With very little money in his pocket, more Spanish than English in his vocabulary and a car offering no guarantee of safe passage, a French-Canadian teenager left his Saint-Isidore home for the jiu-jitsu mats of New York City.
He received a piece of advice from his father before the trip: Avoid the Bronx.
“I end up taking the wrong exit. Where do I find myself?” Georges St-Pierre, 36, said recently over breakfast in Manhattan. “In the Bronx! Now, I’m thinking I’m exactly where I’m not supposed to go.”
So began St-Pierre’s first journey to New York City nearly 20 years ago. He makes another journey here this Saturday as the former welterweight king returns to the octagon after four years to face middleweight champion Michael Bisping for the title at UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden.
St-Pierre proved his father’s advice to be flawed that night, finding enough people along the way to understand his Spanish through his French-Canadian accent to get him to his chosen destination: 37th Street and Eighth Avenue.
It was at this place — Renzo Gracie Academy — where St-Pierre would discover that maybe some of those stereotypes about New York are kinda, sorta true. Rough city. Chews you up, spits you back out.
St-Pierre attended a jiu-jitsu class taught by Shawn Williams. St-Pierre recalled seeing a move explained that caught his fascination.
“I can not understand what he said,” St-Pierre said, “but the body language, I’m like, man, I love this place.”
Not for too long.
St-Pierre rolled with others in the class and held his own, he said. Then in the last part of class, he encountered Williams. The class instructor. The world-class jiu-jitsu player. The Gracie black belt.
“He crushed me,” St-Pierre said. “I think in five minutes, he tapped me 10 times. After the training, I was very discouraged. I was like, ‘Man, there’s no way I will ever become champion or good at this game. I just got crushed by a guy who’s 30 pounds lighter than me. I was demoralized. It was the first time I got humiliated. I couldn’t understand what happened to me.”
And then there’s this less publicized thing about Big Town: New Yorkers are nice.
“He’s like, ‘I can’t believe you’re beating me up like this,’” said Williams, who still trains with GSP when they’re in the same city. “I’m like, ‘Georges, it’s all right, this is what we do. This is what I do. It’s all right. This isn’t what you do yet.’ I didn’t know he was that disappointed. I just remember talking to him about it and being like, ‘You’re going to be awesome. If you put this time in, you’re going to be better than me.”
His confidence in pieces, his morale wiped away like the sweat off the mats after class, St-Pierre headed home.
What little self worth he had left went flying out the window of his 1993 Honda on the drive north.
“My girlfriend at the time, she kept saying, ‘Oh that guy you rolled with at the end, he’s so hot, oh my god, he’s so handsome, he’s really my type of guy,’ ” St-Pierre said. “I just got crushed by a guy who my girlfriend fantasized about. Total humiliation.”
St-Pierre more than regained his life’s focus after that experience. He regularly returned to Gracie’s academy to train. By bus or by car, St-Pierre made the six-plus hour trip to learn from some of the world’s best jiu-jitsu players. Williams, Gracie, John Danaher and Matt Serra, to name a few.
At a young age, St-Pierre showed a glimpse of the dedication and determination that he’d become known for as he twice won the UFC welterweight championship and successfully defended it nine consecutive times.
“You have to be ready for a little bit of losing, humiliation,” St-Pierre said. “It’s part of the game. It’s hard. Trust me, it’s very hard. Nobody has an ego like me. My ego is bigger than everybody. That’s what makes me stand out. My pride. I’m a very proud guy.
“When I get beat up some time in training, I don’t sleep at night. It drives me completely insane, like, ‘Man, what am I going to do to solve that problem?”
Kenny Florian, a retired UFC fighter and now an analyst for Fox, started training with St-Pierre at his Tristar gym in Montreal around 2009.
Florian recalled a time when he knocked down St-Pierre during sparring.
“One thing was for sure,” Florian said. “He was never going to be afraid to go at it again with me or anybody else. He took everything as a challenge and always looked for ways to improve. He always asked questions.”
Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, a top-ranked UFC welterweight, was an undefeated kickboxing world champion when he first met St-Pierre. Thompson was fighting in Montreal and St-Pierre and trainer Firas Zahabi were in an opponent’s corner. Thompson said they approached him after the bout and invited him to train.
This is what St-Pierre does. He seeks new material and new information from new people. It’s how he grows his arsenal in pursuit of becoming what he and others call “a true martial artist.”
“Georges St-Pierre, when I was training with him, he looked like he could just crush your skull,” Thompson said. “His physique, big shoulders, small waist, big legs, man. He was just a monster. He was my inspiration to push from kickboxing to MMA.
“I was just throwing everything I had at him, and after every sparring session, he was up and he was like, ‘Hey man, how did you do this? What do I do if my opponent does this?’” Thompson said. “They were always studying, always trying to improve. He’s just that kind of guy. And not just in martial arts. If he’s slightly interested in something, he’s going to figure it out and he wants to be the best at it. That’s just his mentality. That’s why he was champion for so long.”
St-Pierre (25-2) ruled the UFC welterweight division for more than six years before walking away at the end of 2013. He won his last 12 fights, including nine straight title defenses, and 13 of his last 14 fights before stepping away from mixed martial arts.
The one blemish in that span: April 7, 2007.
On that night in Houston, Texas, St-Pierre learned his greatest lesson in life. Never underestimate anyone in this sport.
St-Pierre was an 11-1 favorite against Matt Serra heading into the bout. Two-plus minutes after the opening bell rang, St-Pierre was on his back, starry-eyed and looking up at the rafters of the Toyota Center, the victim of what 10 years later still is considered the greatest upset in UFC history.
