Born and raised on Montreal’s South Shore, UFC six-time defending Welterweight Champion Georges “Rush” St-Pierre is arguably the best pure fighter in the world.
He is MMA’s most charismatic and globally marketable figure – a “real-life Van Damme,” as former welterweight champ Matt Serra describes him. On a local level, he has almost single-handedly cemented MMA as Canada’s second sport – behind hockey.
“When GSP is fighting,” says Karem, the manager of Forum Sports Bar, unofficial HQ of both the city’s MMA fanboys and the many female admirers of Montreal’s favourite son, “we open up our second floor. We get 800 people at least, and there are more people outside we can’t even serve.”
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. “His initials have become a brand,” declares the Vancouver Sun newspaper: “IBM. AT&T. GSP.” And while the point may be debatable – the nation has, after all, produced hockey wizard Wayne Gretzky and two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash – UFC president Dana White refers to St-Pierre as “the most famous athlete ever to come out of Canada”.
Many MMA experts hold that St-Pierre is the sport’s all-time greatest pound-for-pound fighter – 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: “They’re the two most dominant champions the UFC has ever had.” The possibility of the St-Pierre-Silva superfight has been raised numerous times – and with both men fast running out of viable challengers in their respective divisions (more so Silva than St-Pierre), it’s likely to happen soon. “It will be the biggest fight in the history of the company,” declares White, whose league raked in almost $250 million in Pay-Per-View revenues in 2010.
“Every fight I’m scared to death, man,” says Georges St-Pierre in his twanging French-Canadian accent. “I’m afraid to lose, I’m afraid to get hurt. I don’t want to get knocked out in front of girls, my family…” Today, he’s just finished a light workout at a gym in an industrial section of Montreal, and we’re driving downtown in his black Range Rover.
At 180cm and 77kgs, St-Pierre doesn’t have the Hulk-like dimensions of heavyweight monster Brock Lesnar, yet he’s among the world’s most elite athletic specimens (his reported 40-inch [101.6cm] vertical leap is higher than NBA superstar Dwyane Wade’s). “But I think being afraid is a sign of intelligence,” he adds, “because the more knowledge you get in fighting, the more you realise that it’s so easy to lose.”
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’ “significant strikes” – 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.
“Georges St-Pierre is the blueprint for the perfect martial artist,” says Chiappetta. “He’s the evolutionary link from the early part of MMA, when everybody was about one discipline – boxing or wrestling or whatever – to now. He is the first perfectly rounded fighter in modern times: Ground game, stand-up, wrestling, transitions.”
“There’s a lot of fighters,” St-Pierre declares, “but only a few true mixed martial artists. To win a fight – that’s not the goal of a mixed martial artist. A mixed martial artist dedicates his life to perfection. I’m a mixed martial artist.”
What he’s saying, I think, is that fighting at its most strategically refined can detach itself from violence – 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 – population: 2500. To hear him tell it, at any given time most of the town’s 2499 other residents were trying to kick his arse, and not just because he was in the school chess club. “When I was young I was very ugly,” he says. “I had pimples. I was a nerd. The girls were not attracted to me. I didn’t have a lot of friends. But I was very good in sports, and the cool guys in school didn’t like to be beaten by a guy like me.”
He displays a half-moon-shaped scar on his head. It’s not from the Octagon – it’s from primary school. One day in the cafeteria, five older kids demanded his lunch money. “I grabbed my metal tray and swung it at the guy’s temple as hard as I could. Boom!” he laughs. “I start running, and they follow me, but I ran very fast.” 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. “I knew I was bleeding,” he says, “but I didn’t know how bad it was.”
The cycle of bullying would be repeated nearly annually because St-Pierre switched schools so often. “You are always the new guy, and with not a lot of friends. When I was young I was mad, but now I understand it’s not everybody’s nature to fight.”
Was life any more peaceful at home? St-Pierre grimaces; it’s a sore point. “I can’t really talk about it right now, because it’s 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.”
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. “At school I had very big problems,” GSP explains. “I needed to do sports to take this energy out.”
It’s after 2pm, and Cavalli, a sprawling, Vegas-like restaurant in downtown Montreal, is almost empty – optimal conditions for St-Pierre, who once compared being mobbed by fans in Montreal to “that movie Dawn of the Dead with the zombies”. The maître d’ 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’d 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. “It was mostly guys drinking beer,” he recalls. “MMA 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.”
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’d booted from a nightclub.
“From 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’m gonna be very mad at you,” he declares.
“I had a lot of anger inside me because I didn’t know what to do,” GSP continues. “I was kind of lost.” Finally, driving one day on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, he spotted Midoux. “I stopped in the middle of the traffic and got out. I say, ‘Christophe, I’m a big fan. Where can I train to be a mixed martial arts fighter? How can I do this?’ He looks at me: ‘Come to my gym tomorrow at 7pm.’ He started my whole career.”
