NEW YORK — Georges St. Pierre waved his hands as a conductor would to a chorus of “G-S-P” chanted by fans wrapped in Rising Sun headbands inside Madison Square Garden.
“These are your people? These are your people, Georges?” fighter Michael Bisping chirped as he dismissed the rising cheers with a wave.
GSP is back for his people and on top of a UFC card one more time.
But is it for the final time?
St. Pierre (25-2) was one of the UFC’s biggest stars and pay-per-view draws during his long reign atop the 170-pound division, but the Canadian star walked away in November 2013. After a lengthy sabbatical, he returns Saturday to headline UFC 217 in a 185-pound championship bout with Bisping (31-7), the gritty English veteran who won the middleweight championship in a surprise upset of Luke Rockhold last year.
St. Pierre, now 36, left UFC as one of its biggest box office draws, holder of the second-longest winning streak in the promotion’s history and with enough stardom to grace the cover of a video game.
Four years later, St. Pierre returns to a UFC world that blew up into a $4 billion company without him.
His fights with Nick Diaz and B.J. Penn that drew two of the biggest buy rates in UFC history have been passed six times, notably by cards headlined by Conor McGregor. Ronda Rousey came (and went?) and bulldozed her way into becoming a mainstream superstar. St. Pierre’s 12-fight winning streak that he takes into Saturday has been topped by Jon Jones and matched by flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson. And it was McGregor again, with a championship belt draped over each shoulder, who was announced Friday as the EA Sports UFC 3 video game cover boy .
But the use of a PS4 controller may be the only way to make sure McGregor steps into a cage any time soon. With Rousey, McGregor and Jones all sidelined, and UFC struggling to build a new crop of pay-per-view stars, the big attraction for 2018 just might be a blast from the past in St. Pierre.
Another change, MMA wasn’t even legal in New York the last time St. Pierre fought. He’ll top UFC’s fourth card in the state in 12 months and the first at MSG since a McGregor-headlined show helped draw an arena-record gate of $17 million.
Cody Garbrandt defends the 135-pound belt against T.J. Dillashaw and Joanna Jedrzejczyk puts the 115-pound women’s title on the line against Rose Namajunas in the other two big PPV bouts.
St. Pierre, who hasn’t revealed any career goals beyond claiming Bisping’s 185-pound title, hasn’t decided if this bout would be his last.
“Nothing for sure,” St. Pierre said. “Sometimes you win the fight and you could lose and sometimes you lose but you should have won. It depends how it happens and how I will feel and depend on a lot of stuff. But I don’t see myself going away for a long time so it’s going to be a good match.”
St. Pierre hasn’t lost since April 2007 when Matt Serra took away the 170-pound belt. St. Pierre reclaimed the title later that year and beat Serra in a rematch shortly afterward.
But St. Pierre didn’t fight between April 2011 and November 2012 while recovering from a torn ligament in his right knee. He bounced back from injury with wins over Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz and Johny Hendricks.
He beat Hendricks, who has a fight on the 217 card, by split decision, then decided it was time for a hiatus. St. Pierre had lamented the stress of his prominence in the sport, saying his obsessive nature prevented him from enjoying life while maintaining the focus necessary to train for title fights.
“It’s hard on my nerves, but when I close my eyes at night, I give myself the choice would I want to be there or not,” St. Pierre said. “Yes, I want to. I don’t do it because I have to do it, because I really want to. I’ve never been forced to do anything I don’t want to in life, but I felt like I had that pressure from outside and I was stuck into a pattern. Now, I am doing it and I’m happier than ever.”
GSP smiled and appeared happy on the MSG stage as foul-mouthed Bisping tried his best to rattle him with trash talk to fuel the fight.
“There’s no other place and moment I want to be,” St. Pierre said. “I’m back now.”
Bisping yelled, “I’ll retire him!”
Robert Whittaker, the interim middleweight champ, could be on deck for the winner in a fight to unify the belt.
Bisping, who had eight fights during St. Pierre’s break, is eager to add another big name to his improbable late-career surge of victories. Bisping defended his belt against Dan Henderson last year, and St. Pierre is a second straight opponent who isn’t among the top middleweight contenders for his title.
The fight has been attacked as nothing but a money grab for Bisping and a desperate attempt by UFC to give MSG some star power in a year that has lacked in must-see main events.
But the fight legend is back and Bisping would walk out of the cage with the biggest name win of his career should he stop St. Pierre. GSP was at UFC’s pinnacle in his prime — but a four-year layoff could be cruel to the fighter.
“Why would I not want to come back, fighting Michael Bisping for the title in the Madison Square Garden, this mythical place?” St. Pierre said. “I would be fool to not take this opportunity.”