If, like me, you’re wondering why that doesn’t seem like a bigger deal to more people, maybe it’s time to consider a lot has changed in the four years since St-Pierre last fought, and those changes might include some serious shifts in the fanbase.
For instance, you could have first discovered an interest in MMA midway through your freshman year, gotten gradually more into it during your sophomore and junior years, then graduated as a wise and haggard senior all without ever having actually lived through a GSP fight.
You could have watched every moment of the last 161 UFC events, which would have taken roughly 1,000 hours of your life, and still never have seen the former longstanding welterweight champion in action.
What’s it to you if he’s coming back now? And if he’s so great, why doesn’t he have a bunch of fight-ending highlights floating around the internet? There’s not a single clip of him yelling at someone while throwing an energy drink at the guy’s head, so how important could he be?
All fair points (kind of). So here, let’s look back at the defining moments that made St-Pierre an MMA great – even if we have to peer into the non-HD vault of UFC fight footage to do it.
It’s crazy to think GSP got his first crack at the UFC title in just his third fight with the promotion, and his eighth pro fight overall. What’s even crazier is that he lost, getting armbarred by Matt Hughes for the first loss of his career in a battle for the vacant 170-pound title belt.
It was a crushing blow for the 23 year-old St-Pierre, but a year later he was back near the top of the welterweight division, having reeled off four wins in a row. The last came against Sean Sherk, who would later become UFC lightweight champ, but on that night he was little more than a punching bag for a bigger, stronger GSP.
But what was really notable about the fight was what came after. During a post-fight interview with Joe Rogan, St-Pierre literally got down on his knees and begged “UFC management” for another chance at the title. It succeeded in helping him stand out, especially since the very next fight on the card saw the champion Hughes defeat Joe Riggs via submission.
In his rematch with the champion, St-Pierre vowed that he wouldn’t make the same mistake he did in the first fight. That mistake? “I gave him too much respect,” St-Pierre said.
He was already on the path to avoiding that error some two months before the fight, when he showed up at Hughes’ title defense against B.J. Penn at UFC 63 (a spot that was supposed to be St-Pierre’s before injury forced him out of the fight) and hugged the victorious champion before dropping one of his most famous lines.
“I’m very glad you won that fight, Matt,” St-Pierre said into the microphone. “But I’m not impressed with your performance.”
By St-Pierre standards, it was blisteringly severe trash talk. He would meet Hughes in the rematch two months later, and this time it was a different St-Pierre who showed up. Confident, aggressive, he attacked the champion with a diverse striking attack, dropping him with help from his signature Superman punch late in the first, then finishing him with a head kick followed by ground-and-pound early in the second.
At the time it felt like a monumental shift. After two long stints as champ, the first interrupted only briefly by a loss to Penn, Hughes felt like the welterweight champion of record for many MMA fans. Seeing him so easily dethroned seemed to mark the beginning of a new era – one that would continue for the better part of the next seven years, with only one brief pause …
Any conversation about the biggest upsets in MMA history must inevitably include GSP’s first fight with Serra, who came into the bout as a roughly 8-1 underdog and left as the UFC welterweight champion. This was the unthinkable in action. Serra had earned the shot by winning the welterweight division of a “comeback” season on “The Ultimate Fighter.” Coming into the bout, he seemed less like a threatening challenger and more like a man in possession of a certain kind of lottery ticket.
That all changed when Serra’s right hand found the sweet spot just behind St-Pierre’s ear. Soon the 13-1 favorite was stumbling like a newborn fawn, and Serra was swarming in for more. When the fight was finally stopped and the belt strapped around his waist, even Serra seemed to be in a state of shock.
As for GSP, he became obsessed with, in his words, “revenge.” He wanted nothing more than to beat Serra and reclaim his title. As he would later tell it, a sports psychiatrist he was working with compared his single-minded focus to a brick that was weighing him down day after day.
“He made me get a brick, and I wrote ‘Matt Serra’ on it, and he said, ‘When you are ready to release that brick and look to the future, you’re going to take this brick and throw it into the river.’ It sounds stupid, but that’s what I did,” St-Pierre said. “I think it helped me to release a lot of the negative energy that I had. Instead of focusing, I kept my eyes off of the goal. So now I’m focused again on the goal. I think this helped me a lot.”
