Georges St-Pierre – Article
Growing up in working-class Montreal, Canada, Georges St-Pierre was a shy, nerdy kid who preferred playing chess to tangling with bullies. Today, he‚Äôs not just the UFC Welterweight Champion: He‚Äôs the greatest pound-for-pound fighter in the world
Born and raised on Montreal‚Äôs South Shore, UFC six-time defending Welterweight Champion Georges ‚ÄúRush‚ÄĚ St-Pierre is arguably the best pure fighter in the world.
He is MMA‚Äôs most charismatic and globally marketable figure ‚Äď a ‚Äúreal-life Van Damme,‚ÄĚ as former welterweight champ Matt Serra describes him. On a local level, he has almost single-handedly cemented MMA as Canada‚Äôs second sport ‚Äď behind hockey.
‚ÄúWhen GSP is fighting,‚ÄĚ says Karem, the manager of Forum Sports Bar, unofficial HQ of both the city‚Äôs MMA fanboys and the many female admirers of Montreal‚Äôs favourite son, ‚Äúwe open up our second floor. We get 800 people at least, and there are more people outside we can‚Äôt even serve.‚ÄĚ
In Las Vegas, fans wait seven hours in line for his autograph; in New York, celebrity news service TMZ shadows him; in Ibiza he hangs out with Leonardo DiCaprio. ‚ÄúHis initials have become a brand,‚ÄĚ declares the Vancouver Sun newspaper: ‚ÄúIBM. AT&T. GSP.‚ÄĚ And while the point may be debatable ‚Äď the nation has, after all, produced hockey wizard Wayne Gretzky and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash ‚Äď UFC president Dana White refers to St-Pierre as ‚Äúthe most famous athlete ever to come out of Canada‚ÄĚ.
Many MMA experts hold that St-Pierre is the sport‚Äôs all-time greatest pound-for-pound fighter ‚Äď and the ones who disagree say nine-time defending, multiple record-holding UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva is. Mike Chiappetta, MMA analyst at MMAFighting.com, splits the difference: ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre the two most dominant champions the UFC has ever had.‚ÄĚ The possibility of the St-Pierre-Silva superfight has been raised numerous times ‚Äď and with both men fast running out of viable challengers in their respective divisions (more so Silva than St-Pierre), it‚Äôs likely to happen soon. ‚ÄúIt will be the biggest fight in the history of the company,‚ÄĚ declares White, whose league raked in almost $250 million in Pay-Per-View revenues in 2010.
‚ÄúEvery fight I‚Äôm scared to death, man,‚ÄĚ says Georges St-Pierre in his twanging French-Canadian accent. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm afraid to lose, I‚Äôm afraid to get hurt. I don‚Äôt want to get knocked out in front of girls, my family‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ Today, he‚Äôs just finished a light workout at a gym in an industrial section of Montreal, and we‚Äôre driving downtown in his black Range Rover.
At 180cm and 77kgs, St-Pierre doesn‚Äôt have the Hulk-like dimensions of heavyweight monster Brock Lesnar, yet he‚Äôs among the world‚Äôs most elite athletic specimens (his reported 40-inch [101.6cm] vertical leap is higher than NBA superstar Dwyane Wade‚Äôs). ‚ÄúBut I think being afraid is a sign of intelligence,‚ÄĚ he adds, ‚Äúbecause the more knowledge you get in fighting, the more you realise that it‚Äôs so easy to lose.‚ÄĚ
Not that St-Pierre has much experience with losing, or even getting hit: In 24 fights (with just two losses), he has eluded approximately three-quarters of his opponents‚Äô ‚Äúsignificant strikes‚ÄĚ ‚Äď the fourth-best figure in UFC history. At age 30 he already ranks number one all-time in takedowns landed, takedown accuracy, and significant strikes landed.
‚ÄúGeorges St-Pierre is the blueprint for the perfect martial artist,‚ÄĚ says Chiappetta. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs the evolutionary link from the early part of MMA, when everybody was about one discipline ‚Äď boxing or wrestling or whatever ‚Äď to now. He is the first perfectly rounded fighter in modern times: Ground game, stand-up, wrestling, transitions.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs a lot of fighters,‚ÄĚ St-Pierre declares, ‚Äúbut only a few true mixed martial artists. To win a fight ‚Äď that‚Äôs not the goal of a mixed martial artist. A mixed martial artist dedicates his life to perfection. I‚Äôm a mixed martial artist.‚ÄĚ
What he‚Äôs saying, I think, is that fighting at its most strategically refined can detach itself from violence ‚Äď a surprising thing for Georges St-Pierre to conclude, as his upbringing was steeped in both.
