Three-time welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre will challenge for the middleweight title on his long-awaited return to the UFC, it has been confirmed. "Rush" will go head-to-head with British veteran Michael Bisping, who claimed the 185-pound strap from Luke Rockhold last summer and successfully defended it for the first time in October by earning a slender points victory over rival Dan Henderson.
Formerly the biggest draw in UFC, St-Pierre, now 35, vacated his belt in December 2013 and took a break from the brutal world of mixed martial arts citing the pressures associated with "fighting for a very long time at a high level". The popular Canadian, who has won 25 of his 27 professional MMA contests to date, entered into semi-retirement on the back of a controversial split-decision win over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167.
"He wanted to take a break," UFC president Dana White said while announcing the fight on ESPN's SportsCenter. "He wanted to take some time off from the sport.
"He's been talking about coming back for a couple years. Personally, I wasn't a believer, but he and I got together in Las Vegas, had dinner and got a deal done.
"I'm not a big believer in long layoffs. Even Muhammad Ali, after a long layoff, didn't look the same. But [St-Pierre] is always in shape, he takes care of himself physically, and we'll see what happens."
The UFC have yet to pinpoint an exact date for the lucrative fight, stating only that it will take place in the second half of 2017. White confirmed that Las Vegas was the most likely venue, although St-Pierre must first go through four months of USADA testing before his Octagon return is officially set in stone.
"He's one of our biggest stars," White added. "If you look at the Chuck Liddell era – Anderson Silva, 'GSP.' He was one of the big stars who helped build the sport and helped build the UFC. He never lost his title. He walked away and left the belt. Many people still consider him the 170-pound king – you can't be the man unless you beat the man."
Bisping had been floated as a potential opponent for St-Pierre after his rumoured UFC comeback was finally confirmed following contractual disagreements. It was also speculated that he could face the winner of the upcoming welterweight championship rematch between Tyron Woodley and Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson or even fellow MMA legend Silva.
News of the bout is likely to anger Yoel Romero, who had positioned himself as the number one challenger to Bisping's title reign. Ronaldo Souza and former champion Rockhold are among the other current middleweight contenders.
A press conference involving St-Pierre and Bisping will be held on Friday (3 March) before the UFC 209 weigh-ins.