BY DAN GELSTON
NEW YORK (AP) — Georges St. Pierre peered through the blood that washed over his face and locked on a choke hold, a packed house at Madison Square Garden absolutely roaring for “G-S-P!”
St. Pierre tightened his grip until Michael Bisping had no more fight left. Four years after he walked away from UFC for a mental breather, St. Pierre walked out of MSG a champion — a breathtaking reminder that the Canadian is still one of the best ever inside the octagon.
And he proved it in the main event in one of UFC’s all-time great cards.
St. Pierre ended UFC 217 by reasserting himself as a top star in the sport, turning his middleweight championship bout against Bisping into a mismatch Saturday night. The 36-year-old fought like he had only four months off, not four years.
“I don’t have words in my mouth right now,” GSP said, wiping blood from his face. He went to a hospital after the fight to get stitches on his nose.
St. Pierre’s 13th straight UFC victory made it 3 for 3 for the championship challengers in front of 18,201 fans in the promotion’s second card at the Garden in 12 months. T.J. Dillashaw won the bantamweight championship for the second time and Rose Namajunas won the strawweight title on the pay-per-view card.
“It’s time for a new era in this sport,” Namajunas said.
UFC, a promotion at a crossroads with its box office superstars Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones on the bench, got a breakthrough outing from Namajunas that stamped her as the face of the women’s division.
But UFC needed a blast from the past to ignite the fanbase as it moves toward 2018.
St. Pierre was one of the UFC’s marquee names and a legit pay-per-view draw during his long reign atop the 170-pound division, but the Canadian star walked away an MMA legend in November 2013. St. Pierre simply said he needed a break.
Against the trash-talking Bisping, St. Pierre had takedowns in each of the first two rounds. But Bisping busted open St. Pierre’s nose, smothering both fighters in blood as they wrestled on the mat before getting up looking like they’d just left the set of a horror film.
St. Pierre (26-2) was red faced when he slapped a rear naked choke at 4:32 of the third to snuff out Bisping and win a belt in his second weight class.
If St. Pierre represents UFC’s glory years, Namajunas could be the PPV poster child for the future.
Namajunas brought the MSG crowd to its feet with a stunning victory over undefeated Joanna Jedrzejczyk to win the 115-pound belt.
Namajunas (17-3) used a devastating left that dropped Jedrzejczyk (14-1) and had the crowd in a frenzy in anticipation of a beatdown. Namajunas pounced on Jedrzejczyk with a series of lefts that ended the fight in the first round and perhaps signaled the arrival of a new star. She wagged her tongue and stretched her arms wide as she soaked in the magnitude of her accomplishment.
Namajunas is billed as “Thug” and brought gasps a few years back when she shaved her long, blonde locks in favor of a close-cropped cut. She choked back tears as UFC President Dana White slapped the championship belt over her shoulder and the fans that had booed her on the way into the cage drowned her out with cheers as she spoke about what the victory meant.
The upset not only ended Jedrzejczyk’s undefeated run, but she failed to tie Ronda Rousey for the UFC women’s record of six straight successful title defenses.
Namajunas said that as champ, she wants to skip the brash trash talk that shot McGregor to mainstream stardom and has been imitated throughout UFC, including by the champions Jedrzejczyk, Bisping and Cody Garbrandt leading into the card on Saturday.
“I’m just kind of sick of it. I’m sick of all the hate,” Namajunas said. “I feel like we have a duty as fighters to try to be a better example.”
White said he doesn’t need his stars to talk, especially when they fight like they did at UFC 217.
“People don’t come to these fights for the talk, they come for the fights,” he said.
Moments after Namajunas won, Dillashaw dropped the undefeated Garbrandt with a right and finished him off in the second round to win the 135-pound championship.
Dillashaw (15-3) stumbled to his stool when he took a shot to the face to end the first. Garbrandt, predicted by many as UFC’s next big star, even taunted Dillashaw to the delight of the crowd.
But Dillashaw stunned Garbrandt (11-1) with a high left kick to the head and then a right hook that corkscrewed Garbrandt’s body and effectively ended the bout.
“I still am the better fighter out there,” Garbrandt said. “I’ll show that in the rematch.”
Dillashaw won the bantamweight title in 2014 and had two successful defenses before he lost the belt to Dominick Cruz in 2016.
Paulo Costa improved to 11-0 with a second-round stoppage over Johny Hendricks and Steven “Wonderboy” Thompson put away Jorge Masvidal by unanimous decision for a much-needed win on the other two bouts on the main card.
UFC needed this kind of night with its three biggest stars on the sideline.
McGregor has not announced any future fights and Rousey spent fight night posting on her social media accounts pictures and video from a video game convention in California. Jones’ career remains in limbo as he faces a potential four-year suspension for his latest doping violation.
McGregor, who claims he wants a stake in UFC as a condition to fight, will likely come to terms and compete again, perhaps to complete the trilogy against Nate Diaz.
But UFC could just about hang a “Help Wanted” sign on the cage door as it looks for a new wave of PPV superstars to emerge.
Namajunas busted down the door.
White said despite several stars not fighting, 2017 is shaping up to be the best year in UFC’s history “by a long shot,” in part buoyed by money the promotion made on the McGregor-Floyd Mayweather boxing match in August.
“It’s money that the company made,” White said, saying that McGregor would have fought two UFC fights had he not boxed. “You can’t take that out.”
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