As the noughties faded, rounding off a decade in which mixed martial arts blossomed into a three-letter acronym with a burgeoning position on the mainstream sporting landscape, it was fitting that another three-letter, one-man movement known to all as “GSP” would bestride MMA, like a modern-day colossus, as the leading fighter. We look back at Issue 60 of Fighters Only, when we chatted with the Canadian superstar after he captured the 2009 Fighter of the Year award.
Representations of Georges St-Pierre dwell not in the realms of the stereotypical depictions of the muscle-bound Spartan, more the sealed intensity of Eastern mystique. Yet, without question, the 28-year-old Canadian now exudes all the characteristics of the classical, rounded exponent of mixed martial arts. The added twist is that the man himself is equally resonant as an intriguing human spirit.
In 2010, the end of the decade that finally counted for MMA, it is arguably the time, given his credentials, to bestow upon GSP the coveted mantle of pound-for-pound No 1, the world’s greatest mixed martial artist.
With a professional record of 19-2, GSP is twice holder of the UFC welterweight title, spanning an eight-year career in which he inflicted two sets of defeats on major UFC stand-outs BJ Penn and Matt Hughes, while elevating himself on a shelf tattooed with shimmering superlatives above world-class contenders Thiago Alves, Jon Fitch, Sean Sherk, Matt Serra and Josh Koscheck. Dangerous men all, but equally dealt with. GSP has class, inside and outside the Octagon, and it shows.
St-Pierre has combined God-given athletic gifts with an unquenchable work ethic, which has given him status as the template for any hybrid-generation mixed martial artist. Wrestler, striker, athlete – and man. Couple that with growing intelligence in media work and you have, potentially, a sports star heading to a level attained by the likes of Roger Federer, (the pre-porn seeking) Tiger Woods, and David Beckham. You get the picture. GSP will grow exponentially with the sport, win or lose.
Aside from his fighting prowess, his humility, deep honesty and clean-cut intelligence have earned him legions of fans worldwide. Fitting then, that as the curtain fell upon 2009, GSP was named ‘Fighter of the Year’ at the second annual Fighters Only World Mixed Martial Arts Awards in Las Vegas.
The fans had spoken in the voting process. GSP finished ahead of fellow nominees Anderson Silva, Brock Lesnar, Lyoto Machida, and Mike Brown. St-Pierre’s walk to the dais drew a standing ovation from the great and good within the industry, a who’s who of MMA names and fighters at a glittering gala ceremony at The Joint, within the uber-trendy Hard Rock Hotel Casino Resort.
Typically, GSP insisted that when he contemplated his MMA “Oscar” it would be underlined with a reminder of how he had reached that level. “Win an award, learn from it.” Who could argue with the ethics of the quintessential mixed martial artist?
Twenty-four hours after GSP had received his Fighters Only gong, I appeared with him on ESPN’s weekly MMA Live show to discuss the build-up to UFC 108 that would take place at the MGM Grand Garden Arena 48 hours later. Advocating with the devil, I asked him ‘on air’ whether up-coming opponent Dan Hardy’s comments that “GSP was a great athlete who had learned to fight, rather than a born fighter” had penetrated under his skin? It was like a lion swatting flies from the carcass of a feast with his lazy tail. “He is right,” said GSP. “That’s exactly what I am. I am a mixed martial artist.” Armor on. Impervious.
The modern mixed martial artist
We convened for this interview once we left the set, and GSP shared his thoughts on many areas of his life, both past and present. Peculiarly, GSP does not seem 28 – he seems older. Perhaps physically, in wear and tear, he is, but there emanates a maturity from the man because of his relaxed state. Open, yet rehearsed. His soft, lilting French-Canadian accent and his smooth features are offset by a steely look which indicates in clear terms to anyone – interviewer, rival, or fan – that a line has been drawn in the sand which no one has permission to cross. That duality also creates an intriguing, enigmatic quality to being in his company.
