It had only been a year since Georges St-Pierre’s crushing loss to Matt Serra in April 2007, but it must have felt like a lifetime for a man whose only motivation heading into UFC 83 on April 19, 2008 was redemption. He would ultimately get it in the UFC’s first visit to his hometown of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, but today, we take a look back at where GSP’s head was at leading into what was then the biggest fight of his life.
It’s easy to be jealous of Georges St-Pierre. In a land full of smashed noses, scar tissue, and missing teeth, he’s old Hollywood in style and appearance. His effortless grace also translates to his day job, where he’s seemingly the one who always gets things right the first time, with his repeated drilling only to benefit muscle memory, not the search for a perfection in execution he’s apparently reached already.
That’s why your girlfriend or wife, who can’t recall any fighters not named Chuck Liddell, knows who St-Pierre is; it’s why your nephews, who haven’t been up to speed on fighting since Mike Tyson was wrecking the heavyweight division, will throw out a sidekick and blurt “GSP baby”; and why 22,000 people will be packing the Bell Centre in Montreal for St-Pierre’s challenge of UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra this Saturday.
He’s who you wanted to be when you were a kid and thought it would be cool to be a professional prizefighter. You didn’t want to be the one buried on the undercard, grinding out decisions; you wanted to be the guy with the fantastic finishes in the main event, the guy who got the girl when it was all over.
Funny, even St-Pierre wanted to be Georges St-Pierre when growing up in St. Isidore.
“I started karate when I was seven years old, and at the time I was inspired by Jean Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport, Arnold Schwarzenegger and those kinds of actors,” St-Pierre told UFC.com. “I always wanted to be like the guy in Bloodsport, someone who was a champion in martial arts.”
And he was good, very good, at whatever he chose to do when it came to athletics.
“Even growing up when I was a kid, I always was the best,” he said in the most modest tone you can when making a statement like that. “I’m a very athletic guy and very competitive and I was the best runner, the best in the jumping competition, and the best in hockey and basketball.”
It was then that St-Pierre was cursed, destined to always be followed by the tag “natural”, as if he was able to roll out of bed and onto the ice, court, or mat and just win. To those who categorized him as simply a gifted athlete, there was no work involved in his exploits, no strategizing, no effort. They were wrong, and early on, St-Pierre found out just what it took to be the best on a consistent basis.
“There is something to have the skill, but I think you have to have more because skill is not enough,” he said. “You need to be ready to sacrifice. I think that’s what helped me – I was very skilled and athletic, but I’m also ready to make the sacrifices that it takes to reach the top.”
As he got older, those sacrifices entailed being left behind on Friday and Saturday nights by friends who thought that better company could be found at the clubs in Montreal than in a sweat-soaked gym.
“I’m in the prime of my life, and normally people my age go out a lot, they drink, and a lot of them take drugs, I’m not gonna lie,” he said. “I know that’s not something good for me. When I’m training for a fight and my friends are calling me to go out, I have to stay home. That’s one of the sacrifices I have to make and it’s pretty hard sometimes.”
It brought to mind the Muhammad Ali quote that has since been immortalized on motivational posters: “The fight is won or lost, far away from witnesses. It is won behind the lines, in the gym and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”
There were no autograph signings or photo shoots in the gym in those days, no endless ringing of his cell phone for interview requests. In fact, by the time St-Pierre made his pro debut in 2002 at the age of 20, he wasn’t whisked into press conferences and given astronomical signing bonuses like other athletic prodigies. He was a gifted young athlete competing in what was then perceived as an outlaw sport, since the MMA scene in Canada was promising, but not yet showing the signs of mainstream acceptance that were cropping up in the United States.
“Especially where I come from, hockey is the number one sport, but I knew it was a question of time before fighting was going to be big here,” he said. “Montreal has always been a fight town. People love boxing and wrestling here and I think they’re going to like the UFC even more.”
But when you’re in an ‘outlaw’ sport, you’re perceived to be an outlaw yourself. That’s good when you’re looking to supplement your income with jobs as a bouncer at local clubs, but not when trying to convince people that you’re not only a serious athlete, but one who competes in a real sport, not a bloody spectacle.
“Back in the day, people thought I was crazy,” said St-Pierre. “Now, people know that it’s a real sport and that I’m training just as much as somebody who’s training for the Olympic Games or any other professional sport. I always knew that it was only a matter of time. And I don’t blame those people because I understand it. I can put myself in their position and try to see my sport from the outside. I know it’s violent, but when you don’t understand it, it makes it look even worse.”
Eventually though, mixed martial arts, and the UFC in particular, broke out - not only in the States, but in Canada, where the posterboy for the movement was St-Pierre: gifted, good-looking, and a gentleman. Not that he would take credit for that.
