Georges St. Pierre: Lord of the ring

Can a smart, sharply dressed Canadian bring ultimate fighting into the mainstream?

Jon P. Kopaloff/Getty Images/ Richard Phibbs/Trunk Archive

The Most Dangerous Man on Earth (as voted by viewers of the testosterone-fuelled cable channel, Spike TV) pushes aside his plate and issues a challenge. “Go ahead, ask me a question about paleontology from the Triassic period, leading up to the end of the Cretaceous period,” says Georges St. Pierre. “I’m very, very good at this.”

To say that this is unexpected is something of an understatement. From the scars that part his stubbly hair, to his cauliflowered ears, to his well-muscled arms, everything about this 29-year-old Montrealer bespeaks his profession: beating people up. The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) welterweight champion (20 wins-2 losses-0 draws) is rated, pound-for-pound, perhaps the best mixed-martial-arts fighter in the world.

Just minutes before, while polishing off a breakfast of three over-easy eggs, hash browns, sausages, a basket of whole wheat toast, a large bowl of fruit and yogourt, two orange juices and a café au lait in a trendy Manhattan bistro, he has calmly related the worst injury he has ever inflicted inside the steel-caged octagon: twisting back an opponent’s arm until he ripped the rotator cuff. “He didn’t want to tap out,” St. Pierre says, invoking fight jargon for crying uncle. “So I broke it. I couldn’t take the chance to let him go and do it to me.” Now, we’re talking dinosaurs.

Fossil-related queries don’t readily come to mind, but St. Pierre, known simply as GSP to his legions of fans, isn’t deterred. He launches into a mini-lecture about mass-extinction events—not just the one that knocked the giant reptiles off their pedestal 65 million years ago, but prior slate-wipings, like the Great Dying at the end of the Permian period. Soon the conversation turns to philosophy—St. Pierre got turned on to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War as he struggled to regain his title two years ago, but has since progressed to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and René Descartes.

The fighter likes what the tale of Diogenes of Sinope, the ancient Greek philosopher who was bold—or foolish—enough to tell Alexander the Great to stop blocking his sunlight, says about disregarding fear. He likes the lesson about being true to your own nature and beliefs. And he embraces its message about not accepting other people’s limits. In a blood sport that is still largely populated by trash-talking freak shows, Georges St. Pierre stands out by not standing out. Intelligent, polite, disciplined, respectful of his opponents, he is the acceptable face of ultimate fighting. That’s why he’s the one with blue-chip sponsors like Gatorade, Under Armour, and Mission Skincare. And it’s why his sky-high ambitions can’t be dismissed out of hand. “I want to be the guy who makes the difference in the sport, not just to Canada, but the guy who brings it to another level, into the mainstream,” he says. “I want to be like Michael Jordan and basketball, Muhammad Ali in boxing. The way Tiger Woods was to golf. I want to be the guy.”

In the basement gym just off Broadway, St. Pierre is kicking the stuffing out of a heavy bag. Literally. With each high roundhouse, bits of black foam float down to the shiny hardwood floor. It’s late on a rainy Sunday, and he’s the only fighter in the place. A Saturday night out on the town stretched well into the next dawn, but he seems none the worse for just two hours of sleep, and that millstone of a “breakfast” settling in his gut. His next title defence isn’t until Dec. 11 in Montreal against Josh Koscheck, so he’s carrying about 20 lb. more than his 170-lb. fight weight. But the body still looks like it’s been chiselled from rock.

When his coach Phil Nurse, a former muay Thai (Thai boxing) champion arrives, they settle into the ring to practise some takedown moves and defences. St. Pierre grins broadly as they grapple, cackling when he manages to best his much smaller trainer. It’s a measure of revenge. Yesterday in sparring, Nurse “kicked my ass,” he says. In this sport, pain is knowledge. “You have to learn to be humble before you get good,” says St. Pierre. “I haven’t always been GSP. When I was just Georges St. Pierre, I got beat up so much.”

As a kid growing up in the tiny farming town of Saint-Isidore, on Montreal’s south shore, St. Pierre found himself the frequent target of bullies. “Georges was different in the way he thought and acted, not a nerd, but kind of hyperactive,” says Gerardo Lanctôt, a close friend since grade school. “He was a bit marginalized.” At age seven, St. Pierre’s father, Roland, a carpet installer with a black belt in karate, starting teaching him self-defence moves at home. When he was nine, he enrolled at a local martial arts dojo.