GSP discussed the seminal moments of his career; revealed an early love for dinosaurs and paleontology; expounded his theory on what he believes the sport must do to advance its global growth and appeal; and appraised his dangerous next opponent in British striker Dan Hardy, who GSP admits carries great danger because “he has nothing to lose”.
He told of how being bullied at school remains one of his greatest life lessons; revealed the sleeplessness and fear which stalks him before fights; and admitted to be vacillating on the prospect of vacating his UFC title and holding his mixed martial arts career in abeyance for a tumble as a wrestler for Canada at the London 2012 Olympics.
So, to his Fighters Only award. There were over 120,000 votes cast by fans this year, with GSP the fans’ “Fighter of the Year”. “Of course, it felt really good,” said GSP. “It’s an honor to be recognized by the fans with their votes and it is not every day that you receive that honor in front of so many figures from the MMA industry. It was also a reminder to me about what I need to do to stay at the top. Basically, to get better with every fight. In this sport, it is hard to be at the top, but very easy to slide down.”
In 2009, GSP defended his title with the demolition of BJ Penn, forcing BJ to quit for the first time in his career after four rounds of sustained damage, then nullified the dangerous striker Thiago Alves at UFC 100 with some sublime wrestling, making the hot Brazilian contender look like a journeyman. What no one knew during the contest was that GSP had fought the last two rounds with a torn adductor muscle. Accolades rained on St-Pierre in 2009, which included winning Canadian Athlete of the Year and three other MMA industry awards, yet according to his PR guru Shari Spencer, the Fighters Only World MMA Award, regarded as an MMA Oscar, “was the feather in the cap.”
St-Pierre is not really a saint, yet aficionados of the sport worldwide might suggest the once-bullied kid from Saint-Isidore, Quebec, is as near a spiritual figurehead as the sport could have at present. He is the standout figure in the sport’s new world order, at a time of growing corporate identification with MMA. If the combat was once ridiculed as bordering on barbarism, then GSP represents an antidote to the abolitionists.
St-Pierre’s physical prowess as an athlete remains freakishly erudite. If you were to create a robot MMA champion, then St-Pierre might form the prototype model. He insists there is little that is spiritual about his fight game – it comes down to statistical and structural analysis – yet I would beg to differ.
Start with his backroom staff: The group has flags from all parts of the world order. By design and through detail, St-Pierre has built around himself a team of sharp minds and an impregnable self-belief in their methods. Some critics even say there is too much ‘method’, yet the team are raising the bar.
Shari Spencer, GSP’s manager, is a seriously major asset. A strong woman in a predominantly male industry, she has her finger on the pulse and knows exactly how to present her client. She explained: “Georges is talented and popular, but he is very shy and humble. Being down-to-earth, not getting above his station, is a big part of his charm.”
Spencer was instrumental in enhancing GSP’s corporate identity last year, signing individual sponsorship terms with firstly Gatorade, and then, two months ago, with apparel company Under Armour; a deal, moreover, which resonates as much for MMA in general as it does specifically for the individual. Here are mainstream corporate sponsors now seeking to align themselves to the MMA industry. Build the leading figures, and the “corporates” will come. Spencer clearly understands MMA’s place in the corporate marketplace and GSP’s branding potential, having made GSP the UFC’s corporate prototype.
Intelligence and debate punctuate GSP’s training camps. “We have a diverse camp, pretty much like a United Nations. GSP’s Muay Thai coach in Montreal, Firas Zahabi, is Muslim. His strength and conditioning coach, Jonathan Chaimberg, is Jewish and I was a Southern Baptist Minister,” explained Spencer. “Greg Jackson is very philosophical and teaches many things from “The Art of War” [the 13-chapter military treatise written by sixth-century Chinese general Sun Tzu], and Georges also has a good friend who is a priest who takes karate with him. The conversations are incredibly philosophical, incredibly deep, not what you would expect of a bunch of fighters getting ready for a fight.”
That eclectic blend certainly helps St-Pierre in his rounded outlook. “You never see a disgruntled, aggressive man,” added Spencer. “You see a gentleman who just flicks a switch when he walks into the Octagon. I think he really does seek to understand a lot of different things; he is on his own journey both physically and spiritually. We have some very interesting conversations about life itself, which would surprise a lot of people.”