“I’m not going to say that I’m THE guy in Canada,” he says almost sheepishly. “There are a lot of very good fighters here in Canada, and one of the reasons why I think I’m so successful is because I have great training partners. Of course, a lot of them are from the United States, but a lot of them are from Montreal and other parts of Canada. I feel that I’m lucky that I grew up in a fight town where boxing is very popular, and we have a lot of great boxers, great wrestlers, and great martial artists, and when you mix everything together, you have a good mixed martial arts fighter.”
‘Good’ wouldn’t be the adjective most would use for St-Pierre as he put together a 7-1 record in his first eight UFC fights. Included on his ledger were victories over BJ Penn, Karo Parisyan, Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg, and Jason ‘Mayhem’ Miller. The only loss – in 2004 to Matt Hughes – was avenged in emphatic fashion at UFC 65 in November of 2006. Georges St-Pierre – ‘The Natural’ – was a world champion and everything was going according to the Hollywood script. Questions of his longevity as champion weren’t addressed in terms of title defenses, but in years. You don’t knock a future Hall of Famer like Hughes out if you’re average; you don’t survive a five minute onslaught from Penn and come back to win the next two rounds and the fight; and you don’t walk through guys like Sherk and Trigg if you’re just another fighter.
But the fall, like all great falls in hindsight, seemed to be inevitable. Matt Serra, a veteran fighter whose shining attribute may be his tenacity, never got the press St-Pierre got, never got the pats on the back, and never got the marketing push. He’s a New Yawker through and through whose infectious personality endears him to everyone, even his opponents. But when the bell rings, it’s all business for the 30-something Serra, a true believer in the adage that old age (well, relatively) and treachery will overcome youth and skill. Translated to MMA terms, Serra’s experience and gameplan on April 7, 2007 took apart a St-Pierre who found out in Texas, of all places, that he was human just like everyone else. Maybe he was even more human than most of us, as a maelstrom of personal issues leading up to the fight took his focus off what most believed to be a routine first title defense.
“After my loss with Serra I’ve been accused of not being mentally tough, but a lot of things happened to me, and it’s really personal stuff,” said St-Pierre, who gracefully addressed perhaps the most asked question of him these days. “People read some stuff, but they have no idea what happened to me. The reason why I don’t want to talk about it is because a lot of it concerns people in my family. I have a public life because I’m a professional fighter and I accept the fact that people talk about my personal life. But I don’t want people to talk about the personal lives of people in my family who don’t have a public life, who don’t ask to have their personal lives written about. I think if any person went through what I went through last time, it would affect them. But I will never let that happen again.”
Suddenly, no one was jealous of Georges St-Pierre anymore.
“If I was more experienced in fighting and in life, I would not have made the same mistakes I made,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a mental weakness, it’s more a lack of experience in life. I’m 26 years old and I’ve learned from the mistakes I’ve made. I only have 17 fights and I’m almost always fighting guys who are over 30 years old and most of the time have over 30 fights. Of course, those people have the edge in experience on me. So, I have to be smart and use my athleticism and my skills to beat those people because in experience, I always come short because they have more fight and more life experience.”
What didn’t help St-Pierre’s cause were a series of post-fight interviews that changed his tone from congratulatory towards Serra to one where he was painted as a sore loser. Serra, who was cordial with his opponent before and immediately after the bout, fired back in the press, and it has subsequently gotten ugly at times between the two, and when it’s not, it’s frosty at best. St-Pierre has had enough of the talk.
“After the fight, no matter what happens, I’m gonna shake Matt Serra’s hand,” he said. “A lot of things have been said, some stuff crossed the line a little bit, but I think Matt Serra is a good person and I want to fight the best Matt Serra for my honor. I want to be the real champion, and I want to beat the champion when he’s at his best, and I’m sure it’s the same thing for him. After the fight, win, lose, no matter, I’m gonna shake his hand and maybe we can have a drink together.”
Following what will one day be deemed the ‘dark days’ of his fighting career, St-Pierre cleaned house in his personal and professional life, and having survived the slings and arrows of his detractors, from both in and out of the fight game, he has become a different, and maybe even better, fighter. A dominant decision win over Josh Koscheck last August and a submission win over Hughes in their December rubber match have served to again make St-Pierre a favorite over Serra leading into their Saturday rematch.
But St-Pierre is not the same man or fighter he was a year ago. He’s not invincible, and he knows that talent – natural or otherwise – won’t always get it done. The list of otherworldly talents who have failed in spectacular fashion in all sports is nearly endless; it’s the ones who rise from adversity that are truly special. St-Pierre believes he’s one of those special ones. On April 19th, he gets the chance to show the rest of us.
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