Did UFC 217 Just Redeem the Soul of MMA?

Ever so often, they seem to come along. Just when the malaise of endless UFC events seems unrelenting, when the despondency from no-stop Conor McGregor copycats seems like the inherent burden of mixed martial arts fandom, one special night of fights makes it all worth it.

UFC 217 in New York City was the type of event that reignites a stagnant sport.

In a sport with natural ebbs and flows, 2017 wasn’t a banner year for mixed martial arts. The turmoil from the sale of combat sports’ biggest promotion spilled over into the quality of the UFC events. Promotion had become monotonous, sometimes obviously forced. It didn’t help that the sport’s biggest star Conor McGregor decided to become a boxer. Suddenly, at a time where MMA’s flagship organization was struggling to make itself seem special, all the excitement had turned to boxing.

Adding to the struggles of getting attention, the UFC had failed to deliver in the biggest moments of 2017. The Brooklyn card at the Barclays to start the year was a critical and commercial failure. The most damning part of the event’s failure was that it seemed cause by matchmaking negligence. Their normally exceptional booking was completing absent for UFC 208,and a card that lacked substance or star power, was shockingly poorly received. And this seemed to start a theme of lackluster events where fans began to question the new UFC’s ability to deliver great events.

Tyron Woodley put on a pair of title fights that are sure to be forgotten in a year’s time. International Fight Week in Las Vegas lacked a truly marquee matchup. And the best fight of 2017, the clash of titans between the two best pound for pound fighters in the world was marred by a drug test failure. The triumphant return and redemption of the greatest talent in MMA history was ruined by a piss test. It was clear the world’s leading provider of unarmed violence was in some rough waters.

But UFC 217 righted the UFC’s ship. It’s a rare fight card that has the power to turn around the whole outlook on a sport. But this one did.

Somehow three title fights in the most world most famous arena felt like it was flying under the radar. Somehow the return of the greatest Welterweight in the history of the sports was being dismissed (who cares if he was returning at 185). Somehow the card felt like an underdog. And it was a good night for underdogs.

The amazing part of fighting is its revelatory nature. Great moments in fighting are surprising, thrilling, shocking. We learn something in the process of a great fight. We watch someone “rise to the occasion”, and suddenly a fighter who was a known quantity becomes amazing again. They have the capability to become someone new and inspiring as we watch. In very special fights, it’s not just new levels of fighting proficiency they are displaying. In great fights, we watch a fighter discover who they truly are, not just what they are capable of. Rose Namajunas showed just how powerful of a story that can be.

In a fight where she was expected to be outclassed, she completely shocked the world, exhibiting power, speed, and striking prowess we hadn’t seen from her. More than that, she reveled herself in the post-fight interview with the type of honesty that seems forgotten in today’s MMA. Rose reminded everyone that authentic truth is the heart of combat. And while bullshit can certainly sell a fight, it can absolutely not win one. MMA has a way of exposing even the most undaunted fighters; in this sport there is no unbeatable Superman. Everyone is human in a cage fight.

Maybe no Hall of Fame fighter in UFC history personifies that vulnerability and humanity of fighting more than George St-Pierre.

A consummate gentleman of the sport, a man who is synonymous with humility and respect. A champion who dominated the sport for over a half decade. But he is also a fighter we have seen fall, and fall badly. He lost two high profile title fights. He’s been battered and beaten in even his biggest victories. GSP always wore the struggles of being a champion in his post-fight cuts and scars. He showed that even the greatest get beaten, but they rise again. This was his story of rising again.

At UFC 217, GSP revealed to us that some greatness fades away. That while most talent burns off hot and fast, some talent endures. In the brutal world of MMA, where stars tend to flame out like Jimi Hendrix, George St-Pierre is Bob Dylan. His talent seem relevant era after era. Just when he’s become forgotten, he takes back the stage to remind everyone just how special he is.

Consider the fact that GSP’s last loss was over ten years ago, a time when the UFC still named PPVs. Consider the fact that St-Pierre hasn’t fought for nearly four years, and he still style seamlessly fought at an elite level. Consider the fact that he did this all against the biggest opponent he has ever fought. This might be one of the greatest accomplishments in MMA history, the crownign achievement of an already Hall of Fame career.

What might be most enduring and endearing part of St-Pierre’s career is that he did it all, not as some Herculean bulldozer, unfazed and undamaged by his opponents, but through blood and cuts, head kicks, and battered faces. GSP didn’t build his reputation off crushing guys and looking pretty while doing it. We might remember it that way, but his career was always full of struggles overcome. UFC 217 was just a fantastic return to form for the Canadian GOAT. It reminded us of how compelling that brand of greatness can be.

George St-Pierre epitomizes composure in a sport that absolutely demands it. And maybe sometimes, that can be as more entertaining than a brash superstar.

UFC 217 reminded us just how great the sport can be, because it didn’t just give us what we demand from an MMA event. It gave us more. In a sport where we have come to expect confidence, brashness, and vulgarity, UFC 217 gave us humility, respect, and self-reflection. And that, the surprisingly redeeming nature of human combat, is what made this card so great.

Published on November 5, 2017 at 11:24 am
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