The professional fight game is based on personalities. Georges St-Pierre built his career on the lack thereof. He was a tool of destruction and didn’t feel the need to constantly remind people of it.
St-Pierre retired this week at the age of 37. There was a strong hint of ‘He’s still around?’ to proceedings. The Quebecker hasn’t been a thing in a while, undone by injuries and a habit of squabbling with his bosses. What a pity. Had he been a different sort of person – a louder, more media-trained one – he might’ve been this country’s top cultural export.
St-Pierre’s foundational myth had a strong hint of golden-age comic books to it. Growing up outside Montreal, he was a bit of a wimp and a target of bullies. His father taught him martial arts as a way to even the scale.
St-Pierre had an obsessive mind – chess was his first fixation – and took quickly to the rigour of training. The little guy who had sand kicked in his face didn’t just want to fight back. He wanted to become Charles Atlas. He was Peter Parker bypassing the radioactive spider and giving himself his own powers.
Eventually, he discovered Ultimate Fighting and one of its first heroes, Royce Gracie. Back when mixed-martial arts was more back-alley brawl than art, Gracie dominated through the merciless application of training.
“I asked myself, ‘How can this happen? How can this small guy beat all these monsters’,” St-Pierre once told Men’s Health. “Because of the knowledge that every war is won by the strongest weapon. Royce Gracie had the knowledge.”
The weapon in this case being the mind, and the knowledge being scattered about the world, held by various experts at various disciplines.
St-Pierre spent his career pursuing it. At times, fighting seemed like something he did to finance the journey.
He turned pro in 2001. He lost his first title shot in 2004. He faced the same opponent three years later and won a belt. He’s never lost since.
Canada has produced some notable combatants – George Chuvalo, George Dixon, Lennox Lewis (though I suppose we can’t really count him). In terms of dominance over time, St-Pierre tops them all.
In a previous era in a different sort of ring, he’d have been a national hero. But because he competed in a fringe sport that had not quite figured out how to pitch itself to the average viewer, he remained obscure to most Canadians. He was the Velvet Underground of our competitors – a cult band revered by aesthetes and vaguely recognized by everyone else. Even in that sense, he was Quebec’s more than Canada’s.
If global stardom were the goal, he didn’t help himself much. St-Pierre’s public persona was an odd mix of shyness and verbosity. He could talk all day long, but in such an inward way that it didn’t connect with mainstream sensibilities.
He once told an interviewer that the three things that excited him most in life were women, fighting and dinosaurs.
(St-Pierre briefly had his own paleontology show – The Boneyard with Georges St-Pierre – on the History Channel. You knew it was the real deal because he wore one of those floppy, wide-brimmed, explorer hats.)
People who don’t know anything about MMA may remember him from a small role in one of the Marvel films, wherein he fought Captain America. In the movie, St-Pierre’s character is French, because who could believe a Canadian as a bad guy?
In real life, St-Pierre never did decide on his role in UFC’s soap opera. Was he a white hat or a heel? He could rubbish opponents and talk himself up, but you could feel him faking it. He would often speak about the two Georges – the one he is, and the one he plays on TV.
UFC is built on loudmouths (i.e. Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey) and silent assassins (i.e. Anderson Silva). St-Pierre was neither. He just did a lot of things well. Though for a time inarguably the very best at his job, that made him difficult to market.
McGregor is a good example of what St-Pierre could have been. The Irish AAV (aural-assault vehicle) has the same hardscrabble background. He has the same look, build and, roughly speaking, fighting style. He is also very good, though St-Pierre was inarguably better.
But McGregor mastered the art of attracting attention away from the arena. He turned his foreignness into something exotic. He made himself attractive to the hooting mob that makes up UFC’s core support and the TMZ viewership that turns athletes into rock stars.
McGregor is all things to all people – hero, villain and brand amplifier. He was constructed to do this work. And by ‘work’, I mean separating people from their disposable income.
All St-Pierre did was fight. He should have been a bigger deal because of his core message – that talent doesn’t matter as much as will. If you will it to happen, it can. Isn’t that what we’re always telling kids? It’s a lie, but St-Pierre was the exception that proves the rule.
In his retirement news conference on Thursday, St-Pierre seemed at peace with the idea that it was over. He had wanted to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov – best known for beating McGregor in the octagon, then attempting to fight him again outside it – in the fall.
That would have been an event. But, according to St-Pierre, UFC would not allow it. His time as a draw had passed. So he took the decision to quit. C’est la guerre.
St-Pierre was expansive in his exit, unusually relaxed, but typically reflective. It was clear he’d already given a lot of thought to his legacy.
“Growing up, watching Wayne Gretzky, I tried to mould myself to him. To become like him. I wanted to be him, just in a different sport. Not only as performance, but also as a role model,” St-Pierre said. “I’m not perfect. Of course I try to show always my perfection in front of camera. Like every human being, I have issues. I have problems.”
It was the sort of comment none but a Canadian could fully understand. Being like Gretzky doesn’t just mean being good in every sense. It means being born in the body of a no-hoper and using the mind to turn yourself into the best. It’s the ultimate sort of overcoming.
