He speaks of it with grave importance; he wants to make clear that 2 million years ago, this predator, a shark larger than a city bus, went extinct. Poof.
As did the American lion, the short-faced bear, and several other giants whose Latin names sound musical in his Quebecois accent.
And why does he care so much about this?
“In fighting, in evolution, in life, efficiency is the key,” says St-Pierre, who hopes to one day return to school to study paleontology. “It’s not the most powerful animal that survives. It’s the most efficient.”
Paraphrasing Darwin is a neat trick for a guy who’s paid to cut off the blood supply to people’s brains. But St-Pierre, whose next bout is scheduled for April 30 against welterweight Jake Shields, isn’t your typical fighter. He’s arguably the best mixed martial artist in the world, a 5-foot 11-inch, 190-pound destroyer who drops 20 pounds for bouts. St-Pierre has cleaned out his division and could go down as the greatest champion in the UFC’s history. He hasn’t lost a round in more than 3 years. He’s faster than other fighters. More efficient. More fit, in the truest Darwinian sense.
“There is a difference between a fighter and a martial artist,” St-Pierre says. “A fighter is training for a purpose: He has a fight. I’m a martial artist. I don’t train for a fight. I train for myself. I’m training all the time. My goal is perfection. But I will never reach perfection.”
So why bother? Because evolution must be constant. He is never a master, complete in his studies. Rather, he is a trainer, a learner, as humble as a white belt. And he reminds himself of this by surrounding himself with smart people—all experts at something he wants to master—who can teach and challenge him.
He has coaches for every fighting discipline, and his main coaches work together to come up with the right strategies and to prepare him for individual opponents. But he also has a talent agent, who pushes him toward the kind of salesmanship and glad-handing that doesn’t tend to come naturally to a fighter. That’s led to promotional deals with Gatorade, Affliction Clothing, and Under Armour.
Understandably, St-Pierre’s goals are lofty—and prioritized. For later: He wants to marry and have five kids. For now: He’s 29, single, aiming to become the best pound-for-pound mixed martial artist of all time, the man who is crescent-kicking a fringe sport into the mainstream. Too bold? No. “The danger is not to set your goal too high and fail to reach it,” St-Pierre says, now channeling Michelangelo.
“It’s to set your goal too low and reach it.”
ST-PIERRE’S FIRST FIGHT TOOK PLACE at around age 7. He reached the top of the hill during a schoolyard game, and an older kid punched him in the nose. More hits would come during his childhood in Saint-Isidore, a parish just outside Montreal, population 2,500. “I was bullied,” says St-Pierre, once a nerdy, studious boy who competed in chess tournaments. “I was not very popular.”
To protect himself, he learned Kyokushin karate from his father. That gave him the striking base he still uses today, he says. He discovered the importance of looking up to other experts when at 15 he watched Royce Gracie, a skinny Brazilian jujitsu master, tap out oversize foes in the early days of the UFC. “I asked myself, ‘How can this happen? How can this small guy beat all these monsters?’ ” he says.
And now St-Pierre has the answer.
“Because of the knowledge,” he says, “that every war is won by the strongest weapon. Royce Gracie had the knowledge. The next day I started looking for a trainer.”
By 2001, St-Pierre was competing professionally. He’d remade himself as an expert in submission grappling. To pay for his training and kinesiology classes at a local college, he held three jobs: resurfacing floors, picking up garbage, and bouncing at a rowdy club called Fuzzy Brossard. In 2004, the UFC offered him a title shot against Matt Hughes. The opportunity was too good to pass up. He dropped out of school. Then he lost to Hughes. Once again, St-Pierre had climbed to the top of the hill only to be punched in the nose.
A lesser man might have been discouraged. St-Pierre grew more committed. Two years later, he fought Hughes again and TKO’d him to win the championship. Since then, St-Pierre has become a collector of people: those who help him in person, and those whose philosophies inspire him. He learned Muay Thai with the help of an elite trainer. Ditto boxing, Brazilian jujitsu, wrestling, strength conditioning, sports psychology. He can cite the 10,000-hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell: You achieve success after that much practice. He might even turn profound and paraphrase Bruce Lee: We are told that talent creates opportunity, yet it is desire that creates talent.