Through Midoux, St-Pierre found his way onto the local MMA circuit, where he’d 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.
“The only thing Georges St-Pierre needed when he came into the UFC,” says Dana White, “was experience.” That experience wasn’t always positive, though. To achieve greatness, what St-Pierre needed most was to lose: First, regrettably but edifyingly, and then humiliatingly – 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. “I was not ready,” says St-Pierre. “It was too fast, and I was afraid.”
The fight was both messy and thrilling, dominated as it was by the combination of GSP’s 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 – 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. “One second is enough to break an arm,” he says flatly. “But the fight taught me I could be world champion.”
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. “He was much stronger than in our first fight,” 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’s superstar-in-waiting, had won the title at last. “He’s the future of the sport,” Hughes conceded. His reign would last all of 20 weeks.
“Fights are chaotic affairs,” 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’s equal parts mathematics, military history, and Eastern philosophy. Team St-Pierre favours, in the words of Danaher, “high-percentage strategies that maximise the chance of victory and minimise the chance of defeat”.
He works with some 20 coaches – more than many sports teams do – in Canada, America, England, and Brazil (luminaries among them include Olympic gold medal sprinter Linford Christie and veteran boxing trainer Freddie Roach). “He has no wife, no kids. He lives martial arts 24 hours a day. I don’t think he knows what a vacation is,” Zahabi says.
But as a young titleholder, St-Pierre had yet to learn these lessons. “When you’re champion, everybody tells you how great you are,” he says slowly. “Things come easy. I was 23-years-old and I didn’t have maturity. I was getting drunk, travelling…”.
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. “I had just beat Matt Hughes, who was, like, the greatest of that moment,” says GSP. “I didn’t feel the danger.” From the beginning something seemed off with the champ. He stood stiff and tall, exposing his body to Serra’s heavy hands. Meanwhile, Serra wasn’t doing what Serra was supposed to do: He wasn’t 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. “I knew I was finished,” 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 – and undefeated. He has successfully defended his title six times, winning an unprecedented 33 consecutive rounds in the process.
“He’s smart,” says White. “If 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’s a great wrestler and has amazing jujitsu, he’ll stand with him. He works their weaknesses.”
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’s corner called off the fight before the fifth round. “St-Pierre delivered what may go down as the greatest performance in UFC history,” 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 “greased” during the fight – covered himself with Vaseline to make it difficult to hold him – and had “ingested a substance that would make his body unnaturally slippery”. The scandal went nowhere. “St-Pierre’s corner could have rubbed him from head to toe with Vaseline, Abilene, gasoline,” says Dana White. “BJ Penn is still getting his arse kicked in that fight.”
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’t 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’s end Koscheck’s eye resembled the inside of a tomato.
“Georges has evolved to a level where these guys have no idea what they’re up against,” says Chiappetta.
“Jake Shields is the last great test for GSP at 170 pounds,” 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 – raising questions over his aggressiveness (or lack thereof). By comparison, just two of Silva’s record nine title defenses have gone the full five rounds.
Next up, on October 30, 2011, is Carlos “The Natural Born Killer” 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’s lost, put in a seventh consecutive clinical display or will underdog Condit spoil the party?
The party, of course, is St-Pierre versus Silva – 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’t ever fight again afterward. As a plate of cookies is deposited on our table, I ask about Silva. “This fight is not written in stone,” St-Pierre sighs, “and right now I don’t think about it, because I have another fight in front of me. I don’t want to make the same mistake I’ve done in the past of looking past an opponent. I will never do that again.”
I try another approach. To make the fight happen, GSP will have to move up one weight class, but Silva – who is also six years his senior – will still outweigh him by up to 15 pounds [6.8kgs]. “Right now he’s probably 30 pounds [13.6kgs] more than I am,” says St-Pierre. “I prefer not to think about it, to stress myself, because it’s not even sure that I’m gonna do it.”
In the nearly empty restaurant, a stout businessman approaches our table. “Félicitations, Georges St-Pierre…” he begins. St-Pierre signs autographs for the man’s two sons. I ask if he wants to hear the pitter-patter of little GSPs someday. “My life is really messed up,” he says. “My priority is my career, and a lot of women don’t accept to be number two. I can’t have a normal relationship.”
He’s 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. “I 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’t taken my decision yet.”
St-Pierre resists looking too far into the future, but he’s rumoured to be building an elite training facility in his hometown, and Hollywood is already beckoning, anxious to turn the UFC’s biggest attraction into box office green.
“I always fix my goals high; it’s what drives me,” GSP says. “The ultimate goal is to be the best pound-for-pound fighter of all-time. But if I reach my goal, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I might not have any motivation. And I’ve always promised myself that if I don’t have motivation I’m gonna stop everything. So I don’t know what’s gonna happen if I beat Silva.” He laughs uneasily. “That’s the killer question right there.”
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