The UFC raised the collective eyebrows of the MMA world at last night’s (Sat., December 6, 2014) UFC 181 from Las Vegas by signing former WWE champion CM Punk, a 36-year-old retiree with no cage experience to his name.
Punk, whose real name is Phillip Brooks, will undoubtedly bring a ton of media attention and buzz to the pay-per-view (PPV) event at which he first fights. He’s arguably still one of the most popular professional wrestlers on the planet even after leaving the WWE nearly a year ago following creative differences with owner Vince McMahon.
However, it’s tough to think that Punk can actually contend in the ultra-talented UFC middleweight division, and the promotion has to be extra careful about whom they book him against in his first fight. If it were someone too good who destroys Brooks in the first round, then the luster of his MMA defection would be tarnished quickly, leaving the UFC with only one big payday from Punk.
It’s going to take a decent amount of months for Punk to get into shape, possibly putting him in line for a high-profile debut on the Fourth of July card.
While that would be a memorable UFC spectacle for sure, when the UFC was teasing the big announcement just as the opening Tony Ferguson vs. Abel Trujillo was starting, I couldn’t help but thinking that there was a much bigger and more relevant athlete that could have come out of retirement.
That man is none other than former longtime UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, who won a highly controversial split decision over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 before vacating the belt for personal reasons.
Since that day nearly one year ago, GSP has repeatedly teased a return to the cage, choosing to focus on how the UFC’s drug testing policy would have to change if he did indeed come back. St. Pierre also tore his ACL back in March and had surgery, his second such injury in under three years.
His student and good friend Rory MacDonald is also potentially in line for the next UFC welterweight title shot on Canadian soil, making any return a bit of a mess in that sense.
But at the end of the day, St. Pierre’s return just would have been so much better for the sport of MMA. Nothing against Punk, who has a decent amount of grappling experience under the famed Rener Gracie, but he’s never fought a real MMA fight.
St. Pierre, on the other hand, is a legend of the sport who holds the record for most welterweight title defenses. He’s got nothing left to prove in the sport, but it’s also tough to say that a healthy, motivated GSP wouldn’t give Robbie Lawler and Hendricks a serious run for their money. He beat “Bigg Rigg” amidst controversy when his head clearly wasn’t in the fight game, and if he did decide to come back, his focus would most likely be in a completely different place.
Lawler beat Hendricks in another highly controversial split decision at UFC 181, largely due to the fact that “Bigg Rigg” faded with some lackadaisical wrestling in the fourth and fifth rounds.
Of course St. Pierre has been blasted for using a similar style, but the difference between him and Hendricks last night is that GSP finished those takedowns. It may not have been pretty, but he stayed active with ground shots and short elbows in an effort to do damage, while Hendricks mainly stalled and forced restarts. Hendricks kind of became the fighter that he called out St. Pierre for being, and ultimately it cost him against Lawler.
It’s tough to say if St. Pierre would have more wrestling success against the new champ, but there’s definitely a solid chance he would. But all technical fighting aspects aside, St. Pierre’s return would simply provide a massive boost to an already stacked welterweight division.
With so many top-level UFC names set to return to the octagon for huge fights in 2015, having GSP back could only further solidify the potential for next year to be the biggest the UFC has ever seen. He was the company’s top PPV draw before the left, and it’d be foolish to think that he wouldn’t re-assume that role.
He and former middleweight champion Anderson Silva may be out of their physical fighting prime, but they can still put on elite fights and drive huge cards. CM Punk may be able to do the same; we’ll just have to wait and see. But the true downside of signing him is that the novelty may only be good for one bout.
St. Pierre is a guarantee.
Obviously his return is completely up to him, and perhaps he just doesn’t want to get back into the obsessive grind of being the best mixed martial artist in the world. That’s completely understandable. He’d likely have to fight MacDonald at some point, something he’s said that he’d never do and also something that would create a huge rift in the welterweight division.
The UFC would be more than willing to take that chance to have St. Pierre back in the mix, because for all his skill and technical expertise, MacDonald hasn’t exactly earned a massive following like his more popular mentor.
Bringing Punk into the cage is sure to produce some cheap buzz, but the UFC needs a driving force like St. Pierre for a truly blockbuster announcement.
No disrespect to Lawler, because he’s obviously reinvented his career and is the best he’s ever been, but he just doesn’t have the magnetism that St. Pierre exhibited throughout his illustrious run as champ.
A possible third match with Hendricks is a solid grudge match that may not carry the momentum of many of St. Pierre’s matchups, regardless of whether or not his style was deemed dull and boring.
In the end it wasn’t up to the UFC, but getting a different retiree back for a fight would have worked out much more in their favor. Will St. Pierre ever become recommitted to the sport he so abruptly left behind?