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UFC 217: Bisping vs St- Pierre – Salt and Fear and Bad Alchemy

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Two men who paid a hard price, in a weirdly unexciting title fight.

This Saturday, Georges St-Pierre will fight Michael Bisping, and on paper, everything about it should be gold. The fight features maybe the greatest MMA champion ever making his return to the cage after four years away, fighting one of one of MMA’s historic foils; an attempt to make history by capturing a belt at two weight classes.

It’s early yet, but it doesn’t quite feel that exciting; like it’s really caught. That may not be good news for a company in desperate need of a big win.

It hasn’t been a great year for the UFC. A brief recap: Conor McGregor held up lightweight while making himself a lot of money, and Jon Jones wrecked light heavyweight by being Jon Jones. After putting the nail in the coffin of Ronda Rousey’s return, Amanda Nunes consolidated her grip on the 135 title with a title defense that could charitably be described as “tactical”. The introduction of women’s featherweight was more or less a disaster. Tyron Woodley fought regularly, and had the most widely reviled three-fight title run since Silva’s Cote-Leites-Maia stretch. Stipe Miocic (through little fault of his own) failed to build excitement. In the lighter weight classes, Joanna Jedrzejczyk and Demetrious Johnson continued to put on amazing title defenses which didn’t resonate outside of the hardcores, and momentum from the star-making performances of Cody Garbrandt and Justin Gaethje was channeled directly into the corpse of The Ultimate Fighter, like a quail shot into a dungheap.

Ratings are down, and pay-per-view numbers are plumbing depths which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. This while the firm tries to hit record profit margins in order to service the debt from the WME-IMG purchase, and faces the prospect of renegotiating its TV deal with Fox at the end of the year.

It’s for the fans!

Its acquisition has changed a few things, but structurally, the WME-IMG version of the UFC remains close to the Zuffa one, and the UFC always ran close to the people that watch it. Joe Silva was a fan before he was recruited; President Dana White is a prototypical member of the UFC live audience, who loves brawls and gets mad over bad judging.

This retained closeness between audience and promotion is useful. It gives the organization some advantages which they are not shy about leveraging. The ability to detect shifts in the mood is one; to act on what the fans want before they know what it is. Another is a measure of camouflage, and plausible deniability.

Take Michael Bisping’s last fight against Dan Henderson. It could be looked at in two separate ways: from one perspective it was a cynical play for making money. It was bringing out Henderson The Old Warhorse and negotiating him straight past more deserving challengers for one last shot, likely a bolt between the eyes. This is a brand of matchmaking which boxing has mastered over the years.

On the other hand: Hey, Michael Bisping vs Dan Henderson, for the belt! It had a rollicking freakshow, anything-can-happen feel. Twitter lit up with requests almost immediately after Bisping knocked out Luke Rockhold. The UFC could say that the fight was “for the fans”, although a weighting of profit over entertainment was revealed closer to home, in Manchester, by a local main card start time of three in the morning. It was a quiet trade-off on an eternally loyal local fanbase to ensure a bit more PPV and cable revenue on the other side of the pond.

This, then, is another fight for the fans. Who wouldn’t want to watch one of MMA’s greatest heels taking on one of its greatest faces? As it turned out, surprisingly few people.

Most made their peace with the fight, though, at least until it they realized that it wasn’t going to be happening any time soon.

This hasn’t been something like an Aldo-McGregor or a Cormier-Jones II, where anticipation grew with deferral. Instead, it felt a little tiresome. A lot of fans wished that the middleweight division would move on, but through a collection of vaguely suspicious coincidences, it never did.

It’s not the silliest fight this year, of course. McGregor-Mayweather did an all-timer of a job in exposing some of the dumber realities of combat sports, but it had a fundamentally different taste to it, like cloying and overpriced cotton candy. Now Bisping-GSP is finally almost here, and it still tastes of sadder transactional realities.

Harvesting

This is a money fight. At it’s heart a lot of prizefighting is basically about trading damage for money. Effects are usually taken in blood and scars, in the brain and the joints, but even this occludes that there’s no such thing as a non-damaging strike. A perfect punch will cause microscopic damage to the bones and ligaments of the fist. Everything adds up over time, and every bout is a basic chipping away.