He grew up in Saint-Isidore, a small farming community ‚Äď population: 2500. To hear him tell it, at any given time most of the town‚Äôs 2499 other residents were trying to kick his arse, and not just because he was in the school chess club. ‚ÄúWhen I was young I was very ugly,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúI had pimples. I was a nerd. The girls were not attracted to me. I didn‚Äôt have a lot of friends. But I was very good in sports, and the cool guys in school didn‚Äôt like to be beaten by a guy like me.‚ÄĚ
He displays a half-moon-shaped scar on his head. It‚Äôs not from the Octagon ‚Äď it‚Äôs from primary school. One day in the cafeteria, five older kids demanded his lunch money. ‚ÄúI grabbed my metal tray and swung it at the guy‚Äôs temple as hard as I could. Boom!‚ÄĚ he laughs. ‚ÄúI start running, and they follow me, but I ran very fast.‚ÄĚ Discovering him in an empty classroom, the bullies smashed his head into a desk and left him lying there. He washed himself up and returned to the cafeteria. Kids began shrieking. ‚ÄúI knew I was bleeding,‚ÄĚ he says, ‚Äúbut I didn‚Äôt know how bad it was.‚ÄĚ
The cycle of bullying would be repeated nearly annually because St-Pierre switched schools so often. ‚ÄúYou are always the new guy, and with not a lot of friends. When I was young I was mad, but now I understand it‚Äôs not everybody‚Äôs nature to fight.‚ÄĚ
Was life any more peaceful at home? St-Pierre grimaces; it‚Äôs a sore point. ‚ÄúI can‚Äôt really talk about it right now, because it‚Äôs still not over. My dad was drinking; he was violent. My sister also has a lot of problems. I had to take care of her.‚ÄĚ
He began studying karate at age seven, and from an early time displayed an almost disconcerting level of determination. One spring and summer he decided he would walk around exclusively on his hands. ‚ÄúAt school I had very big problems,‚ÄĚ GSP explains. ‚ÄúI needed to do sports to take this energy out.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs after 2pm, and Cavalli, a sprawling, Vegas-like restaurant in downtown Montreal, is almost empty ‚Äď optimal conditions for St-Pierre, who once compared being mobbed by fans in Montreal to ‚Äúthat movie Dawn of the Dead with the zombies‚ÄĚ. The ma√ģtre d‚Äô greets him effusively, and food begins issuing from the kitchen, unbidden, as St-Pierre begins talking about his earliest encounters with mixed martial arts.
In 1993, the kid who‚Äôd been bullied rented a videotape of the very first UFC tournament, and when an MMA event came to a nearby Mohawk [American Indian] reservation a few years later, St-Pierre sneaked out to see it. ‚ÄúIt was mostly guys drinking beer,‚ÄĚ he recalls. ‚ÄúMMA had a really underground image. It was considered a barbarian sport. Christophe Midoux, a guy from France who lived in Montreal, knocked his opponent out in, like, nine seconds. He became my idol.‚ÄĚ
After high school St-Pierre applied to become a firefighter, worked in floor re-covering, and even tried out for the Cirque du Soleil. He eventually went to college, paying his tuition by working as a garbage collector and a bouncer. When he was 17 he was attacked by a pissed-off patron he‚Äôd booted from a nightclub.
‚ÄúFrom the ground he sliced my calf with a knife. So I stomped him with both feet on his head. If you try to attack me with a knife, I‚Äôm gonna be very mad at you,‚ÄĚ he declares.
‚ÄúI had a lot of anger inside me because I didn‚Äôt know what to do,‚ÄĚ GSP continues. ‚ÄúI was kind of lost.‚ÄĚ Finally, driving one day on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, he spotted Midoux. ‚ÄúI stopped in the middle of the traffic and got out. I say, ‚ÄėChristophe, I‚Äôm a big fan. Where can I train to be a mixed martial arts fighter? How can I do this?‚Äô He looks at me: ‚ÄėCome to my gym tomorrow at 7pm.‚Äô He started my whole career.‚ÄĚ
Through Midoux, St-Pierre found his way onto the local MMA circuit, where he‚Äôd dispatch opponents so swiftly he was nicknamed Rush. But the youngster wanted to compete against the best fighters, and the best fighters were in the UFC.
‚ÄúThe only thing Georges St-Pierre needed when he came into the UFC,‚ÄĚ says Dana White, ‚Äúwas experience.‚ÄĚ That experience wasn‚Äôt always positive, though. To achieve greatness, what St-Pierre needed most was to lose: First, regrettably but edifyingly, and then humiliatingly ‚Äď think: Failed-marriage-proposal-on-the-big-screen-at-the-footy.
