After Georges St. Pierre beat Josh Koscheck last August at UFC 74, the Montreal mixed martial arts fighter dropped into his opponent’s dressing room at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas to see how Koscheck was doing.
St. Pierre offered encouragement, telling Koscheck he would get another shot at him. Keep training, you’re going to be a champion, he said.
“There’s not many fighters out there that you can honestly say that guy’s a class act, he’s a good dude and Georges St. Pierre is one of those guys,” said Koscheck, who at 30 is four years older than St. Pierre.
“It changed my thoughts and opinions about Georges St. Pierre after I fought him. That shows a lot of respect and a lot of class, to come into my dressing room afterwards when I’m feeling pissed off, knowing that I’m pissed off that the guy that just beat me is coming in. That looks kind of odd.
“But when I heard the encouragement that he gave me after the fight, I have nothing but respect for him now.”
St. Pierre is not your average athlete inside or outside the ring. While some star athletes exude arrogance, disdain or a major-league sense of entitlement, St. Pierre is polite, well-mannered and almost ego-free.
He drives a workmanlike SUV, grew up supporting the Oilers, lists his mother’s tourtiere as his favourite dish and enjoys going to the movies. He loves fine dining but has a weakness for McDonald’s (two cheeseburgers and french fries).
When he dethroned Matt Hughes to win the 170-pound title at UFC 65 in November 2006 in Sacramento, he gave the championship belt to his mother as a thank you for a lifetime of support.
When a busy schedule and unexpected development distracted St. Pierre from a scheduled interview with a reporter recently, the apologetic fighter rushed over to collect the journalist, conducted the interview over a steak dinner — which he paid for — and then drove the reporter to his hotel.
“A heart of gold,” says trainer Greg Jackson.
“What’s not to like about Georges St. Pierre?” asked UFC president Dana White. “He’s the epitome of everything you’d like in a sports figure or a tough guy. He’s humble, he trains hard, he’s a good-looking kid, he says all the right things.”
An elegant five foot 10, St. Pierre looks like he just walked off the pages of GQ. Armani, Dolce & Gabbana and Affliction (a sponsor) fill the closet.
In the cage, St. Pierre is a different man. Determined. Measured. Relentless.
“Georges is a very sweet nice guy, very down to earth,” said Firas Zahabi, one of St. Pierre’s main trainers in Montreal. “But you can’t go to war with that mentality. When you go to war, you’ve got to be ready to put everything on the line and you’ve got to forget about being nice.
“He can do that.”
St. Pierre will be a million miles away from nice when he climbs into the cage Saturday at the soldout Bell Centre in Montreal to face welterweight champion Matt (The Terror) Serra at UFC 83 in the UFC’s debut on Canadian soil.
The Montrealer was a 10-1 favourite when he met Serra one year ago at UFC 69 in Houston. St. Pierre, after all, was billed as the future of the sport and was coming off an impressive title win over the division’s most dominant champion. Serra was seen as a puffed up lightweight who had to win a reality show (“The Ultimate Fighter”) to get a title shot.
Things did not go according to plan. St. Pierre got tagged early on with a blow to the head — it connected with the carotid artery, he said later — and never recovered.
Former champion Hughes was ringside at the Toyota Center to witness the massive upset.
“He’s hurt,” Hughes, writing in his book “Made in America,” recalled thinking. “Wait a minute. He can’t be hurt. He’s fighting Matt Serra.”
Serra stalked a staggered St. Pierre and kept punching, until referee (Big) John McCarthy stepped it in at 3:25 of the first round.
“This is my worst nightmare,” St. Pierre said later.
That bad dream has stuck with St. Pierre every day since. He has beaten Koscheck and Hughes, for a second time at UFC 79 in December, to help fill the time before the rematch. A picture of Serra is stuck to the wall of his workout gym, a reminder of why he punishes himself by chaining a 90-pound weight to his waist and then doing chin-ups among other eye-popping reps in a workout of Frankenstein proportions.
“I know Georges St. Pierre is very motivated right now,” said Canadian welterweight John Alessio, who fights on the World Extreme Cagefighting circuit. “He’s got one thing on his mind 24 hours a day and that’s beating the shit out of Matt Serra. That makes a dangerous man.”
