For those of you who can't discern an arm bar from an arm triangle choke, you might not know who Georges St-Pierre is. The 29-year-old mixed martial artist and welterweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been called the most famous athlete to ever come out of Canada, in a category that includes Wayne Gretzky. Okay, so that's according to UFC president Dana White, who might be looking to build up hype for the fight between St-Pierre and Josh Koscheck at this weekend's 124th event organized by the UFC, in Montreal. But there's no doubt Mr. St-Pierre is one of the best fighters to ever enter the Octagon. And as the face of his sport, he's just as intent on making it as popular as Canada's favourite game as he is on making opponents beg for mercy. The Globe spoke to Mr. St-Pierre by phone in Montreal where he trains.
Do a lot of people recognize you on the street in Montreal now that the sport is growing in popularity?
A little bit, but it's not as bad as in the U.S. or Asia, where it's the most popular.
Do you see the sport becoming more popular in Canada?
Yeah, yeah. Every month.
Is there a lot of pressure on you to help popularize it?
I want to make people realize it's as much of a real sport as hockey.
Why do you think it's had difficulty convincing people it's a real sport?
Because it started bad, with bad organization. But when UFC took it and made it sanctioned, it became very professional.
I read that you learned martial arts because you were bullied as a kid?
I started because I liked it because of the movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Blood Sport. But I did get bullied at school.
What was it about martial arts that kept you at it?
My dad taught me karate. He's a black belt himself.
When it comes to moves, do you prefer striking over submission, or vice versa?
I like the mix of both.
You have a tattoo on your chest written in Chinese. What does it say?
It means, ju-jitsu, the art of softness. It means I can be very nice or very rude and very bad. It represents me well.
When did you get it?
I was 16-years-old when I started training jiu-jitsu. It was kind of cool.
A few years later, you worked briefly as a garbage man?
Yeah, to pay my university fees.
What were you going to university for?
To study kinesiology.
When did you begin fighting professionally?
In 2001 I think. I was 19-years-old.
And you've only had two losses since then, once to Matt Hughes in 2004 and again to Matt Serra in 2007. What did you learn from those losses?
They both taught me something different. The first one taught me how to become the champion, the second one taught me how to stay the champion.
What do you think this fight means for you, and what do you think it means for UFC?
It's very important for me and for UFC. too, and for Montreal, to make the sport more popular and keep the belt in Montreal.
'SUPERLATIVE ATHLETE, MASTER STRATEGIST'
Jordan Breen is a Halifax-based editor at Sherdog.com, a popular website that covers mixed martial arts. As told to Dave McGinn:
Georges St-Pierre is probably the most ideal prototype of the well-rounded fighter. He came in to MMA with a background in kyokushin karate and was able to morph in to a fighter who has elite-level skills in all respects. Perhaps most amazingly of all, a lot of people think he's the best wrestler in MMA, a sport that's replete with Olympic and Pan-Am medalists and NCAA champions. But he has no formal background in wrestling. It's reflective of the fact that he's an absolutely superlative athlete.
He's also a master strategist. Before, a game plan was blindingly obvious based on what you were good at. Matt Hughes' game plan could only ever be to get hold of someone, slam them on the ground and pound on them. Chuck Liddell's strategy could only ever be to circle and circle in the hopes he could land a right hand. Josh Koscheck, who St-Pierre is fighting on Saturday, is a former NCAA Division I champion wrestler, but he got out-wrestled by St-Pierre the last time they fought.
Even now, approaching fights strategically remains a divisive topic within MMA. People look at Georges St-Pierre's last four fights, all of them won by decisions, and think he's not trying to finish people by knocking them out or making them submit, that he's just trying to win on points. I wouldn't say he's made strategy cool, but he's definitely the most prominent figure in establishing the idea that there's a way to attack an opponent and you build an entire game plan around it.
But the guy's still human. We saw that in his two losses, the first against Matt Hughes in 2004 and the second against Matt Serra in 2007. He lost those fights in just the most regular ways possible - he was submitted and he was knocked out. But how his opponents reach that point - there's no road map for how to get there. With most guys, they falter in such a way that it's easy to think of a specific way to beat them. With St-Pierre, there isn't a guideline fighters can follow to get to the point where they might be able to knock him out or make him submit.