St-Pierre won’t be remembered like Gretzky. Though arguably as good at what he did, he didn’t establish himself in the public’s mind in the same way.
But that is in keeping with the man. Georges St-Pierre was the best fighter this country has ever produced. He did it for no other purpose than to do it. And once he had, he kept quietly at it until it was time to go.
What could be more Canadian?
Top five moments of Georges St-Pierre career
Georges St-Pierre admitted he showed too much respect to Hughes the first time they met at UFC 50 in October, 2004. Hughes won by first-round submission.
But GSP, then 25, dominated Hughes in their UFC 65 rematch before 15,350 at Sacramento’s Arco Arena on Nov. 18, 2016. St-Pierre was faster, smarter and better on the night against a veteran dubbed ”the most dominant welterweight champion of all time” by UFC president Dana White.
In the second round, St-Pierre faked a low inside leg kick. When Hughes bit, St-Pierre launched a high kick that connected to the head like a wrecking ball. Hughes toppled and St-Pierre pounced, prompting referee (Big) John McCarthy to step in at 1:25 of the round.
Hughes literally didn’t know what hit him. He thought a punch had put him down.
After the fight, St-Pierre fell to the canvas in disbelief and was mobbed by his handlers. When the mayhem subsided and his mother entered the ring, he gave her the championship belt and raised her on his shoulders.
AN UPSET FOR THE AGES
St-Pierre’s reign lasted less than five months as Matt (The Terror) Serra promised a shock result. He delivered in April 2007 at UFC 69 in Houston before 15,269 at the Toyota Center.
“There’s nobody unstoppable in MMA. There’s so many ways to win and lose,” Serra, a 10-1 underdog who had to win “The Ultimate Fighter” reality TV show to get the title shot, said before the fight. “You know, someone zigged when they should have zagged and the fight could be over.”
That’s exactly what happened
Midway through the first round, Serra caught St-Pierre with a right hook, stunning the 170-pound champion. St-Pierre said later the blow had caught him on the carotid artery.
The champion went down and Serra fired punches from above until McCarthy stopped it at 3:25 of the first round. White called the Serra win “probably the biggest upset in MMA in a long time.”
“This is my worst nightmare,” said St-Pierre, who both congratulated Serra and apologized to his fans.
But he promised to return – stronger next time. “I climbed Everest once and I will climb it again.”
THAT BELONGS TO ME
After the shock loss to Serra, St-Pierre retooled and beat Josh Koscheck at UFC 74 before – with Serra sidelined by injury – defeating Hughes again for the interim title.
That set up a championship rematch with Serra at UFC 83, the UFC’s Canadian debut, in Montreal on April 19, 2008.
St-Pierre took Serra down right off the bat and wouldn’t let him up, with the crowd singing Ole, Ole Ole as the hometown hero went about his business looking to improve his position on the ground. It took Serra four minutes to get back up and then St-Pierre took him down again, scooping him up like a preschooler.
It was more of the same in the second, with two takedowns and a standup exchange that St-Pierre won. The end came when referee Yves Lavigne moved in to stop a turtled Serra from absorbing any more knees to the body at 4:45 of the second round.
GSP had a 42-3 edge in significant strikes and was good on four of five takedown attempts.
The soldout Bell Centre crowd of 21,390 ranked as the biggest – and fastest sellout – in UFC history at the time.
DRAWS A CROWD
Mixed martial arts wasn’t even legal in Ontario when St-Pierre was crowned champion in November, 2006. But it was alive and well April 30, 2011, at UFC 129 when GSP headlined a card that drew a then-UFC-record 55,724 to the Rogers Centre. It remains the organization’s second-largest attendance.
St-Pierre’s five-round decision over Jake Shields was short on excitement, perhaps in part due to an eye injury the champion suffered in the second round.
Most who saw the card will remember Canadian Mark (The Machine) Hominick’s gutsy co-main performance in a decision loss to featherweight champion Jose Aldo. Hominick took a licking for four rounds, his face cut and sporting a mouse the size of a muffin on his forehead. But he came on strong in the fifth, battering the tired champion from above to the delight of the crowd.
Still, the card showed the drawing power of St-Pierre in Canada.
St-Pierre had been out of action for four years when he stepped into the cage against middleweight champion Michael Bisping at UFC 217 on Nov. 4, 2017, at Madison Square Garden. England’s Bisping had fought eight times during that time, honing his game en route to beating former champion Anderson Silva and then dethroning Luke Rockhold at UFC 199.
An aggressive St-Pierre, showing no signs of ring rust, won the first round. The bigger Bisping had a better second round, although he needed repairs to his cup between rounds.
Taken down in the third, Bisping carved open St-Pierre’s face with some elbows strikes from the bottom. But after they got back to their feet, a bloody St-Pierre floored the Brit with a left hook, punishing him with savage elbows from above before taking his back and choking him unconscious.
A champion again after his 13th straight win. “My dream come true,” he said in the cage.