So, fights hurt. Preparation for them hurts more. Someone who trains boxing and jiu jitsu collects aches and pains, but being a pro is a long, hard cultivation that bears approximately the same relationship to this as the business of running a farm does to maintaining a small, modest garden. Muscles and skin and bone are worked over; tilled and molded to the approximate seasonal rhythms of a fight camp. The end of the season is the harvest, where work in hardening up bone and building muscle and cutting water and losing fat is traded off in violence.

Bisping and Saint-Pierre always did their best to ensure that it got a good price. The two men built careers of rhythmic clock-punching consistency. They top out records which center around volume: significant strikes in the cage, time spent, takedowns landed, number of fights.

Repetition and binding, and repetition

“I hate it. There is nothing more I hate. When I go to fight I’m scared as hell. The feeling of uncertainty. Are you going to win or lose? Are you going to be humiliated? It’s unbearable.” – TSN’s “The Mind of GSP”

As welterweight champ, GSP was respectful, hard-working, and exceptionally guarded; candid about his fears, but protective of his personal life. Rote replies about challengers were a particular stock in trade: “I think [X] is the biggest challenge of my life”, whether X was Jake Shields or Carlos Condit or Dan Hardy. It had the consistency of mantra. This ritual focus on building up every opponent felt partly rooted in his loss to Matt Serra. St-Pierre had been scared off ever underestimating anyone, by being on the receiving end of a knockout which remains MMA’s biggest upset.

Partially it just felt like who he was, though. The dreams of aliens, the nerves, and the clipped professionalism were embodied in one of the most tense fighting styles you’ll ever see. Many fighters are good at countering, but he specialized in leading; driven forward to drive wedges into the other man’s gameplan, and while recent welterweight title fights have been aimless meanders around the periphery, he controlled space and forced opponents into the areas where they were uncomfortable.

Fighting enables semantics to be played out in physical terms. GSP’s style, then, didn’t feel like scared to lose, or needs to win, but somehow scared to not be winning. It made him a poor finisher, but it polished his functional tools (the jab, the takedown) to a mirror gleam.

Outside of his own fights he could often be found in the corner of his training partner Francis Carmont. There was no fanfare or McGregor-type touring of the cage to soak up cheers, and maybe you wouldn’t even see him on something like a Bellator broadcast, but you could hear an “Allez, Francis!” and know the champ was urging his friend on from the fence post.

Carmont was an athletic talent with a marked tendency to seize up in the cage. He scowled and shouted kiais while sheltering behind a jab and a takedown, looking very much like a man trying hard to convince himself of his own ferocity.

GSP and Carmont always had similar styles, albeit with that slight and crucial difference in the nature of fear, between “driven” and “trapped”, and when Carmont struggled to translate talent to results, I think GSP could look at him with sympathy. There, but for the grace of God.

The taut wires of tension kept GSP going, through knee surgeries and time away. When he fought Nick Diaz the two men combined to bring as much total weaponized anxiety to the cage as you’ll ever see, and hit a mutual wall of exhaustion. Against Johny Hendricks, St-Pierre struggled badly, and was fortunate to escape with the decision.

When Joe Rogan interviewed him afterwards, his face was a mess of abrasions and bruising. Lacerations had sprung under both his eyes, and he stammered a little through his post-fight speech.

“Without a doubt, my toughest fight. I lost memory a little bit… I couldn’t see with one of my eyes. He really messed me up. I need a vacation right now… I lost a bit of memory of what happened…”

[Boos from the crowd]

When the interview came to a close, he reached out and put his hand on the mic. There was a small wordless exchange where GSP and Rogan looked at one another and he almost pulled back away until Rogan nodded him onwards.

“I have a bunch of things going on in my life… I need to hang up my gloves for a little bit. I hope my fans appreciate it… I need to step away for a bit at least… I have a lot of personal things happening, but I want to say thank you to the bottom of my heart to the UFC for giving me this opportunity… thanks for the support. I have to step away for a bit. That’s all I can say right now.”

[Cheers. Boos]

and that was the last time GSP fought.

Four years later, he’s back. He’s said he doesn’t need the money. Perhaps he’s looking for more accolades. Maybe he needs the pressure; like a fish that left the depths of an ocean trench and found relief fading away with the realization that its bones were uncomfortable in the open water. Now he’s picking up the old lanyards and bindings and repetitions, hoping that they can be pulled as taut as they were.

Consistently salty

Bisping said something odd on The Ultimate Fighter. He was young and ambitious, but revealed a modest goal.