In a private moment, on the phone to a friend while driving around Montreal, St. Pierre lets the polite facade slip for a second. “I’m going to mess him up.”
St. Pierre comes from humble beginnings on the South Shore, a suburb of Montreal. His father spent more than 60 hours a week on a floor-recovering business, installing carpet and ceramics. His mother nursed the elderly.
“We didn’t have a lot of money but I always ate my three meals a day,” St. Pierre says. “I grew up with the mentality that I had to work to get what I want. I’m glad in a certain a way.
“My parents already helped me financially but they never gave me something for free … It’s probably the best gift they ever gave me. I grew up with that value.”
An accomplished athlete from Day 1, he took up karate as a kid but moved into mixed martial arts — giving up hockey because his family couldn’t afford both — after being seduced by the sight of Royce Gracie in the early days of the UFC. He was good at it.
In his late teens, he went to school and trained in MMA. He also held down three jobs, working as a bouncer at the Fuzzy Brossard nightclub, working at a floor recovery store, and working for the government teaching activities to delinquent kids. To this day, he remains proud that he earned his floor recovering certificate.
St. Pierre won his first fight as a pro in January 2002, defeating Ivan Menjivar. Four more wins, including a victory over veteran Pete Spratt, and he was in the UFC where he opened his account with a decision over Karo Parisyan at UFC 46 in January 2004. Two fights later, he was matched against Hughes for the vacant welterweight title.
Hughes submitted him via armbar with one second left, handing St. Pierre his first ever loss. St. Pierre later admitted he was in awe of Hughes going into the fight.
The Canadian regrouped, dispatching Jason (Mayhem) Miller, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk and B.J. Penn in the UFC before taking down Hughes for the title.
The St. Pierre aura grew. He was billed as the future of MMA, able to hang with pro boxers and hold his own with the cream of Canada’s amateur wrestlers.
“He is a specimen. I’m serious, I’ve never seen anything like him,” said White, throwing in an F-bomb before specimen to make his point.
Then came Serra.
St. Pierre’s training for the fight had been wretched. His father was seriously ill and a cousin was in a coma after a car accident. There were other family issues.
Injuries cut into his preparation. And as champion, he sorely missed a mentor to keep him on the straight and narrow. “Let’s just say he partied a little bit too much,” said former manager Stephane Patry.
As St. Pierre’s training goes, so do his fights. Both were a disaster, in terms of UFC 69. More than a loss, it was a humiliation.
“It taught me what it takes to become world champion,” St. Pierre said. “And when I lost to Matt Serra, it taught me what it takes to stay world champion. You know when you become world champion at 25 years old and everybody around you —in the gym, everywhere — tell you how great you are and things like that, it makes you believe that you’re in a box that separates you from the other fighters. But this box, this line is an illusion. And that’s what happened. Even though I’m not a cocky guy, I got caught in those situations, many other things. I made many mistakes.
“My head is fixed. I fixed my personal life. I had a lot of issues, like some people dying . . . I changed a lot of things. I went through the toughest time of my life. Now I’m over it, it’s finished.
“I’m the kind of person who never makes the same mistake twice. It happened. I made a mistake. All right, I’m over it now. I cannot change the past but I’m looking out to change the future. I’m not afraid of Matt Serra, I’m up to the challenge.”
On the advice of sports psychologist Brian Cain, St. Pierre looked to rid himself of the mental albatross of his title defeat by scrawling Serra’s name onto a brick and hurling it into the icy waters off the South Shore.
“Actually I thought it was kind of weird but I felt better after,” St. Pierre said.
Trainer Zahabi say St. Pierre has learned his lesson.
“When he was world champion, he was young — and experience gives you the test first and the answers later,” Zahabi said. “He realized that he can’t change his methods when you are a champion. When you are a champion, it means nothing. You’re a champion that day and there’s another title up for grabs on your next title fight. It’s not given to you for free, you have to fight for that next title.”
St. Pierre is ready to rumble this time. And while he maintains he does his talking in the Octagon, where he never fights with anger — “I always fight mechanically, with no emotion,” he says — it’s clear he has a point to prove Saturday night against Serra.
“Next time people will know,” St. Pierre said. “And if Serra wants to fight me again, again and again, I will fight him again, again and again and the result is going to be the same thing every single time that I fight him.”