Georges St-Pierre says mixed martial arts may be more popular than hockey worldwide, but he has yet to achieve Wayne Gretzky status.
The issue of St-Pierre's profile has been front and centre this week with UFC president Dana White taking every opportunity to say the UFC welterweight champion is Canada's most famous athlete — ever.
St-Pierre, a lifelong Oilers fan, says Gretzky was his idol growing up.
“For me, Wayne Gretzky, he's on top,” he said, holding his hand above his head at the UFC 124 pre-fight news conference.
“For his sport, I believe Wayne Gretzky has done more for hockey than I've done in mixed martial arts. And my goal is to reach that point and maybe pass that point if I can one day in my life.
“But if you talk worldwide, the sport of mixed martial arts, it's true, it's a fact, it's actually more popular than ice hockey. Ice hockey, it's only in North American and some countries in Europe. Outside of that it's not very popular.
“Of course, mixed martial arts is worldwide. So if you talk about worldwide, (White is) right as far as popularity,” said St-Pierre (20-2), who will defend his title against Josh Koscheck (17-4) on Saturday night at the Bell Centre.
“But I haven't reached the point that I have done enough for my sport to be like the Wayne Gretzky of MMA right now. I'm not there yet, I think.”
White, somewhat disingenuously, says he never mentioned anything about Gretzky in praising St-Pierre.
“Everybody keeps talking like I was smashing Gretzky. I didn't say anything about Gretzky. I said (GSP) was the most famous athlete to ever come out of Canada. And everybody's like ‘What about Wayne Gretzky?' I said Wayne Gretzky too.
“It's a fact. We're in half a billion homes worldwide. This guy's a huge superstar. ... It's a reality Canada, deal with it. This guy is the most famous guy to ever come out of Canada as far as sports go.”
St-Pierre believes he is more popular in English Canada and the U.S., than his native Quebec, “maybe because most of the UFC mixed martial arts is anglophone.”
“Also people are used to (seeing) me every day here. Because I live here, I go to restaurants, so when they see them it's not a big deal because they see me all the time.”
He says he is most popular in Asia.
St-Pierre was mobbed earlier this year when he went to the Philippines, which shows all UFC fights including pay-per-views on regular TV.
“It's crazy there,” he said.
White says St-Pierre merits the attention — and popularity.
“Just look at him,” he said, pointing at the champion.
“First of all he's been a great champion. He's a nice guy, he's an incredible athlete, he represents the sport and the (championship) belt well.
“Be proud of him, Canada. Deal with it. He's the most famous athlete in Canadian history.”