One sentence summary
David: GSP returns for a grudge match five years in the making against a middleweight who was styling on Josh Haynes when GSP was WW champ.
Phil: The long-awaited superfight between GSP and the middleweight champion, as the Canadian superstar steps up to test himself against Anders... wait, what now?
Record: Georges St-Pierre 25-2 Michael Bisping 30-7
Odds: Georges St-Pierre -110 Michael Bisping -110
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Whatever wormhole the MMA universe traveled through has found this world suitable for GSP vs. Bisping in a fight for the 185lb title. <record scratch> I liked the other universe where GSP fought Anderson Silva, but you take what you can get I guess. GSP was one of the original gangsters of well rounded effectiveness. His rematch with Matt Hughes was a brilliant display of what would follow. Other than the unfortunate, and bizarre loss to Matt Serra that stalled welterweight for a whole year (itself stalled by the fourth season of TUF), GSP became an icon in the sport, and one of its absolute best ever. My fear is that his career will be bookended with another strange fight against an opponent we never asked for, or even wanted. At least this time, it’s well earned (no, don’t haggle me over the details of what this implies). Sort of.
Phil: In terms of quality opposition, I think GSP's record still stands unparalleled. Jones is close, as is Anderson, but the sheer terribleness of light heavyweight and middleweight in comparison to 170 keeps St-Pierre just a touch ahead. A focus on risk mitigation, on forcing himself to absolutely neutralize his opponents everywhere eventually took its toll on his mind, as the knee surgeries, back-to-back-to-back camps and increasingly physical, dangerous challengers wore on his body. I always felt like he retired at exactly the right time after that fight against Hendricks. Sure, perhaps he didn't deserve to win it (it is at least debatable, and hinged on the razor-close first round), but he stormed out to take the fifth, and I think that would have been a good way to remember GSP. Fighting 'till the end.
David: I’m sorry. It’s hard for me to keep track of all the venom and grief that comes from Bisping’s mouth. As I’ve said, I’ve always enjoyed Bisping’s rancor, in a way. He’s like a villain you sympathize with because he knows no other way. Fighting an opponent? Get violent. Put a camera on my face by a dude harmlessly doing his job to highlight UFC celebrities in the crowd? Bofa deez nuts! Teenager taking over the squat rack where Bisping’s invisible name is etched? F--k you kid! I don’t want to live in an indignant world, of course. But it’s nice to have the option of being indignant as long as no one gets choked.
Phil: Bisping is a relatively happy man who is driven by grievances. He's someone who can masticate on the feeling of being hard-done-by, with the enjoyment that another man might have for a piece of beef jerky or chewing tobacco. I think it's that pleasure in resentment which has allowed him to have such a long career, which has kept him coming back to fight long after most other people would have given up. For this fight, at least, it appears that his sour grapes will be coming from the fact that he's seen as an easy mark. However, as someone who's long chased both money fights and a belt, it represents something of a career pinnacle for him: a winnable, aging, smaller legend. As an aside: did you realize that Bisping has been champion for 16 months? I'm pretty sure he's technically held the belt for longer than Rich Franklin did!
What’s at stake?
David: I don’t know. Like the events leading up to this fight, the mere existence draws out mind bending physics and time travel musings from me. If I don’t know how we got here, what the hell am I to say about where we’re headed?
Phil: Weird shit. Bisping has said he's going to challenge for Whittaker's belt if he wins, so I guess he counts as the normalcy option. If GSP wins, I have no idea. Does his new slightly, um, barrel-chested frame easily go back down to welterweight? How on earth would he fare against modern elite middleweights?
Where do they want it?
David: It’s weird talking about GSP’s game almost five years later. Will his game look like the relic it already appeared to be in the Johny Hendricks fight. Or did it start with Jake Shields? I take that back - nobody ever looks good against Shields. Anyway, at his best, GSP is a calculated, patient pressure fighter. He probes with a long jab, and feints his way through the gap to execute what was once one of the most feared takedown games in the sport. Inside leg kicks, and “spinning shit” at range form the core of his mostly outside, mid-range attack. On the ground, he works diligently from top control to rack up damage, and look good in the eyes of the judges. He’s the most athletic blue collar fighter ever.
I don’t want to make GSP’s style seem unscientific. He’s one of the first fighters to commit to a real system; using jabs, superman punches, and strike selection to mask his punch entries by keeping the movement for each overlapped (his hand and leg positioning, eerily similar when executing different moves, are crucial to his effectiveness) as part of coherent method towards control he never wavered from.
I’ll be interested in seeing how he’s changed. His last several fights weren’t significant departures from his general style, although there were definitely subtle wrinkles displayed in his offense. Perhaps one of GSP’s strengths comes from a sort of MMA privilege. Throughout the years, GSP has martialed in the minds and bodies of specialists in their fields: Lucian Bute for boxing, the Canadian Olympic wrestling team, etc. St-Pierre has never acquired new talents as a result. His boxing was never really great, and his wrestling - while great - never changed much, and there were always times when he couldn’t use one or the other. But what I think it did was allow him to acquire the senses, and approach to think at the level of specialist without having the skills of one. Like getting certified, or licensed, but without teaching or becoming a doctor, his mind for the game is first rate. That’s not even all that figurative. This is a fighter who publicly admitted to seeing a sports psychologist. I don’t know how popular that is with athletes, but I feel like these latent variables help explain what made (makes?) him great.
