By Philip O’Connor
(Reuters) – Four years after he walked away from the octagon, fans of Canadian mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre are eagerly anticipating his return on Saturday night in a middleweight title fight against Michael Bisping at UFC 217.
The former welterweight champion walked away in his prime with a 25-2 record, and it is a measure of his popularity that he has been given an immediate title shot in his comeback at Madison Square Garden in New York.
He returns to a sport that has change immeasurably in his absence, but the 36-year-old says he is undaunted.
“I can’t wait for Saturday, there is no other place and moment that I want to be in than where I am right now. I can’t wait,” he told reporters.
Long before the likes of Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Jon Jones catapulted the sport into the mainstream consciousness, St-Pierre laid the groundwork with his broad skill set and a run of successful title defenses.
He is widely considered to be one of the greatest MMA fighters of all time and his return couldn’t have come at a better time for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).
St-Pierre is still a guaranteed pay-per-view draw for the UFC, which has recently struggled to stage big events with Jones suspended for doping and McGregor concentrating on boxing, while it is looking increasingly unlikely that former bantamweight champ Rousey will ever fight again.
Even if viewers do tune in, there is no guarantee of a fairytale return for St-Pierre.
On the other side of the octagon will be brawling Briton Bisping, a journeyman who snatched the title from Luke Rockhold with a stunning first-round knockout in June 2016, and then successfully defended it against Dan Henderson.
The 38-year-old, who holds a 31-7 UFC record and is known for his stamina and never-say-die attitude, says he will make short work of the returning St-Pierre at UFC 217.
“I’ve beaten all the greats, I’m gonna beat this guy. Georges is one of the greats, (but) I’m gonna to wipe him out,” Bisping told a news conference.
Their much-anticipated middleweight match-up is the last of three title fights on Saturday’s UFC 217 card.
Champion Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw will square off for the bantamweight belt and Joanna Jedrzejczyk is set to defend her strawweight crown against Rose Namajunas.
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor; Editing by Christian Radnedge)