St. Pierre doesn’t shy away from describing his childhood as troubled. “I grew up with a lot of anger. In my school it was bad, and in my house it was bad,” he says. “I needed a place I could go where I was not in conflict. Karate was a place where I could forget everything and be at peace with myself, and take out my aggression.” The fighter won’t be more specific about the circumstances, citing a desire to protect his family’s privacy. But Roland, his mother Paulyne, and two younger sisters remain a big part of his life. He bought a house in the nearby community of Candiac. And after his first title defence against John Fitch in August 2008, he proudly paid off his parents’ mortgage.

Ultimate fighting came into view at age 15, when a friend rented a video of an early competition. St. Pierre, a strong but average-sized guy, was fascinated by Royce Gracie, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter who routinely dominated much larger opponents. And he knew instantly that this was the martial art—and the career—he wanted to pursue. Today, along with the black fleur de lys on his calf, he has the Japanese characters for jiu-jitsu tattooed over his heart. The literal translation is “the art of softness.” St. Pierre loves the notion of strength through giving way. “It represents me very well.”

The game plan for the coming fight is the same as it was for the previous four title defences: be prepared and be unpredictable. “There’s no position that Koscheck can put me in where I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t care where the fight goes,” says St. Pierre. “I know my options.”

The Montrealer has only lost twice in his UFC career, and both times he has had his revenge. In his first title shot in October 2004, Matt Hughes caught him in an arm bar, and he tapped out with just one second remaining in the first round. But the rematch in November 2006 wasn’t even close. St. Pierre sent Hughes sprawling to the canvas in the first with his signature move, a “Superman” punch—a fake kick that gives way to a flying, full body jab to the face.

At his next fight, UFC 69: Shootout, St. Pierre was TKO’d in the first round by Matt Serra, and stripped of his crown. At the time, he blamed the loss on a family illness and the death of a close cousin, as well as the pressure—and temptations—of being the champ. Today, St. Pierre simply says Serra was the better fighter.

He parted company with his manager, and much of his entourage in the aftermath. By the time of the rematch at Montreal’s Bell Centre in April 2008, St. Pierre seemed an entirely different fighter. The frenzied, all-out assaults that earned him the nickname “Rush” early in his career were replaced by takedowns and punishing clinches. Pinned to the mat, absorbing knee after knee, Serra didn’t make it out of the second round. St. Pierre regained his belt in front of 22,000 howling, hometown fans.

The new, improved GSP has so far proven exceptionally hard to beat. None of the title defences have even been close, and he has now won more consecutive rounds than any fighter in UFC history. But the clinical style isn’t winning as many plaudits. Many fans complain that “Rush” has become boring.

Phil Nurse thinks that the UFC’s hard-core base—mostly young men with a bit of blood lust—haven’t kept pace with the evolution of the sport. “People want you to get your head smashed in. Go in there and come out with a broken nose, your teeth hanging out, a broken leg and still win the fight,” he says. “But at the end of the day this is a career, you want to have it last.” The purse for St. Pierre’s first title win in 2006 was US$58,000. His payday for defending his crown against BJ Penn in January 2009 was US$400,000 (confidential contract bonuses based on pay-per-view customers likely pushed the figure much higher.) Mixed martial arts is now very big business.

St. Pierre says he’s fearful every time he fights. “Not scared to die. Not scared to get hurt. I’m scared because I’m a proud person. I don’t want to lose and disappoint people.” In the quiet of the dressing room, he always says a prayer for his, and his opponent’s safety.

It’s not unusual for people to line up for Georges St. Pierre’s autograph. At a recent fan expo in Las Vegas, the wait for a signature was as much as seven hours. However, it is striking to see federal cabinet ministers and MPs queuing up like less patient, but equally giddy, enthusiasts. Last May, Heritage Minister James Moore scored big points with his colleagues by inviting St. Pierre to Parliament Hill. The meet and greet in the historic Commonwealth Room drew rare all-party support. Gilles Duceppe got a poster signed. So did Justin Trudeau. And as the cameras clicked, Stockwell Day fulfilled some partisan fantasies by submitting to an arm bar from the champion.