Things started happening too fast for the fighter dubbed Rush. A mere three bouts into his UFC career, at UFC 50 on October 22, 2004, he fought Matt Hughes, probably the greatest pound-for-pound star in the sport at the time. ‚ÄúI was not ready,‚ÄĚ says St-Pierre. ‚ÄúIt was too fast, and I was afraid.‚ÄĚ
The fight was both messy and thrilling, dominated as it was by the combination of GSP‚Äôs staggering athleticism and his barely controlled nervous energy. He took Hughes to the canvas inside of 30 seconds and later caught him with a spinning back kick ‚Äď a spectacular manoeuvre rarely seen in MMA. But with seconds remaining in the first round, he left himself exposed and Hughes put him in an arm bar. He tapped out at the last second. ‚ÄúOne second is enough to break an arm,‚ÄĚ he says flatly. ‚ÄúBut the fight taught me I could be world champion.‚ÄĚ
Two more years would pass before St-Pierre got another title shot. At UFC 65 he again fought Hughes. In round one GSP landed a superman punch, then a left hook, dropping Hughes to his knees. ‚ÄúHe was much stronger than in our first fight,‚ÄĚ Hughes says. At 3:43, St-Pierre knocked him down with a kick to the head, leaped on him, and abused his face until the ref waved him off. Georges St-Pierre, the UFC‚Äôs superstar-in-waiting, had won the title at last. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs the future of the sport,‚ÄĚ Hughes conceded. His reign would last all of 20 weeks.
‚ÄúFights are chaotic affairs,‚ÄĚ observes John Danaher. In the latter portion of his career, the Canadian has sought to avoid being enveloped by that chaos. Under the tutelage of Danaher and Firas Zahabi, his jujitsu and MMA coaches, respectively, he has adopted a densely cerebral strategic approach that‚Äôs equal parts mathematics, military history, and Eastern philosophy. Team St-Pierre favours, in the words of Danaher, ‚Äúhigh-percentage strategies that maximise the chance of victory and minimise the chance of defeat‚ÄĚ.
He works with some 20 coaches ‚Äď more than many sports teams do ‚Äď in Canada, America, England, and Brazil (luminaries among them include Olympic gold medal sprinter Linford Christie and veteran boxing trainer Freddie Roach). ‚ÄúHe has no wife, no kids. He lives martial arts 24 hours a day. I don‚Äôt think he knows what a vacation is,‚ÄĚ Zahabi says.
But as a young titleholder, St-Pierre had yet to learn these lessons. ‚ÄúWhen you‚Äôre champion, everybody tells you how great you are,‚ÄĚ he says slowly. ‚ÄúThings come easy. I was 23-years-old and I didn‚Äôt have maturity. I was getting drunk, travelling‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ.
His first title defense would be against Matt Serra, a 168cm journeyman jujitsu specialist from Long Island, New York. The holder of a mediocre 4-4 record, Serra had ground-and-pounded his way through Season Four of The Ultimate Fighter to earn a title shot against St-Pierre.
UFC 69 convened in Houston, Texas, on April 7, 2007, with St-Pierre an 11-1 favorite. ‚ÄúI had just beat Matt Hughes, who was, like, the greatest of that moment,‚ÄĚ says GSP. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt feel the danger.‚ÄĚ From the beginning something seemed off with the champ. He stood stiff and tall, exposing his body to Serra‚Äôs heavy hands. Meanwhile, Serra wasn‚Äôt doing what Serra was supposed to do: He wasn‚Äôt trying to take St-Pierre down. In the first round he staggered the champ, then knocked him down with an anvil-like right. With Serra pummelling St-Pierre on the mat, the ref stopped the fight. ‚ÄúI knew I was finished,‚ÄĚ he says. It remains one of the greatest upsets in UFC history.
