There was something magical about UFC 217. When the marquee fight was first announced it was a transparent cash grab, matching middleweight champion Michael Bisping and the long retired welterweight great, Georges St-Pierre. Clearly it was a desperate attempt to make up for dismal buyrates in 2017. But as the weeks went by, the card became packed to the rafters with real talent in real matches. When the night arrived, the prelims went off strangely and spectacularly—including a double spinning elbow knockout and two disqualifications—and then the main card started out just as strong. Three title fights were booked, and for the first time in UFC history three champions were dethroned on one night.
Fans have begun to point out some weirder touches on the "night of the lead hook" too. Rose Namajunas decked Joanna Jedrzejczyk with a hook in the first round to begin her first title reign. T.J. Dillashaw dropped his ex-teammate, Cody Garbrandt in the second round to win back his bantamweight title. And in the main event, Georges St. Pierre returned from retirement to drop Michael Bisping in the third round with a left hook and began his third UFC title reign. Whether there is anything to that beautiful synchronicity is probably a question for a philosopher, but after two title fights where the underdog pulled it off in a split second, fans were jubilant before the main event even began. The fact that the headliner exceeded all expectations ensure that UFC 217 is remembered as perhaps the most exciting night of fights that the UFC has ever produced.
If Georges St-Pierre had any ring rust, it certainly didn't cause him to lose a modicum of his terrific speed. Managing the distance perfectly, he darted in with jabs against Bisping and flustered the bigger man. When Bisping attempted to needle St-Pierre with his own respectable jab, the Canadian showed that he was one of the few who put down their hard earned cash on the Henderson-Bisping II pay-per-view. Just as the ancient Dan Henderson had managed to uncork a counter right hand in the wake of Bisping's jab, St-Pierre rattled the champion with a counter right.
When St-Pierre hit his first takedown, Bisping showed exactly why this wouldn't be a cakewalk though. In classic Bisping style, as soon as he hit the mat he began exclaiming to the referee that St-Pierre was stalling. In fairness to Bisping, the moment St-Pierre did begin moving, he scrambled up and broke free.
When Bisping got to his corner between rounds, Jason Parillo stressed that Bisping should get down and off to the right, behind his lead shoulder. This would be to take his head to the outside of St-Pierre's jab and away from that counter right hand after each time he jabbed. In our pre-fight exploration of Bisping's development we noted that a Bisping fight is often less about his opponent and more to do with Bisping's science vs. Bisping's instinct. This lingering after jabs is key—sometimes Bisping is a picture of scientific boxing, getting down behind his shoulder and countering off his opponent's returns, other times his head is way up in the air for no reason.
Coming into the second round, Bisping was much more determined to stay down behind his lead shoulder and though St-Pierre looked for that right hand counter time and time again, he caught Bisping's shoulder or swung over his head more often than not.
Bisping also had a degree of success in "jabbing with the jabber." Due to St-Pierre's right hand often being down by his chest as he jabs, and his head rarely leaving the centerline, waiting for him to jab and then attempting to jab simultaneously can catch him out. This counter in particular was the one that B.J. Penn panicked St-Pierre with in their first bout, though generally St. Pierre's feints and anticipation have gotten to the point where it is tough for opponents to even tell when he is stepping in before his jab lands.
The hallmark of St-Pierre's striking career has been using three techniques which create openings for each other. The jab, the inside low kick, and the step up left high kick. If the opponent starts parrying the jab, the high kick can catch them cold. If the opponent keeps their hand high and wide for the high kick, the jab will sneak down the middle. At any point during this the low kick can sneak in and knock them off balance and as soon as they start expecting that, it can change into a high kick midway through its path. Those are three very fundamental techniques, applied very well by a skilled martial artist. The final part of St-Pierre's regular striking arsenal is the superman jab—a technique which has been missing for the best part of four years as almost no one else uses it to any effect.
All that work with the lead leg means that when GSP picks it up at the bottom of his opponent's peripheral vision, they're going to start moving. A switch of stances in the air and St-Pierre scores a stiff jab and can run into his right low kick. From Matt Serra to Thiago Alves, everyone St-Pierre has faced has been caught by this at some point regardless of their striking pedigree.
In fact, at the end of the first round, St-Pierre actually staggered Bisping with this surprisingly stiff punch. As Bisping circled away, St-Pierre grazed him with a wheel kick. GSP's kicking in this bout was clearly something he had been wanting to show off—a rear legged side kick surprised Bisping a couple of times. And when Bisping circled to St-Pierre's left along the fence, the welterweight great spun into a wheel kick or back kick to the body at every opportunity.
Where Michael Bisping did shine in this bout was on the mat. St-Pierre's low posture inside the closed guard meant that when Bisping stiff armed St-Pierre's head away, he could release it and it would come flying back in, face first. This meant that Bisping could make a short motion to intercept with his elbow and St-Pierre's weight would provide the force for the collision. Within a few seconds on the ground, St-Pierre's face had been cut to ribbons. What's more, beginning at the mid-point of the second round, St-Pierre seemed to be slowing down.
After going to the well over and over with the attempted counter right over Bisping's jab, St-Pierre was sent stumbling on a miss. His tactics were getting stale and his lungs were getting weaker. Suddenly St-Pierre ducked in for a takedown but thought better of it and came up with a left hook. The left hook is St-Pierre's most underused weapon which can be frustrating because he's got a lovely one. That was clear as he caught Bisping flush and sent him to the mat, that rear hand forward and ready for GSP's ever present jab. Scrambling to the dazed Brit's back, St-Pierre sunk the rear naked choke for the first time since 2005 and picked up the victory. The man whose last years in the cage were haunted by talk of a lack of killer instinct, and an inability to finish, found himself slowing down and got the job done emphatically.
Of course, this fight was for the belt but no one really considers St-Pierre the best middleweight on the planet yet. The man whom most consider the real champion is Robert Whittaker. Whittaker was clearing out the top end of the middleweight division while Michael Bisping was looking for money fights and was cageside for this contest. The similarities between St-Pierre and Whittaker on their feet—the karateka who learned to jab—is notable, and while St-Pierre excels at getting men down, Whittaker might be the best in the game right now at scrambling back up. Whittaker's last two opponents have had their will broken and run out of gas trying to keep him down. With St-Pierre starting to slow at UFC 217 and a Whittaker vs. St-Pierre bout teased for the future, there are a lot of questions for the new middleweight champ to answer.