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Looming legal battle could mark end of St-Pierre’s career

Georges St. Pierre, of Canada, kicks Johny Hendricks, during a UFC 167 mixed martial arts championship welterweight bout on Saturday, Nov. 16, 2013, in Las Vegas. St. Pierre won by split decision. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
(AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)

Only two things are currently clear in a public dispute between the UFC and Georges St-Pierre: the former champion wants out, and the company is refusing to let him go.

The rest falls in a troubling pool of grey matter, refusing to separate itself into a preferable visual of black and white. Unfortunately for St-Pierre, should he choose to stick to his guns and consider himself a free agent in mixed martial arts, that separation will take far longer than he’s capable of waiting.

Still enjoying the fruits of a three-year absence from the Octagon, St-Pierre is now 35 years old. Returning from an extended absence at such an age has the prospects of becoming a cautionary tale for future fighters, even for one as historically successful as St-Pierre was during his dominant run atop the 170-pound division.

The situation becomes even worse if, as will likely be the case provided that neither party backs off, either side feels the need to bring the contract dispute to court.

As it stands, St-Pierre has declared himself a free agent in MMA. Having attempted to come to some sort of agreement that would allow him to step into the Octagon in 2016, the UFC failed to secure the Canadian superstar a date for his return. GSP says his lawyer issued a “legal” deadline that stated the UFC had a certain amount of days to find him a suitable deal and matchup for a comeback. Now that said date has passed, the Tristar Gym standout says he’s no longer bound by the language of a since-voided contract.

That’s not the case, however, if you ask the UFC.

“Georges St-Pierre remains under existing agreement with Zuffa, LLC as his MMA promoter,” the UFC wrote in a statement hours after St-Pierre’s groundbreaking revelation. “Zuffa intends to honor its agreement with St-Pierre and reserves its right under the law to have St-Pierre do the same.”

After spending nearly a third of his life competing inside the UFC’s Octagon, St-Pierre may very well be spending the next couple of years fighting for his right to compete outside of it.

“I’ve done a lot of work in sports. When I read that contract, I was blown away by how restrictive it is,” his lawyer James Quinn told MMA Fighting.

“They’re basically tying him up for life. They have no rights and they own all of his licensing and all the other things. It’s unheard of in the other professional sports. And they won’t get away with it forever.”

Surely St-Pierre still has the opportunity to negotiate a new contract with the UFC, though it’ll be a new version of the UFC under the WME-IMG regime in 2016 and beyond. Considering what ongoing, seemingly eternal concerns between his personal sponsor Under Armour and the UFC’s exclusive outfitter Reebok, it’s also hard to imagine a resolution anytime relatively soon. St-Pierre could likely sign a deal tomorrow if he truly wanted to, though it would likely come at the expense of an incredibly lucrative deal with his personal sponsors. That deal, in essence, would need to be matched by Reebok; but there’s little to indicate the UFC’s apparel partner has as great of an interest in the Canadian superstar. Handing St-Pierre a sponsorship deal comparable to the one he shares with Under Armour would likely result in similar contractual demands from Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Paige VanZant and the remaining stars of the UFC.

Then there’s the off chance that GSP, as he currently claims to desire, is released from his contract with Zuffa. Considering the company’s already declared St-Pierre to still be under contract, there’s little reason to believe it’ll have a change of heart anytime soon.

Sure, the UFC’s been in similar situations before. Chael Sonnen, Wanderlei Silva, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Shane Carwin all received their desired releases from the UFC and were free to take their talents elsewhere.

The difference? St-Pierre still has a world of value — especially for a company like Bellator MMA, World Series of Fighting, ONE Championship or RIZIN FF.

St-Pierre is a proven commodity to the UFC and its continual desire to become a mainstream sport across the globe. Letting him go ensures growth for its currently struggling competitors.

While it would go down as one of the uglier, most publicized legal battles between athlete and company, it’s easy to see why both sides would be wise to stick to their guns here. An unfortunate situation derived from a company’s desire to adopt a more uniform look to its product, there’s no guarantee — especially given the current climate in pro sports contracts — that St-Pierre comes out on top when all is said and done.

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