Georges St. Pierre returned from a four-year layoff and peered through the river of blood that flowed down his face to choke out Michael Bisping and win the middleweight championship at UFC 217 on Saturday night.
“I took this fight to challenge myself and I am honored to be champion once again,” he said. St Pierre’s win in the main event made it 3 for 3 for the championship challengers at Madison Square Garden in what was easily UFC’s card of the year. TJ Dillashaw won the bantamweight championship and Rose Namajunas won the strawweight title on the pay-per-view card.
UFC 217 goes on the short list of one of the promotion’s great cards and a promotion at a crossroads got a vintage performance from an MMA legend in St. Pierre and a breakthrough outing from Namajunas that stamped her as the face of the women’s division.
The 36-year-old St. Pierre had been the UFC’s 170-pound champion for nearly six years, winning 12 straight fights with nine consecutive title defenses when he walked away. St. Pierre cited the need for a mental breather before he wanted to train and fight again.
Against the trash-talking Bisping, St. Pierre fought like he had only four months off, not four years. The Canadian fighter had takedowns in each of the first two rounds as the packed MSG crowd roared for the fan favorite.
St. Pierre’s forehead got busted open and his face turned into a crimson mask. He smothered Bisping in blood as they wrestled on the ground and stood up looking as if they had just left the set of a horror film.
St. Pierre (26-2) shook it off and slapped a rear naked choke at 4:32 of the third to snuff out Bisping and win his 13th straight UFC fight. “I don’t have words in my mouth right now,” GSP said, wiping the blood from his face.
St. Pierre 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. He’s back and ready for yet another title defense.
Namajunas brought the MSG crowd to its feet with a stunning and dominant victory over undefeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk to win the 115-pound strawweight championship.
Namajunas (17-3) used a devastating left that dropped Jedrzejczyk (14-1) and sent the crowd roaring in anticipation of a beatdown. Namajunas pounced on Jedrzejczyk with a series of lefts that ended the fight in the first round and perhaps signaled the arrival of a new star. She wagged her tongue and stretched her arms wide as she soaked in the magnitude of her accomplishment.
Namajunas is billed as ‘Thug’ and brought gasps a few years back when she shaved her long, blonde locks in favor of a close-cropped cut. She choked back tears as UFC President Dana White slapped the championship belt over her shoulder and the fans that had booed her on the way into the cage rallied behind her and drowned her out as she spoke about what the victory meant.
“Just confidence, conditioning, composure, content that I’m the champion,” she said. The upset not only ended Namajunas’ undefeated run, but she failed to tie Ronda Rousey for the UFC women’s record of six straight successful title defenses.
Namajunas and Jedrzejczyk posed nose-to-nose during the staredown inside the cage. “In many ways, Joanna showed me how to be a champion but also showed me how not to behave as a champion,” Namajunas said. “I hope tonight changed some of her opinions about me. I have so much respect for her and for anyone who steps into the octagon and does this. I’m so happy right now. I can’t wait to get home, look at my garden and take this all in.”
Where else would a woman named Rose want to go to think about how her career will grow? Moments later, Dillishaw dropped the undefeated Garbrandt with a right and finished him off in the second round to win the 135-pound championship.
Dillashaw (15-3) was rocked in the first round and stumbled to his stool when he took a shot to the face to end the first. Garbrandt, predicted by many as UFC’s next big star, even ducked under Dillashaw’s left leg as he kicked and did a little dance to the delight of the crowd.
But Dillashaw stunned Garbrandt with a high left kick to the head and then a right hook that corkscrewed Garbrandt’s body and effectively ended the bout. UFC President Dana White strapped the belt around Dillashaw’s waist as the new bantamweight champ.
‘No Love’ Garbrandt (11-1) earned one of the loudest ovations of the night when he was shown on the screen walking into MSG. He walked out having lost his shot at taking the next step as UFC’s hopeful breakout star.
Dillashaw won the bantamweight title in 2014 and had two successful defenses before he lost the belt to Dominick Cruz in 2016. Paulo Costa improved to 11-0 with a second-round stoppage over Johny Hendricks and Steven ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson (14-2-1) put away Jorge Masvidal (32-13) by unanimous decision for a much-needed win on the other two bouts on the main card.
UFC needed this kind of night with its three biggest stars on the sideline. Conor McGregor has not announced any future fights and Rousey spent fight night posting on her social media accounts pictures and video from a video game convention in California. Jon Jones’ career remains in limbo as he faces a potential four-year suspension for his latest doping violation.
McGregor, who claims he wants a stake in UFC as a condition to fight, will likely come to terms and compete again, perhaps to complete the trilogy against Nate Diaz. But UFC could just about hang a ‘Help Wanted’ sign on the cage door as it looks for a new wave of PPV superstars to emerge.
The UFC brand carries more weight than the names on the marquee for now and UFC 217 was on pace to become the third-highest grossing sporting event in MSG history.
UFC ran held four cards in New York state over the 12 months and is set to expand its East Coast footprint in 2018. UFC 220 will take place Jan. 20 at the TD Garden in Boston and a possible return to New Jersey’s Prudential Center on the horizon.