Phil: GSP was always ahead of the metagame, so it'll be interesting to see how his style has evolved in the time away. I do think that while he was visibly physically deteriorated in his last couple of fights, we actually saw some technical evolution from him. He struck from closer range, punched in combination better, he put more pop behind his right hand, and he mixed in his kicks more. That guillotine he landed on Hendricks was the best submission attempt he had for years.
That said, GSP also had a game where all the pieces had to be really functioning in order for it to be dominant, not because he was a bad striker, but because like many specialist fighters, he struggled to turn his well-roundedness off. I maintain to this day that if he'd just kickboxed with Hendricks for five rounds he would have beaten him relatively soundly, but instead he kept going for takedowns into counter knees and uppercuts, and getting muscled in the clinch.
GSP was also always able to capitalize on his frame at welterweight: while he was pretty short for a modern 170lb fighter, he had freakishly long arms for his build, which allowed him to spear people from a distance. He's very short for a middleweight, and his reach for the division is below average.
David: For as bizarre as GSP’s return seems (again, in the context of MW gold), Bisping’s rise in the ranks is just as strange. He knocked out Luke Rockhold and followed it up with a win over almost-50-year-old Dan Henderson. As a result, I almost feel like we’re in the same alternate vacuum of analysis - where absence has made it difficult to judge GSP, presence has made it difficult to judge Bisping. He’s obviously a better fighter now than when he didn’t know which way left was when circling, but to what degree? I don’t think that’s been answered, to be honest.
Still, Bisping is a unique scrapper with a brilliant resting heart rate. He strikes with the fevered anxiety of Meryl Streep filming an Undisputed sequel. In a way, it suits him well. That panicked approach allows him to keep his pulse on the fight or flitch switch, and his piss and vinegar attitude keeps the punch march moving bitterly forward. He’s not a power puncher, but he pierces as much with force as he does with irritated frenzy.
Phil: Bisping's technical evolution has been impressive. His footwork, feints and defensive instincts have all been improved massively under Jason Parillo, and you can see a visible change in how he strikes and moves nowadays. As per Jack Slack's video breakdown, you can see how Bisping has changed from a simple volume-punching banger into a much more classic fencer. I feel that his workrate and cardio have declined from their once-amazing peak, but he's learned to torque his left hook a lot more effectively, and is a more dangerous offensive threat.
The weird thing is that despite obvious and massive technical improvements, Bisping is still so vulnerable. Anderson and Henderson both hurt him badly, and it still seems that no matter how much he gets better, there'll always be that one moment where he takes his eye off the ball.
Insight from past fights
David: There’s no real proxy for Bisping vs. GSP, which is either a blindspot on my part, or something else. To me, the closest we get is IMO, Thiago Alves. Alves - at least in his prime - worked behind a jab, loose combinations, and inside leg kicks similar to Bisping. Alves was obviously faster at doing these things, but Bisping is bigger. Against Alves, GSP largely won the standup war despite the predetermined “keys to victory”. Like everything else in his career, I can see GSP doing the same thing - working behind the jab to establish his presence first, and keep the system moving second. How Bisping responds to that is the x-factor. When was the last time Bisping fought someone with a dedicated jab? The other component is how successful GSP will be getting the fight to the ground. Bisping’s takedown defense isn’t impenetrable, but he’s dogged in the clinch. Even Chael Sonnen struggled to control him.
Phil: The thing I always come back to with Bisping is how he so rarely cleanly dominates anyone. He's got a bit of that Travis Browne syndrome (but not as bad), where it seems like he always seems to get hit by his opponent's best offense, no matter whether they're Anderson Silva or Mayhem Miller. Despite his improvements in feinting and disguising his attack, and despite being one of the most hilariously dirty fighters on roster, there's always been something weirdly honest about his fighting style. He just comes forward, throws volume, and expects it to overwhelm his opponent. Old and worn fighters have been able to game his rather predictable rhythm into landing massive offense, as in Bisping-Henderson II, and his fights with Anderson and Wanderlei.
David: For a split second, GSP’s beer belly was a “potential issue”, but obviously that was nonsense. Is Bisping worried about that lawsuit, or is he comforted by Dana White weighing in on weight-gate in his usually articulate manner?
Phil: Bisping's 38 and is coming off surgery. GSP hasn't fought for four years and has never taken a bout at this weight class. It's just another one of those fights which is so full of X-factors that there's no actual solid ground from which to call out any one factor.
David: As silly as this matchup looks, there’s nothing silly about the contrast of styles. Both guys are technical fighters, and there’s a unique conflict at work when you look at their striking. Personally, I think GSP’s jab is gonna be the difference. What he lacks in mass, he’ll make up for in speed. Being able to close the distance will be more important than whether Bisping can land since he doesn’t hit as hard as his KO of Rockhold would indicate - nor will GSP ever be in such a vulnerable position. I picked Bisping against Rockhold. But not this time. Georges St-Pierre by Decision.
Phil: I have no idea how GSP will look; whether this is a last payday for a declining fighter, or the return of the GOAT. That said, historically he's infinitely more consistent, far more able to stick to a gameplan to shut out an opponent, and knits together strategy and tactics in a way which the Brit never could. GSP might be physically declined, but Bisping struggled mightily with the 46 year old shell of Dan Henderson, and scraped by a porky Anderson. He just hasn't shown the ability to leverage consistent physical advantages, and if he doesn't do that then GSP is simply a better fighter. Wouldn't surprise me one bit to see a faded GSP get bullied and dismantled down the stretch, but Georges St-Pierre by unanimous decision.