interest, because it’s a money fight, and the opportunity to create a new mainstream star in Hendricks.
And Stephane Patry is right. When some fighters lose, they’re never the same again. Against Hendricks, Georges won the decision, but he seems to have lost the moral victory. When he steps back into the octagon, we’ll see if he’s still the same GSP.