In 2008, I had a few words to write about Georges St-Pierre:
“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.”
Today, a little less than 11 years later, the Canadian icon announced his retirement at the age of 37. And strangely, nothing changed in my assessment of him in the days since he regained his welterweight title from Serra, successfully defended it nine times, then won a middleweight crown in what would ultimately be his final fight.
He is still the Montreal gentleman, the consummate pro, the MMA ambassador, the hardest worker in the gym, and the guy who every fighter should aspire to be, simply because he showed up, did his job, hit his marks and then left on top.
That’s harder than it sounds, especially in combat sports. In combat sports, a pro career isn’t celebrated with a victory tour and a gold watch. It’s usually delivered with a losing streak and talks from family and friends that it’s time to hang them up.
“It takes a lot of discipline to retire on top,” said St-Pierre at Bell Centre today. “It was a long process in my mind. I wanted to retire on my own and not be told to retire.”
Needless to say, St-Pierre never fit the mold of “typical.” He was the quiet and polite kid who seemed to be suited for anything but prizefighting, but always showed up on fight night ready to dispel any doubts. He was the guy with the GQ model looks who didn’t mind getting into a firefight that would leave him looking vastly different at the end of 25 minutes of battle than he did before.
He was also the fighter who never shied away from a challenge. For proof of that, just read the names on his resume:
Hall of Famers Matt Hughes, BJ Penn and Matt Serra. UFC world champions Michael Bisping, Carlos Condit, Johny Hendricks, Sean Sherk. And the best welterweights of his era, including Nick Diaz, Jake Shields, Thiago Alves, Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Frank Trigg and Karo Parisyan.
It’s clear that when the conversation begins about the greatest fighters to grace the UFC Octagon, St-Pierre’s name has to be on the short list, and he’s got a solid case as the best ever.
And more often than not, St-Pierre made it look easy, even though he wasn’t always the hammer, but sometimes the nail.
Serra and Hughes defeated him. Hendricks nearly beat him by decision. Penn marked him up. Diaz was Diaz. And when Condit dropped him hard in their UFC 154 bout in 2012, St-Pierre called it the proudest moment of his career.
“It showed I had the guts to come back from an obstacle and overcome it,” he said.
But other than those dicey situations, St-Pierre was rarely tested for 15 years in the Octagon. In team sports, that’s called a dynasty. In combat sports, we call those folks great. Georges St-Pierre was a great fighter, and it had little to do with his technique or athleticism.
“There is something to have the skill, but I think you have to have more because skill is not enough,” he told me before the Serra rematch. “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.”
Those sacrifices don’t get seen by those outside the Octagon, so maybe he didn’t get his complete just due when he was tearing through the welterweight division while simultaneously putting the sport on the map in his home country. That all might have changed in November 2017, when he returned from a nearly four-year layoff to not just beat Bisping, but to do it 15 pounds north at middleweight, becoming the UFC’s 185-pound champion in the process.
Pound-for-pound? All-time great?
Mission accomplished. And while St-Pierre talked of wanting a bout with current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, he also admits that he isn’t the same fighter mentally that he was.
“I wanted to destroy everyone,” he said, joking about running in the snow and yelling “War” like boxing legend Marvin Hagler. “I don’t have the same the anger, the same hunger anymore.”
So he did what so few fighters have been able to do. He left on his own terms. On top. His way. So don’t be sad, he’s not.
“Fighting is what I love to do in my life, but it’s not my life,” said St-Pierre. “It’s a little part of my life and I’m going to fill it up with other things.
“There are no tears. I’m very happy to do it.”