Canadian mixed martial arts fans are all elated at the recent news that Georges St-Pierre will be returning to the Octagon later this year. The news has injected some much-needed life into Canadian fans and fills a very big void that was created in the market when he originally left in November of 2013.
Since the beginning of the Ultimate Fighting Championships’ popularity in and around 2002, Canada had the luxury of a big star at the top of the game and that star was GSP. The popularity and dominance of the welterweight fighter created a palpable buzz inside the country that carried everything UFC in Canada between 2002 to 2013. No matter what show was running that weekend, no matter where it was or who was headlining, we had a player at the highest level of the game.
When GSP turned the lights out on his show, many wondered what it would do to the interest in the UFC inside the country of Canada. Much like Conor McGregor today and his booming effect on mixed martial arts in Ireland, having the man at the top of the game can carry interest to crazy new levels. What happens in those countries when they are no longer represented at the top? This is a question that Canada has never had to answer with GSP perched on the UFC throne.
I personally thought we would be fine as we had new, up and comers that would take the mantle and continue to carry the load for MMA north of the border. No one can replace Georges St-Pierre and the impact he had on the buzz and interest of the UFC week in and week out in this country, but I thought he had left us in good hands.
When GSP last fought at UFC 167 on November 16, 2013, the next big Canadian mixed martial arts star, Rory MacDonald was also on the main card portion of the pay-per-view event. MacDonald was pegged as the next big star and he was in the final stages of his climb from hot new prospect to legitimate title contender with an epic fight and narrow loss to fellow contender Robbie Lawler. Yes, St-Pierre was at or nearing the end but Canada had MacDonald as it’s new high stakes player, at the highest levels of the game. Rory did not disappoint in carrying the torch as in the next year, he would complete his climb to a title fight by being on the main card at UFC 170, the co-main event at UFC 174 and then the headline fighter at UFC Fight Night Halifax on October 3rd, 2014.
At UFC Fight Night Halifax the main card was also lined with the next wave of Canadian stars as recent TUF winners, middleweight Elias Theodorou and lightweight Chad Laprise got key wins for their budding careers. The future of Canadian MMA stars seemed seamless and bright. We had Nordin Taleb and Mitch Gagnon on the rise and Olivier Aubin -Mercier (The Next GSP) and Jason Saggo showing bright futures ahead. MacDonald would go on to get that long earned title fight as a headliner at UFC 189, where he again lost to Robbie Lawler in a gruelling 5-round war that took a heavy toll on the Canadian star. The fight left him out of action for a full year.
It was here on July 11th, 2015 after UFC 189, that a huge void was left in the UFC for long spoiled Canadian fans.
Since the MacDonald-Lawler rematch title fight, there has been a large lull and void of Canadians in main card fights and the success of Canadian fighters in general.
Since UFC 189, 66 total UFC events and 19 pay-per-view, numbered events have taken place. Those events presented nearly 1000 fights in a span of a year and a half with over 400 on the main card. Out of all those events and fights, Canadians have only been involved in 15 main card fights and have not been overly successful in taking advantage of those main card slots. In those 15 fights, Canadians have a record of 5 wins and 10 losses with very few highlights to remember and speak of.
GSP has been gone for over three years and in that time no Canadian fighter has really stepped up to take the mantle that he left behind. MacDonald carried it for the next year after GSP left to his title fight at UFC 189 and then had to break for all of 2015 to heal from injuries sustained in that second Lawler war. He came back in late 2016 for one more main-card, contender fight in Ottawa but was defeated by Stephen Thompson and left the UFC as a free agent right after. MacDonald is now signed with Bellator.
Long story short, for the very first time in a long time, Canada has very few fighters ranked in the Top 10 or Top 15 of any division in the UFC. Not only that, in an age of star power and personality, Canucks have never been further from the heat and consciousness of mainstream MMA fans. Don’t get me wrong, and I mean no disrespect, we still have some excellent fighters competing, and sometimes winning in the UFC. Fighters like Elias Theodorou, Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Chad Laprise, Steve Bosse, Randa Markos, Jason Saggo and light heavyweight newcomer Misha Cirkunov all have solid and recent wins in the UFC, but none of them are ranked in the Top 10 or 15.
Cirkunov has made some recent noise and Theodorou’s record, character and personality away from the cage has gained him somewhat of a following but neither can be considered young in their respective careers.
The Canadian fighters need to string together some main card wins to vault themselves back into the consciousness of fans not only around the world but right inside their very own borders. The hard core fans know and love them, but the new, mainstream fan is probably not that invested. GSP has been gone for three years plus and the recent news of his return has made the biggest buzz in this country since MacDonald got his face busted in almost two years ago.
Canadian fans have been spoiled with always having fighters closest to the UFC fire. We had Mark Hominick in the featherweight thick of things. We had Sam Stout, Mark Bocek and T.J. Grant taking on top contenders at lightweight. Patrick Cote, Nick Ring and Ryan Jimmo provided key fights in the heavier divisions. The classy Sarah Kaufmann was fighting the best women in the world. There are very few fights like these involving Canadian fighters these days.
In the absence of top Canadian fighters in big fights for fans north of the border, Georges St-Pierre has returned to definitely fill a large excitement void. My question is;
Can he win?
Dwight Wakabayashi is a freelance journalist who has covered mixed martial arts and the UFC for various outlets for 12+ years. Outlets include: Bleacher Report, Sportsnet, MMACanada and CKSN.
Feature Photo courtesy of Graham Hughes/CP