The last time we saw Georges St-Pierre in the octagon four years ago, he stunned the mixed martial arts community by walking away from the UFC and vacating the welterweight title.
That title defined him in the cage, consumed him out of it.
“When I left, it wasn’t because of damage,” St-Pierre said. “It was more mental. More anxiety, nervousness. I couldn’t sleep well. I felt like I was claustrophobic. Too much pressure.”
On Tuesday morning in a Manhattan breakfast spot downtown, as he answered questions about his return to fighting in between sips of macchiato and spoonfuls of yogurt, he felt free and loose.
“I had a problem at that time, too, a personal problem. It’s like a bag of bricks that you carry that you don’t have time to empty your bag. It piled up on each other. Now I had time off, I had time to empty my bag. Now I come back light.”
He smiled. He laughed. No signs of any pressure. No remnants of that “personal problem.” He looked happier than in 2013.
Four years removed from his ninth consecutive title defense, St-Pierre returns with less on his shoulders and more on his entire body. The former welterweight champion will move up a weight class and challenge middleweight champion Michael Bisping at UFC 217 at Madison Square Garden Nov. 4.
It is one of three title fights on the card. Bantamweight champion Cody Garbrandt defends against T.J. Dillashaw, and Joanna Jedrzjedcyk will put her strawweight title on the line against Rose Namajunas. Tickets ranging from $100 to $1,250 go on sale to the public on Friday, with presales on Wednesday and Thursday for select groups. When UFC came to the Garden last year for the first time, the event set a promotional record with a $17.7-million live gate and a venue record for attendance at a sporting event with 20,427 fans.
“I want my comeback fight to be something epic, something special for the fans,” St-Pierre said. “I didn’t want to come back for something small. I come out all the way or I don’t come out at all.”
St-Pierre last fought on Nov. 16, 2013. He beat Jonny Hendricks by split decision in a five-round fight that many observers thought he lost. In his time away, St-Pierre explored his passion for paleontology and hosted a show about dinosaurs on the History Channel.
Make no mistake, though. He trained. Fighting, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, karate, gymnastics. This is Georges St-Pierre, after all, a man with a drive to be the best.
“Nobody has an ego like me,” St-Pierre said. “My ego is bigger than everybody. That’s what makes me stand out. My pride. I’m a very proud guy.”
St-Pierre said he will have boxing trainer Freddie Roach with him in Montreal for the entire camp. “A fighter’s fantasy,” said St-Pierre, long an admirer of Roach. St-Pierre first worked with him before the Josh Koscheck fight at UFC 124 in 2010, and St-Pierre battered Koscheck with his jab for five rounds. St-Pierre said he brought in Roach as a way to prepare for Bisping’s standup under striking coach Jason Parillo.
“I need something to help me counter that,” St-Pierre said. “It’s like a chess game, so I got Freddie Roach.”