GSP, Namujunas, and How UFC 217 Saved The UFC
This is a night that could have gone a completely different way.
The story for the UFC in 2017 is low PPV numbers, a lack of bankable stars (and others completely disrespecting themselves, Jone Jones), Conor McGregor boxing, and
The UFC built UFC 217 to be the one to turn that all on its head. However, headlining a card with three title fights is a sure recipe for a blockbuster, but doing it with a flat-out money grab, a one-sided shellacking, and a fight cursed by delays, gave reason to worry.
Georges St. Pierre and Michael Bisping were supposed to show up old and slow. Joanna Jędrzejczyk was supposed to be just too much and skate passed Rose Namajunas. Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw were doing their best to look foolish in the leadup to their grudge match.
As they say, though, that’s why fights aren’t done on paper.
Garbrandt and Dillashaw were meant to fight months ago, but Garbrandt’s back flared up and delayed their time. In the interim, Dillashaw lobbied for a shot at Flyweight kind, Demetrious Johnson, but never got a nibble form Mighty Mouse. As Dillishaw and Garbrandt acted like school children on the UFC”s waning reality show, the Ultimate Fighter, it was beginning to feel like a fight that, while exciting in premise, may just be a matchup of two completely unlikeable characters.
It didn’t take long for both of these fighters to prove why it’s your talking in the cage that has the most bite. The pace was electric. Both fighters clearly brought their best. When Garbrandt nearly finished Dillashaw at the bell to end round one – after taunting him mercilessly as he did to Dominick Cruz – it seemed obvious ‘No Love’ was poised to put away Ill Dill Killashaw in the following stanza. But Dillashaw flipped the script and turned Garbrandt’s lights out for an incredible finish. A true comeback in a legitimate rivalry. A fight that lived up to the potential on paper.
But then there is the case of Rose Namajunas v. Joanna Jędrzejczyk. While many were predicting that Namajunas offered more than she was given credit for, I doubt even those people could have predicted that Namajunas would snatch the Bantamweight title from its greatest champion. Via her first knockout victory ever. In the first round, no less.
Namajunas put on the best performance of her career, flustering Jędrzejczyk with feints and being just out of reach to be hit when Jędrzejczyk returned fire. It was thanks to these feints that Jędrzejczyk reached out with her left hand to parry what she thought was a punch coming straight down the pipe, only for Namajunas left hook to arc over her arm and clip her on the button. Namajunas’ finish of the greatest female MMA fighter on the planet was something akin to Achillies putting six feet under the towering Boagrius in Troy. Sudden, shocking – no other statement needed.
Which brings us to the biggest story.
Georges St. Pierre’s return to the UFC was a remarkably more chaotic storyline than could have been imagined. Upon his temporary retirement four years agon, the idea of GSP returning to the sport would have been a glorious fantasy. Instead, it was frowned upon at nearly every turn.
The intial rush when the story broke had a bitter aftertaste when Michael Bisping’s name was attached. The feeling that GSP at Middleweight was a move way past due was pervasive; we wanted Anderson Silva vs GSP in their prime, not GSP vs. Michael Bisping as near-40-year-olds. As the story was met with criticism it only intensified as GSP, Bisping, and the UFC began jockeying over details. There was no date, no venue, no contract - no timetable in which to expect a fight. By the summer, the fight was actually called off. By the end of the summer, it was back on again.
By the time fight week arrived, there was a certain malaise to the whole affair. Pundits openly questioned whether GSP’s fans were still following the sport and whether new fans even knew who he was. While the PPV numbers will trickle out in the coming weeks and give that question some merit, the storyline nonetheless was dominated by a pervasive sense of ‘Meh.’
Then something remarkably nostalgic happened: GSP did as he has done so many times before and squashed all the doubt. All the chaos, all the second-guessing and hot takes, were squeezed out like Bisping was. As GSP came to land his trademark jab over and over, it felt like this wasn’t a waste of time - the Frenchman still had it. We had ourselves a fight. It wasn't easy - GSP took a jab for each one he threw, struggled to keep Bisping down when he landed a takedown, appeared to tire down in the middle rounds, and was opened up by an elbow as he worked on top of from Bisping from full guard - but it was quality.
It felt like old times. The flashes of vintage GSP were there and, as he promised, some new wrinkles, as well. Catching Bisping with a left hook in an exchange of combinations, putting the Count on the mat, was shocking on a number of levels. Being four years removed from his last is one thing, but laying out Bisping eight years removed from actually finishing an opponent was something else entirely.
A fight buildup that was incredibly un-St. Pierre friendly was then punctuated by a fight that was entirely GSP-like and not. He was the old GSP, both literally and figuratively. Older, wiser, newer, fresher, and just the same as before.
UFC 217 could have gone in a different direction. Jędrzejczyk utterly dominating Namajunas would have been something to see - but not nearly what the fight ended up as. Garbrandt putting away Dillashaw without much effort would have been something to see - but not nearly as eciting as DIllashaw making a spirited comeback. GSP looking like an old GSP would have only punctuated the chaotic narrative that followed him back into the sport - luckily, GSP simply looked like old GSP and brought it.
It was all totally predictable until it wasn’t. The perfect card. How can you not love this sport?
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys is the host of The Hurt Take on Not The Public Broadcaster