While Jackson, also an award winner this year, is widely known to fans of MMA, Zahabi is less so. He is a former Canadian Muay Thai champion and BJJ exponent, has GSP’s workout routine mathematically calculated to a science, all involving high-intensity work at the TriStar Gym in Montreal, with its 13,500 square feet of state-of-the-art facilities. The detail behind the scenes, admits GSP, is what keeps him anchored on three levels before a fight, and deals with nerves before a contest. “I’m not afraid to admit that I do get scared before a fight,” St-Pierre explains. “Scared to fail, scared of getting knocked out and scared of letting people down. It used to be worse. I’ve learned to deal with my fear better with experience. I don’t freak out before a fight if I can’t sleep. But that used to freak me out.”
Yet breaking opponents down systemically with his team helps focus that fear. “My fears do affect the way I fight. I break down everything mathematically and I try to put all the chance on my side. I split a fight up into three key steps and maintain that I’m ahead in each. I have the physical step – getting in shape via training and being able to look across at your opponent and know you are in better shape than he is. Second, the technical step, which deals with the superior skills you must have going into a fight. Finally, the tactical step, which is research, constructing a game plan and knowing your opponent’s weaknesses. If I can conquer my opponent in each of those steps, I will come away with the victory.”
“Every opponent is a threat. It’s like mathematics – they are all different sums and equations to solve. People say I’ve cleared out the welterweight division. Not true. This sport is always evolving and no two fighters are the same in mixed martial arts. Every fighter represents a different style and danger. I still have many threats to conquer in the welterweight division.”
“The most pain I suffered was not in the UFC, it was being bullied at school”
It is difficult to imagine St-Pierre having a troubled childhood, yet he was bullied at school. Growing up, he immersed himself in Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and was a ferocious chess player. He insists chess developed his mind for his sport. “That may seem like a weird combination but my love of chess helped my career in mixed martial arts, maybe more so than any other sport I took part in. Chess is all about using your opponent’s insecurities and weaknesses against him and strategizing a way to win. It’s exactly the same in mixed martial arts, only a little more physical. They call mixed martial arts human chess. It’s totally true.”
St-Pierre has a theory about his success. “It comes down to nature and nurture. My philosophy is that everything in life comes down to a combination of genetics and natural environment. I’m a very positive person and always look forwards. I also believe in the development of a human being. It is a journey.” Yet as we look back on his childhood, there was some darkness.
Little Georges had taken up karate at seven, following in the footsteps of his father, a black belt in Kyokushin karate. “He was a massive inspiration for me. I wanted to follow the family tradition. Martial arts meant so much to my father and it was such an integral part of his life. I wanted the same.” But then the bullying started at school. The most pain I ever suffered was probably when I was growing up in school. In a sense, competing in mixed martial arts is fairly easy, compared to what I went through with bullying at school as a child.
“In the UFC, you have months of preparation time for a fight, and you train your body, your mind, for an opponent. You know where and when it will take place. You also know why you are doing it. In the school playground it was different. Older kids would kick or punch me. You could not negotiate it. I have more scars on my head from school than from MMA.”
The future of MMA and rule changes
GSP has been part of some of the most memorable MMA events to take place on North American soil, and I wanted to know at what sporting events in history he would like to have been present. “The Rumble in the Jungle,” between Ali and Foreman in 1974, erupts from him, then he adds: “You know, I would have loved to have gone to the first Olympic Games. I’d like to have been there to do and see the training of the Greek athletes, with their most famous pankration trainers. Apparently, I’ve been told one of the great trainers wrote three books on pankration, but they were destroyed when the Turks invaded Greece. Unfortunately, they have been lost. What we do not have today is those books and I’m sure we would be learning from them still.” He means it.