In the career of Georges St-Pierre, there are two periods: Before Serra and After Serra. Before Serra he was reckless, freewheeling, improvisational. After Serra he became strategic, technical ‚Äď and undefeated. He has successfully defended his title six times, winning an unprecedented 33 consecutive rounds in the process.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôs smart,‚ÄĚ says White. ‚ÄúIf a guy is a great stand-up fighter, he takes him out of his game and beats him up on the ground. If a guy‚Äôs a great wrestler and has amazing jujitsu, he‚Äôll stand with him. He works their weaknesses.‚ÄĚ
At UFC 94, St-Pierre met BJ Penn in a rematch of their contested split decision nearly three years earlier. GSP methodically wore down his opponent, and Penn‚Äôs corner called off the fight before the fifth round. ‚ÄúSt-Pierre delivered what may go down as the greatest performance in UFC history,‚ÄĚ wrote Canadian paper the Star Phoenix. In an ugly postscript, Penn accused his rival of using steroids (a charge GSP emphatically denies) and filed a 20-page complaint with the Nevada State Athletic Commission claiming St-Pierre had ‚Äúgreased‚ÄĚ during the fight ‚Äď covered himself with Vaseline to make it difficult to hold him ‚Äď and had ‚Äúingested a substance that would make his body unnaturally slippery‚ÄĚ. The scandal went nowhere. ‚ÄúSt-Pierre‚Äôs corner could have rubbed him from head to toe with Vaseline, Abilene, gasoline,‚ÄĚ says Dana White. ‚ÄúBJ Penn is still getting his arse kicked in that fight.‚ÄĚ
When Josh Koscheck, a four-time Division I NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] All-American wrestler and 2001 national champion, boasted in 2007 that St-Pierre couldn‚Äôt take him down, he did so within 30 seconds of the opening bell. In their rematch last December, GSP switched tactics by standing him up and broke his right orbital bone. By night‚Äôs end Koscheck‚Äôs eye resembled the inside of a tomato.
‚ÄúGeorges has evolved to a level where these guys have no idea what they‚Äôre up against,‚ÄĚ says Chiappetta.
‚ÄúJake Shields is the last great test for GSP at 170 pounds,‚ÄĚ White said in February. Undefeated in 15 straight bouts over a six-year period, Shields, a former All-American college wrestler and jujitsu black belt, had fought mostly outside the UFC prior to facing the five-time-belt-defending GSP in April. It was a unanimous, strike-oriented victory for the champ. Five of his six title defenses have gone the distance ‚Äď raising questions over his aggressiveness (or lack thereof). By comparison, just two of Silva‚Äôs record nine title defenses have gone the full five rounds.
Next up, on October 30, 2011, is Carlos ‚ÄúThe Natural Born Killer‚ÄĚ Condit, whose past two confrontations have ended in vicious, nickname-affirming, first-round KOs. Will GSP unleash the killer instinct that haters and critics claim he‚Äôs lost, put in a seventh consecutive clinical display or will underdog Condit spoil the party?
The party, of course, is St-Pierre versus Silva ‚Äď the match-up fans have spent years clamouring for. It has led to a kind of apocalyptic feeling about the showdown, a sense that one or both men won‚Äôt ever fight again afterward. As a plate of cookies is deposited on our table, I ask about Silva. ‚ÄúThis fight is not written in stone,‚ÄĚ St-Pierre sighs, ‚Äúand right now I don‚Äôt think about it, because I have another fight in front of me. I don‚Äôt want to make the same mistake I‚Äôve done in the past of looking past an opponent. I will never do that again.‚ÄĚ
I try another approach. To make the fight happen, GSP will have to move up one weight class, but Silva ‚Äď who is also six years his senior ‚Äď will still outweigh him by up to 15 pounds [6.8kgs]. ‚ÄúRight now he‚Äôs probably 30 pounds [13.6kgs] more than I am,‚ÄĚ says St-Pierre. ‚ÄúI prefer not to think about it, to stress myself, because it‚Äôs not even sure that I‚Äôm gonna do it.‚ÄĚ
In the nearly empty restaurant, a stout businessman approaches our table. ‚ÄúF√©licitations, Georges St-Pierre‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ he begins. St-Pierre signs autographs for the man‚Äôs two sons. I ask if he wants to hear the pitter-patter of little GSPs someday. ‚ÄúMy life is really messed up,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúMy priority is my career, and a lot of women don‚Äôt accept to be number two. I can‚Äôt have a normal relationship.‚ÄĚ
He‚Äôs deeply concerned with his legacy, and despite never having trained formally as a wrestler, he has talked about trying out for the Canadian Olympic team. ‚ÄúI think it would be good for our sport. Olympians have switched to mixed martial arts, but a mixed martial artist has never switched to Olympic sports before. It would be an honour for me, but I haven‚Äôt taken my decision yet.‚ÄĚ
St-Pierre resists looking too far into the future, but he‚Äôs rumoured to be building an elite training facility in his hometown, and Hollywood is already beckoning, anxious to turn the UFC‚Äôs biggest attraction into box office green.
‚ÄúI always fix my goals high; it‚Äôs what drives me,‚ÄĚ GSP says. ‚ÄúThe ultimate goal is to be the best pound-for-pound fighter of all-time. But if I reach my goal, I don‚Äôt know what‚Äôs going to happen. I might not have any motivation. And I‚Äôve always promised myself that if I don‚Äôt have motivation I‚Äôm gonna stop everything. So I don‚Äôt know what‚Äôs gonna happen if I beat Silva.‚ÄĚ He laughs uneasily. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs the killer question right there.‚ÄĚ
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