St. Pierre wasn’t crazy about the idea, but he knows a command performance when he sees one. The Las Vegas-based UFC has long been campaigning to gain entry to Canada’s lucrative urban markets. Quebec was the first to overturn its ban on the sport, followed by British Columbia. This past August, Dalton McGuinty’s Ontario government abruptly dropped its long-standing opposition. The Montrealer declines to take credit for the changes of heart. But it’s hard to imagine politicians lining up to grip and grin with other UFC stars, like former pro wrestler Brock Lesnar, who celebrated his last victory by flipping off the audience, cussing out sponsors, and declaring his intention to go home and “get on top” of his wife.

Shari Spencer has a pretty good idea of just how broad St. Pierre’s appeal has become. And her job is to push the charm offensive even further. As the only female manager in mixed martial arts, she likes to court sponsors by sharing her own conversion story. When her boyfriend, an athletic therapist, took her to her first match in Las Vegas, she vowed never to go back. But as his job brought them into more and more contact with the fighters, she came to admire their blood-soaked athleticism. A CFO by trade, she started advising St. Pierre on business matters a few years ago. When he broke with his old management in 2007, she took over the job. Under her watch, the Montrealer signed on with CAA, the L.A. agency that represents sports stars like Derek Jeter and David Beckham. For close to two years, Spencer played “evangelist” in corporate boardrooms, pitching her client’s unique position within a “rebel” sport. “He’s safe. He wears a suit. He’s polite. And you are never going to catch him dogfighting,” she says. “And the ladies like him because he’s built like Adonis and wears those tight shorts.”

The pitch is obviously working. The week we meet up in New York, St. Pierre is front and centre at a Mission Skincare press event with Serena Williams and David Wright, takes batting practice with the Mets, and gives dozens of interviews to promote the new season of The Ultimate Fighter, the UFC’s reality series where he and Koscheck are serving as rival coaches. The next week, he’s off to the Philippines on a promotional tour, then back to L.A. to shoot commercials for Affliction clothing, Under Armour, fitness equipment, and a workout DVD. “We’re getting a lot more opportunities these days,” says Spencer. “Frankly, we’re almost maxed out.”

For all the talk of wanting to be bigger than his sport, St. Pierre isn’t necessarily enjoying all aspects of his growing celebrity status. Montreal, which used to be a refuge, is now a hassle. “After I won the title there, things just exploded,” he says. “It was like that movie Dawn of the Dead with the zombies. I couldn’t go anywhere.” When it comes to his romantic life, the fighter is all too aware of the Internet forums devoted to speculating about—and savaging—any woman seen on his arm. He’s reluctant to say if there’s anyone special.

Rudolphe Beaulieu, another old Montreal friend—they squared off against each other in a jiu-jitsu match more than a decade ago—says he worries about what comes with the spotlight. “He’s an extremely generous guy, he has trouble saying ‘no.’ And now GSP is this big machine,” says Beaulieu. “The world asks for a lot more than it gives back to him.”

Then there’s the job itself. Like many of his opponents, Koscheck has been doing his best to make up for St. Pierre’s polite approach to pre-fight publicity. He’s taken to calling him “Frenchie.” And he has suggested the Montrealer is on steroids. St. Pierre acknowledges that MMA, which has no testing policy, is rife with performance-enhancing drugs, but denies that he is among the athletes who take them. “I’ve never taken steroids in my life,” he says.

In recent months, St. Pierre has mused about taking a hiatus and trying to make the Canadian Olympic wrestling team for the London 2012 Games. Not only would it be a steep athletic challenge—although he studies wrestling as part of his training, he has never competed. It would also demand an awful lot of goodwill from both his sponsors and UFC, which has him under contract for three more bouts after the upcoming Montreal event. And who knows what it would mean to ongoing efforts to establish a foundation to help raise money for at-risk youth.

Logic suggests it’s probably just an escape fantasy, like the tale St. Pierre shares when he plops down at the restaurant table in Manhattan. On the Friday night, he made a personal appearance at a corporate party for New York’s Fashion Week. Stuck in the spotlight, posing for photo after photo, the champion took the first opportunity that presented itself to bolt. He and a training partner instead took refuge at Scores, a notorious gentleman’s club, where they ate T-bone steaks while a pair of young ladies gave them massages, and others danced for their enjoyment. “I was in heaven!” declares St. Pierre. Seated at his side, a mortified Shari Spencer appears to be trying to slink under the table. The fighter catches her eye and grins. “Do you know that she used to be a youth pastor?” he asks.

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