He also has strong views on the future for the sport, and rule changes he would implement with immediate effect. “For the sport to reach another level, for it to be a higher caliber sport, we need to create a love of this sport in other countries, and soon. Countries like China. They don’t do MMA there, but we should be looking to get the sport into the major countries, especially where martial arts are strong. It is kung fu in China at present, getting MMA there would allow us to really make the sport develop.
“And yes, I would change the rules right away. I would allow the knee to be used when opponents are on the ground, but not allow stamping on the toes during a fight. It does nothing during the fight because you cannot feel any pain during the fight, even if they are broken, because the adrenalin is flowing; but by breaking the toes, you can mess up a guy’s career in the long term. It’s just not an effective attacking force in a fight – it’s a cheap shot.”
Money means nothing
But here’s why this guy is really a legend in the sport. In spite of the fame, the riches, the rewards, the title belts and the year-end gongs, he really only does it because he loves it. “Money is a bonus for me and obviously helps for the future. It enables you to do certain things in your life that you wouldn’t be able to do without it. Luckily, I’m now in a position where I can get paid for doing something I love. But you know, my primary reason for competing is still just for the love of the sport. I truly would be doing this for free, if that were the way it had to be.”
Your earliest physical challenge?
Using a small chair to stabilize myself on a mini ice rink behind my house, learning to play ice hockey. I was four years old. My dad made an ice run, spraying water out there to form a rink in the winter. It would freeze and I was out there, all day, falling over and getting up again. That was the first challenge I had to get over. I wanted to succeed.
Who do you admire in other sports?
There are a lot of people for different reasons: Lance Armstrong, because he fought cancer and remained a great champion for many years at the top of his sport; Wayne Gretzky, the greatest ice hockey player of the generation, perhaps of all time, but always a gentleman, and very humble, the length of his 20-year career at the highest level; Roy Jones Jr. for his boxing and his athleticism. There have been a lot of great boxers, but for me Jones is the greatest boxing athlete of all time.
Choose a sporting moment to visit in history:
I’d like to have been in Kinshasa, to in 1974, to see Muhammad Ali fight George Foreman. Everything about it made it a spectacular, and historic, event. The sights, the sounds, the smells – one of the greatest sporting events of all time.
Sports which turn you off:
Ten Pin Bowling – I don’t see any stuff which makes it a sport. Golf, maybe, too, but you need to focus for the sport and it is a battle with yourself. I’m not a big fan of it, though. And I don’t think fishing can be considered a sport. How can it be?
Who from history would you most like to have invited to dinner:
Jesus Christ. I’d like to ask him some questions about aspects of his life, as there was so much to admire about what he did and the way he handled himself. Socrates, too. I would have loved to have asked the Classical Greek philosopher some questions on his thoughts on ethics and deep inquiry into life. Maybe some other really smart people – more philosophers, scientists, but mainly thinkers.
“If life had turned out different I might have been a paleontologist.”
Had his command of English been better at a younger age, GSP may have been lost to MMA forever, poring over books on the lost world and the development of prehistoric life on the planet. “If I was not in sport as a professional, I might have been a trainer, or working in some capacity with the performance of the body in sport. But if it had not been for sport, I would have been a paleontologist. No question. It was the thing I was most fascinated with at school. The problem at the time was that where I was in Canada the only courses you could do at high-level study in paleontology were in English, not in French. My English was not up to it.
“I really loved dinosaurs; I have had a fascination for them since I was young. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a job when I was at school, but I didn’t know English then like I know now. It was quite weird. Whenever we were asked to do a school project, I would always choose to do it on this subject. I loved studying the details of the periods in which they existed, real details…”
So, the obvious question; from the time of the dinosaur, which one does the world’s most rounded mixed martial artist consider himself to be? “If I am a dinosaur, it is not the obvious one like a T-Rex. I think I would have been a type of raptor which, compared to today, was something like a lion. It was hunting in groups in the very late Cretaceous period. It had sharp claws like razor blades on its feet, and very sharp, dangerous teeth, also like razor blades, and was very intelligent and very fast.” No doubt, it too was a wrecking machine with a clear gameplan.
Originally published in Issue 60 of Fighters Only.