More than a few people balked at UFC President Dana White’s announcement so many months ago that Georges St-Pierre would defend his UFC welterweight championship against Nick Diaz at UFC 158. Diaz, after all, was coming off a loss to Carlos Condit in his previous fight and a subsequent year-long suspension after testing positive for marijuana metabolites. Despite the fight’s somewhat controversial booking, however, the UFC was banking on the rivalry between its participants to pay dividends.

GSP ended up defeating Diaz by decision, but not before the two traded verbal barbs on pre-fight media calls and press conferences. Diaz was adamant as ever that he would be the fighter to hand St-Pierre his first loss since 2007, while St-Pierre played his usual role of crowd favorite (a factor magnified significantly by the fact that UFC 158 took place in GSP’s longtime home of Montreal). This pre-fight hyping—no doubt assisted by the UFC’s prodigious promotional efforts—led to GSP/Diaz achieving upwards of 800,000 pay-per-view buys, according to preliminary estimates.

St-Pierre is already one of the UFC’s main draws and can generally be counted on to bring in several hundred thousand fans due to his presence alone. His second fight with B.J. Penn drew 920,000 viewers, though much of the appeal there lied in the fact that it was the first “superfight” of the modern MMA era (with Penn, the in-his-prime UFC lightweight champion, jumping to 170 in an attempt to be the UFC’s first champion to simultaneously hold belts in multiple divisions). Aside from that fight, though, the rest of GSP’s best-selling fights as the primary attraction have all been ones with a distinct sense of rivalry between St-Pierre and his opponent.

GSP fought Jon Fitch when Fitch looked basically unstoppable. He fought Carlos Condit after Condit went 5-0 against five of the UFC’s best welterweights. It might surprise you, therefore, to learn that neither of those two fights attracted as many viewers as his rematch with Josh Koscheck (785,000) or his title fight against Dan Hardy (770,000).

Like Diaz, Hardy made a point to show no fear in the run-up to his fight with St-Pierre. He was critical of GSP and dismissive of his success in the pre-fight programming, and let it be known that St-Pierre’s past accomplishments would not help once Hardy’s dynamite fists touched GSP’s chin. Few others doubted St-Pierre’s chances against Hardy, and they were proven right when GSP walked away still holding his belt after 25 minutes in the Octagon. But Hardy’s ability to generate a legitimate rivalry with the welterweight champion sparked a curiosity among fight fans that no doubt led to the sizable buy rate. The same could be said of GSP’s second fight with Josh Koscheck, which drew a similar number of buys thanks, no doubt, to Koscheck’s reviled status in some areas of the MMA world and willingness to talk abundant trash to the champion. The fact that both fighters got to flesh out their rivalry during a season as opposing coaches on The Ultimate Fighter must have helped increase the interest in their rematch.

This is certainly not to say that St-Pierre’s fights against more friendly opposition do not perform well. His fight with Jake Shields is actually second on the list of his top fights as the main draw, achieving about 800,000 buys, and 700,000 people tuned in to see his successful defense against Condit, but the UFC has seen the positive box-office results when it books bouts between GSP and fighters who are able to create a buzz with their personalities as well as their in-cage performance. Given the projected numbers for UFC 158, then, the St-Pierre/Diaz match-up makes a little more sense.

What remains to be seen now is whether St-Pierre’s next fight—against the 15-1 Johny Hendricks—will achieve the same sorts of high pay-per-view figures generated by his bout with Diaz. This is the fight that makes the most sense from a statistical standpoint, with Hendricks currently in the midst of a six-fight winning streak that includes wins over former title challengers Condit, Fitch and Koscheck and a highlight-reel knockout of Martin Kampmann, another top-10 welterweight. As a two-time NCAA Division I national champion, Hendricks possesses perhaps the best wrestling St-Pierre has ever faced, not to mention a hellacious left hand that has contributed to his eight wins by knockout or TKO. Hendricks is, in other words, the perfect fighter to take on St-Pierre from a technical standpoint.

The reason he likely had to wait just a little longer to earn his title shot, though, is because Hendricks’ personality is nowhere near as attention-grabbing as that of Nick Diaz. Hendricks is, by all accounts, an affable guy who loves his job, but he’s not really someone the UFC would look to if it wanted a media-friendly sound bite about St-Pierre that it can use to build a rivalry between the two fighters. He’s a guy who trains very hard and expects to be successful in the cage, but he’s not going to engage the champion in the sort of verbal back-and-forth fans heard between Diaz and GSP. He’s unquestionably the guy who deserves the next welterweight title shot, but he’s not someone whose relationship with St-Pierre will add to the excitement of their eventual fight.

The bout between St-Pierre and Hendricks will probably still draw decent numbers because, again, GSP remains a significant attraction regardless of who he’s fighting, but there was something special about the lead-up to UFC 158 that gave St-Pierre’s fight against Diaz a little extra electricity. People throughout the MMA world sensed this, which is why the event is looking to be one of the UFC’s most successful.

The threat that Hendricks presents to GSP in the cage makes that fight easy to sell, and it could very well end up meeting or even surpassing UFC 158’s numbers due to Hendricks’ demonstrated skills and success in the cage. That indefinable element that made St-Pierre/Diaz seem like such an exciting match-up in the weeks leading up to UFC 158 doesn’t seem to be there for St-Pierre/Hendricks, though. The fight is still extremely intriguing, but the pay-per-view numbers will probably show that a GSP bout against a bitter rival like Diaz will garner more viewers that one against an extremely talented fighter who’s just there to do his job.

Ed. Note: A previous version of this editorial contained incorrect figures. Those figures have been changed. All pay-per-view figures courtesy of Blue Book.

Photo: Johny Hendricks (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.