“I think I can make a living out of this.”

The son of a bricklayer, he built a workmanlike career of consistency and volume. After winning TUF he was criticized for being fattened on soft opponents. Later on, when it became apparent that a longed-for expansion into the British combat sports marketplace wasn’t really going to happen, he became middleweight’s gatekeeper.

In combat sports, gatekeepers tend to pay the price to those that pass, so he got knocked out, submitted and decisioned. He’s shot through with injuries, padded with tissue and lined with scars. His right eye was pierced by Belcher and kicked askew by Belfort.

He made money for his trouble, and kept a hold of it. When he was booked to fight Alan Belcher, NFL running back Wallace Gilberry offered Bisping a bet of a $300,000 Rolls Royce against whatever collateral that Bisping could match with that Belcher would knock Bisping out. Bisping was unimpressed.

“Taking these big stupid bets. Pointless… Gilberry you’re gonna need that (car). When you’re broke and your NFL career is dried up, and none of your yes-men are answering the phone, you’re gonna need that car to go sell it because you’ll be on food stamps pretty soon I’m sure.”

He got older. The risk of the ageing fighter is that the sound and fury deteriorates to a dull roar. The losses are no longer as heartbreaking as they were; the wins not as inspiring. It’s close to an existential threat. Yet his great strength remains that he can still get cross about everything. He’s like one of those toy robots powered by salt; driven by adaptable resentment. Steroids! People not giving him his respect! GSP thinks he’s an easy mark! Incessant complaints to the referee! The world provides him with a constant supply of enjoyable grievances to chew on for energy. Still he keeps them approximately separate from the rest of his life. Approximately.

Damage has continued to pile up, even as his career reached a surprising peak. His best wins are old and past-their-prime legends, but past-their-prime legends are often still quite good at their jobs. Anderson Silva with a muffin-top belly creeping out over his shorts tore his face open. At 46 years young, Dan Henderson plowed through the Lancastrian’s stutter-step jabs and kicks and cracked him until a fat globe of tissue started to eat his good eye.

For someone famous for his endurance, it stands out how ragged he’s been in the late rounds of his fights going all the way back to his decision loss to Tim Kennedy in 2014.

Backwards narratives

Even with these long, rich careers, the promotional alchemy of the fight feels bad, and wrong.

The champion-challenger narrative is obviously backwards. Bisping should be the challenger with the chip on his shoulder. GSP is the paranoid, safety-obsessed champion. It’s the wrong way around.

The risk-reward is off, too. If GSP was returning against a big, powerful middleweight, people would be watching through splayed fingers to see whether maybe he could pull it off. Similarly, Bisping’s stand atop the division has had a certain yappy charm. He was always the man that people would call out to shut up on their way to a belt. That he became the division’s kingpin was a troll’s dream, but it only worked because of the associated legitimacy. The thing that keeps Bisping relevant (the thing that keeps Luke Rockhold on the verge of physically exploding) is that Bisping truly is the middleweight champion.

In the end, then, the fight feels like expenditure. Not just of the relevance of the belt, but the goodwill and stock that the two fighters built up over time. Bisping gets the chance to say that he defeated two of the best fighters of all time, and will the record books say that they were quite a bit fatter than they used to be? GSP gets the chance to grab a middleweight belt from a vulnerable, aging champion.

It’s difficult to be angry at them for taking the opportunity. The two have expended so much themselves, in crushing pressure and mental and physical damage that it’s difficult to begrudge them this. They haven’t necessarily earned it (because what about Romero, or Souza, or Whittaker?) but they have certainly paid for it.

Flat transactional acceptance isn’t exactly a recipe for excitement, though.

It’ll still likely do well. The core moneymaker of the UFC fandom will always be semi-invisible to obsessives: when you get to a certain level of fight nerd, it’s hard to imagine someone who simply doesn’t care all that much about the 5th ranked lightweight in the world. The economic engine of the sport consists of a large number relatively average people who can keep track of maybe seven fighters in their heads. Even after this time, GSP is one of them; Bisping is probably one of the others.

Whether it’s a sad, Machida-esque knockout, or a classic St-Pierre control decision, or even a close, potentially exciting decision, it doesn’t feel like a centerpiece. It feels like Silva-Diaz, or Lesnar-Hunt, or Liddell-Silva: an acceptable payday attempting to capture and combine past magic that isn’t quite there.


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