After a decision win over Josh Koscheck, followed by a submission over Hughes in the rubber match for an interim title, St-Pierre got another shot at Serra almost exactly one year after their first fight. This time GSP took no chances. After touching gloves to start the fight, he immediately took Serra down and then began a systematic destruction that finally ended with a barrage of knees to the body of a downed and exhausted Serra late in the second round. He had avenged his only loss as champion. And he has yet to lose again.
GSP’s path to winning the title in the first place had gone straight through another former champion in Penn, who he narrowly defeated via split decision after being bloodied early on in a three-round fight at UFC 58. After Penn’s follow-up loss to Hughes, he returned to lightweight, where he soon won the vacant title before defending it against Sherk, who’d been stripped of the belt after testing positive for steroids in 2007.
But Penn couldn’t seem to forget about St-Pierre, and soon he was talking about going back up in weight for a champion-vs.-champion clash with the welterweight titleholder. The UFC apparently liked the idea enough to put more promotional muscle than usual behind the bout, including a new preview show called “UFC Primetime,” which showed both men’s preparations (though it also led to some criticism of Penn’s training habits and work ethic).
St-Pierre would dominate Penn in the fight, eventually forcing a corner stoppage at the end of the fourth round, but controversy soon followed. Penn and his team pointed toward a moment earlier in the fight, when one of GSP’s coaches – muay thai specialist and general guru Phil Nurse – appeared to rub Vaseline on St-Pierre’s chest between rounds.
Penn took his complaint to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which heard from just about everyone – including Penn’s mother – in a hearing on the matter. St-Pierre and his team insisted that any violation of the rules was accidental, but for a time the accusation threatened to stick to the champion. Other previous opponents popped up with complaints that GSP felt “greasy” during their fights, though it was hard to tell what was serious accusation and what was just sour grapes.
Ultimately, the NSAC took no action against St-Pierre, and Penn had to live with the lopsided loss. Though St-Pierre would go on to defend his title seven more times, the victory over Penn was his last stoppage win to date.
After going to his “dark place” to beat Nick Diaz in March 2013, St-Pierre returned in November to face a dangerous contender on a six-fight winning streak. Hendricks made for an interesting opponent because he seemed to pose a new kind of challenge for St-Pierre. His background as an NCAA national champion wrestler meant he wouldn’t be as easy to take down as past opponents like Diaz and Carlos Condit, and his string of knockout victories suggested he could hurt the champion on the feet.
In a lot of ways, Hendricks lived up to those promises. Over five close rounds, Hendricks seemed to hurt St-Pierre with strikes at several points, leaving his already bruise-prone face looking like a lump of spoiled fruit by the end.
Still, two of the three judges saw it for St-Pierre, surprising many fans and fellow fighters who thought Hendricks had done enough to take the title. In the cage after the win, GSP threw more fuel on the fire. He was “stepping away” from the sport of MMA, he told Rogan. He refused to explain why, or to say if or when he might return.
At the ensuing post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White was livid. Much of his ire was directed at the judges and the Nevada State Athletic Commission, which he called “atrocious” and in need of an intervention from the governor’s office.
But as White ranted and raved – all before St-Pierre had arrived – he also complained about St-Pierre’s post-fight comments.
“He didn’t say he was going to retire,” White said of GSP. “He said, ‘I’m going to take some time off.’ You don’t just say, ‘Hey I’m going to take some time off, maybe I’ll be back, maybe I won’t.’ You owe it to the fans, you owe it to that belt, you owe it to this company, and you owe it to Johny Hendricks to give him that opportunity to fight again, unless you’re going to retire.”
St-Pierre, however, was resolute. He’d made up his mind. Having his boss scream at him while he was out of the room didn’t seem to soften his stance any.
“I’ve being fighting for a very long time at a high level,” St-Pierre said. “It’s a lot of pressure. I’ve decided I need to take time off. I vacated my title for the respect of other competitors. One day, when I feel like it, I might come back. But right now, I need a break.”
And that was the last we saw of him in the UFC. Until now.