Desire creates talent. Let that concept linger. How many of us are brave enough to pursue a passion at any cost, as St-Pierre has? If the UFC didn’t exist and there weren’t a cent to be made in the sport, he says, he’d still be training twice a day for 90 minutes at a clip. He’d still be learning to punch on unstable surfaces in order to activate hidden muscles and increase his power. He’d be studying gymnastics and walking over obstacles on his hands. It’s about mastering himself. “I don’t do this for the fame,” he says. “I do this for the love.”
Maybe that explains St-Pierre’s behavior when he ran into one of his childhood tormentors at a mall some time ago—and simply, casually nodded. Not to scare the guy. Just to say hi. To let him know that he’d moved past any place where revenge mattered. (The bully was scared nonetheless.)
“I don’t have anger toward this guy anymore,” St-Pierre says. “I don’t want to fill up my heart with anger.”
IT IS MID-DECEMBER, AND A holiday soiree is in full swing in the lower lobby of the Montreal Marriott Chateau Champlain. Guests arrive in expensive suits and shimmering gowns. As it happens, the lobby is also the muster point for undercard fighters at tonight’s UFC 124, which creates a surreal scene: cauliflower-eared athletes and tipsy socialites appraising one another, unsure of who is more dangerous.
High above the clamor, St-Pierre sits silently in a suite on the 34th floor. The hours before a fight swell with tension, and the best way to deal with it is to move. But St-Pierre has been taught exactly when to start moving. Too soon and he wastes energy. He must stay calm as he is bundled into an SUV and transported to the Bell Centre, where, backstage, he will wait some more as the muffled thunder of the crowd oscillates through the walls: G-S-P! G-S-P! G-S-P!
At the arena, his focus is total. He tapes a simple handwritten sign, in French, to his dressing room wall. Translation: On December 11th in Montreal, I will destroy Josh Koscheck and remain world champion. An attainable goal. He makes a sign for each fight. “Every time I wake up in the morning, I put that up so I see it when I brush my teeth,” he says.
St-Pierre begins his warmup: trunk twists, crab steps, hamstring kicks, triangle submission drills, arm bar drills, guillotine chokes, superman punches, combination strikes on pads, breathing exercises with arms upraised against the wall, hands opening and closing methodically. Every movement is precise, efficient. His trainers go over his game plan. He is ready.
Time to move. St-Pierre runs out of his dressing room. He runs to the cage. The fight begins. “Watch how he controls the pace and rhythm,” says Greg Jackson, one of St-Pierre’s coaches. “Human brains are looking for a pattern. Establishing that pattern and then breaking it can be very powerful.”
In the first round, St-Pierre establishes a rhythm, and then breaks it on Josh Koscheck’s face. Over and over. St-Pierre’s left jab is a trip hammer. He seems to have shattered Koscheck’s orbital bone within minutes and begins attacking his opponent’s leg with lead kicks.
The next four rounds mimic the first, with Koscheck looking increasingly battered and desperate. St-Pierre circles out of the range of Koscheck’s looping, obvious right hand. When Koscheck lunges wildly, St-Pierre sidesteps him like a matador and taps him on the head. The crowd laughs. Actually laughs. Koscheck may be a four-time Division I All-American wrestler, but tonight he looks like an earlier model of fighter. Obsolete. Homo habilis. He keeps trying to slug it out with St-Pierre, who is superior on his feet and happy to oblige.
(“Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake,” St-Pierre will say later, quoting Napoleon.) St-Pierre easily wins every round. He lands 136 strikes to Koscheck’s 30.
And what is GSP doing moments later in his dressing room after defending his title in front of a hometown crowd? He’s on a mat, rolling with a coach, training, taking pointers about what he did wrong, about how he could have used a move called the “head snapdown” when he had Koscheck on the ground at one point. He does this after every fight, always training, always learning. Desire creates talent.
“It’s like life,” St-Pierre says. “The more knowledge you get, the more questions you ask. The smarter you get, the more you realize that everything can be possible.”
Behold evolution in real time. The megalodon never stood a chance.
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