"If my manager were listening to this interview," says Georges St-Pierre in a voice mixing pride, relief and a little defiance, "he would jump up and scream at me, 'Why do you say this publicly?' But I am completely honest about myself."
The UFC welterweight champion has not just revealed a deep, dark secret that might threaten his standing and image. He has not admitted to cheating in the octagon or acknowledged some personal misdeed that would reflect badly on him in society at large. No, he has just opened up about a part of himself that he believes has contributed significantly to making him a longtime champion and one of the best fighters in his sport. "I have obsessive-compulsive disorder," he said.
Mental health issues are not to be taken lightly. And St-Pierre didn't say whether he's been clinically diagnosed with OCD. But he clearly sees traits in himself that he associates with the disorder, and he speaks of them as a fortifying tool for extending a championship reign that extends all the way back to the spring of 2008. Eight defenses of the belt have not sapped GSP of the drive to keep going, because he continues to go about his business one step at a time, never stopping to take stock, forever moving forward toward the next task.
"When I fought Nick Diaz and they raised my hand," St-Pierre says about his most recent bout, a unanimous-decision victory in March, "right away my mind switched and, bang, I'm thinking about Johny Hendricks."
The 32-year-old (24-2) finally gets to bang with Hendricks on Saturday night, when the champ tangles with the explosive No. 1 contender in the main event of UFC 167 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (10 p.m. ET, PPV).
How does OCD play into this? First, I should note that in listening to St-Pierre speak, it doesn't sound like he experiences the debilitating symptoms of the disorder, which is commonly associated with repeated washing or other nervous rituals, often bringing shame to the sufferer. St-Pierre, in contrast, seems to relish the obsessiveness he sees in himself.
"I'm crazy," he says. "That's why I am champion. For my domain, my sport, it's good to be crazy like I am. Yeah, I'm a little bit obsessed -- I'm always in the gym, training all of the time. But if you want to be champion, you need to be obsessed in order to have what you want, you know?"
That doesn't sound much like a disorder. It sounds like the grit and determination necessary to maintain one's place at the top of his sport. But St-Pierre contends that when it comes to obsessions that on the surface might seem healthy and normal, he takes them to a deeper place. He tells the story of a friend who was out driving in Montreal and decided he was going to see if he could hold his breath for one kilometer. "But when he'd driven 800 meters," says St-Pierre, "he noticed, 'Oh my God, there is traffic ahead.' He knew the car was going to have to stop, but he'd already told himself that he had to hold his breath for one kilometer. So he pulled to the side of the road and completed the kilometer on the side. And then he could release his breath."
GSP finishes the story, his admiring tone suggesting that he could relate to this driver. "Yes, I am the same way," he says. "Stuff like that, sometimes it drives me crazy, but I do it. It's not so bad for me. I usually can control it. And as I say, it becomes useful in training."
An example of that came up in an interview St-Pierre did last month with TVA Sports, a French-language TV outlet in Quebec. As he spoke, he was standing in front of a UFC octagon, a new addition to his Tristar Gym training home in Montreal. GSP brought up obsessive-compulsive disorder in recounting how he'd heard that Hendricks planned to be in Las Vegas for the three weeks leading up to their fight so he could train in a UFC octagon. "When I heard that, I got completely crazy," said St-Pierre. "I said there's no way he will have an advantage over me! I'm going to have my own UFC-patented octagon right here in my training gym."
Again, this might not meet the clinical definition of OCD. Regardless, St-Pierre demonstrates an obsessiveness that makes him seem machine-like in the octagon. He can do it all in there, but he's satisfied to narrow his game in order to seize on his opponent's weaknesses while not allowing the fighter in the cage with him to utilize his best tools. So if Georges is in with a striker, you can be sure the guy is going to spend most of the fight on his back, blanketed by the champ. If the foe is a wrestler, St-Pierre will keep the fight standing and pick him apart.
That latter description might apply to Saturday's bout against Hendricks, a two-time NCAA Division I national champion wrestler. But standing and trading with Johny is fraught with danger. Just ask Jon Fitch (KO'd by "Bigg Rigg" in 12 seconds) or Martin Kampmann (46 seconds). Neither of those guys is the striker that St-Pierre is, though, so it stands to reason that Hendricks is going to have to take some punches and kicks when he ventures close enough to GSP to try to land a big shot.
St-Pierre understands that. He knows that he might get in a dozen strikes before Hendricks lands one, but that that one punch from the challenger could be telling. GSP has been hit hard before. He knows what it feels like. He also knows what it feels like to come back. In fact, St-Pierre's favorite career fight is the one that came a year after he'd been shockingly knocked out by Matt Serra back in 2007. In the rematch, in Montreal, he KO'd Serra to begin the reign that continues to this day. "It was the most memorable moment of my career, becoming champion for a second time," he says. "You know, when I became champion the first time, I didn't know how precious that was. Until I lost it."
If there's a moment that's as proud for St-Pierre -- and one that might tell us about his mindset going into Saturday night's fight -- it was in last year's title defense against Carlos Condit, when the challenger connected with a head kick that put GSP on his back. "I took it, I fell to the ground, but I stood up," says the champ. "I took a barrage of punches from Carlos on the ground, but I defended myself, and I stood up. I stood up."