When Georges St-Pierre announced that he would be stepping away from MMA back in 2013, Dana White appeared livid. The UFC President was quick to needle GSP over his choice of words, with the longtime welterweight king claiming that he needed to hang up his gloves “for a little bit,” after a highly contested win over future champion Johny Hendricks.
“He didn’t say he was going to retire,” White said at the time. “He said I’m going to take some time off. You don’t just say, ‘Hey I’m going to take some time off, maybe I’ll be back, maybe I won’t.’ You owe it to the fans, you owe it to that belt, you owe it to this company, and you owe it to Johny Hendricks to give him that opportunity to fight again, unless you’re going to retire.”
“There’s no, ‘Hey listen, I’m going to go on a cruise and I’m going to be gone for two years. I’m going to take a hiatus. I’m going to take a leave of absence. Whatever the hell it was he was saying, that’s not how it works.”
Soon afterward, however, St-Pierre vacated the belt. He wouldn’t return to MMA for another 4-years—defeating then middleweight champion Michael Bisping to further cement his legacy as one of the all time legends of the sport.
That decision, to walk away still in his prime, as an elite competitor, has given GSP a unique insight into lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov’s own decision to leave MMA behind—and just why White is pursuing the ‘Eagle’’s return to the Octagon so doggedly. From St-Pierre’s perspective, the UFC just isn’t satisfied to see great fighters leave on their own terms. They place too high a value on continuity and always having a guy that beat the guy.
“For that reason I believe they want to keep Khabib in because they feel like Khabib is undefeated,” St-Pierre explained in a recent interview with ESPN (transcript via MMA Fighting), comparing the way boxing promotes its fighters first and belts/promotions second in contrast to the UFC’s drive to always lead with their brand. “He has probably the most dominant career ever. I don’t even know if he lost a round—He might have lost a round but he dominate all his opponents.
“They don’t want him to leave on his terms, they want a guy to beat him, then after they gonna be like, ‘Okay, now you can leave.’ But Khabib is smart, I think he’s very smart, he left on top, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
To GSP’s way of thinking, “the promotion should be more centered on the athlete than the promotion...” but the UFC’s desire to have their belt represent the best fighter in the world, pushes them to want their star champions to keep competing until they’re no longer on top.
Whether that’s the case for Khabib, however, it certainly doesn’t seem to have been a driving factor when Henry Cejudo walked away. But, then again, much like GSP, the Dagestani lightweight king has been a major PPV seller for the promotion. And that, more than anything, seems likely why White & Co. were loath to see them go.