“I started believing my invincibility. I take a few punches, bam,” St-Pierre said, smashing his right fist into his left palm to emphasize his point. “Everything falls. No matter how good you are, no matter how great you are in the sport. You are always one mistake from losing. This, I remember this lesson for the rest of my life.”
Serra was on Season 4 of “The Ultimate Fighter” where St-Pierre was a guest instructor. He recalled hearing a conversation where St-Pierre talked about how nervous he gets before a fight. Serra stored that piece of information, just in case he might need it later. He did.
“It was one of those things where I’m like all right, he might be a destroyer in that cage, but he’s only human and he’s got doubts like everybody else,” Serra said earlier this year. “And if there’s a little bit of doubt in there, that’s not a bad thing. and I know it’s in there, so maybe we could make it come out on fight night.”
St-Pierre is among the more honest athletes in mixed martial arts. Why admit such a feeling in earshot of a group of men all aiming to take from you what you earned and cherished — that UFC welterweight title — and do so openly and repeatedly? Why not shy away from that feeling? Why not bury it deep inside the soul until the fight is over?
Because, to some degree, St-Pierre needs that emotion.
“He acknowledges that he’s nervous but then he goes out an executes the perfect game plan every single time,” Florian said “He’s been in some of the biggest fights in UFC history, and I’ve been in the locker room where he turned to us and said, ‘Man, I don’t know why I do this. This is crazy. I’m so nervous, I can’t take it, I don’t want to do this anymore.’ But then he goes out there and shines. It’s amazing.”
St-Pierre won the title back from Serra a year later. In nine title defenses over the next five years, St-Pierre faced perhaps the toughest run of competition of any champion in MMA history: Jon Fitch, BJ Penn, Thiago Alves, Dan Hardy, Josh Koscheck, Jake Shields, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, Johny Hendricks. Those nine fighters were 66-16-1 combined in the UFC (plus one interim champion) leading into their fights against St-Pierre.
All nine attempted to stop St-Pierre. All nine failed. Eight lost by decision, one (Penn) was stopped by TKO. Of the 129 possible scoring rounds from judges, St-Pierre won 113 of them for an 87.6 percent rate.
That fear, however, always lingered inside St-Pierre. Still does, along with doubt and insecurity and any other synonyms that come along in a thesaurus.
“I should not fight if I don’t have that fear,” St-Pierre said. “I’m not afraid of my opponent. I’m afraid to mess it up. I’m afraid to not perform as good as I should be. To let down all my training partners, all the people, my sponsors, my friends that helped me get there and disappointing them. I’m a very proud guy. That’s my fear.”
“I’m not afraid of the guy. He’s a human being. There’s no man in the world that I’m afraid of. Yeah, there are some guys that are scarier than others. I’m afraid of failure. That’s why I’m very good. When I’m having this fear, I welcome it, it is my friend. When I was young, I couldn’t sleep at night, I was paralyzed by it. Now I realize, I am older, I need this.”
Such self-actualization is uncommon among fighters. Such candid use of words such as “fear” and “failure” and “doubt” in a sport built and marketed on being the tougher than the toughest guy in the room is far less normal.
But that speaks to the heart of who St-Pierre is as a competitor.
“He goes into Renzo’s and trains in a normal class, at John’s normal class,” Williams said. “That’s not normal either. Whether he wins or loses, he’s highly competitive in that environment. It’s not normal for an A-list fighter like that to go in and be humble enough to go, ‘Guys, kick my butt because I need it. Give me a hard time because I need it.’ That’s completely not normal.”
At the height of his success, St-Pierre was revered across all of Canada, not just his home city of Montreal. Three times in a row, St-Pierre was voted Sportsnet Canadian Athlete of the Year, beating out Stanley Cup champions and Olympic medalists, among others.
“We’d be in his car driving and people would be freaking out if they saw him just driving,” Florian said. “He’s a god over there.”
St-Pierre felt the pressure. It grew with each fight, each title defense. The pressure to live up to expectations of the fans and himself.
St-Pierre described the feeling as “paralyzed.” “Claustrophobic” was another adjective he used several times. “Obsessed” and “crazy,” too.
To get away from the headlines, the shows, the videos, the hype, St-Pierre sought therapy, but not from a doctor or medicine or counselor or teammate. Rather, he looked to people he saw on the street as he drove around town to escape. That’s how he said he found inner harmony amid the chaos.
“I look at the people in the street, and I see, one time it was an old lady carrying her grocery bag,” St-Pierre said. “She don’t care about me. She doesn’t care that I’m fighting in two days on pay-per-view in front of a million people. She doesn’t even know who I am. Then there’s the other guy with his son in the bar, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t know who I am. So it made me realize who cares? Life, there’s so much more to it. Who cares?”
When St-Pierre walks into that octagon Saturday night to face Bisping for the middleweight title at UFC 217 after a four-year absence, he’ll bring fear with him. He’ll bring doubt and humility. He’ll bring a competitive fire and a collection of fighting knowledge built upon two decades of experience and training and learning from anyone and everyone willing to answer his questions.
“He wanted to go do as one of the best of all time and he made it happen,” said Thompson, who <HTfaces Jorge Masvidal that same night. “That goes to show you can do whatever you want to do, if you make those sacrifices, if you put in the work. Most people aren’t willing to do it. They see it, they want it, but they’re not willing to put in the work and make those sacrifices to be able to make those dreams come true. He did it.”