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Future uncertain, legacy is not for Georges St-Pierre

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Georges St-Pierre's split-decision win over Johny Hendricks last month was criticized by many.

Georges St-Pierre wears the UFC welterweight belt no more. He is walking away from mixed martial arts, perhaps temporarily, maybe forever.

The 32-year old, who has owned the 170-pound division and the shiny brass-and-leather strap that goes with its top spot since 2008, announced on Friday afternoon that he will indeed go through with what he so emotionally had said he needed to do following last month's rugged split-decision victory over Johny Hendricks: He's taking time away from the octagon.

He might come back. He might not.

"I've been fighting for a long time," St-Pierre said during a conference call with UFC president Dana White and members of the media. "I've had 22 fights in the UFC; 15 of my fights were for a world title. I've been fighting for a very long time [at] a high level. It's a lot of pressure, a lot of criticism. I've decided I need to take time off. I know the UFC is a business and they can't wait for my little person, for sure. They have to keep things rolling. So I vacate my title for the respect of the other competitors. And one day, when I feel like it, I might come back. But right now I need a break."

White, who in the aftermath of UFC 167 on Nov. 16 was critical -- even dismissive -- of St-Pierre's revelation that he needed a hiatus, has changed his tune dramatically over the course of a month. He and company CEO Lorenzo Fertitta spoke with GSP on Thursday, and apparently the promoter came away with a better understanding of how personal issues have been afflicting St-Pierre to the point where he feels compelled to step away. "I agree with him 100 percent," said White. "This isn't baseball or some sport where you go out and ... this is fighting, man. You have to be 100 percent -- mental, physical, emotional. If you're not, you should sit out on the sidelines and wait till you get your stuff cleared up. I think it's the right move."

White followed up with a move of his own, announcing that Hendricks, whom many observers -- including the UFC president -- believe should have gotten the judges' nod in the St-Pierre fight, will go for the belt against Robbie Lawler on March 15 in Dallas. Lawler, who upset GSP training partner Rory McDonald on the same night as the Hendricks vs. St-Pierre bout, is ranked No. 9 in the SI.com welterweight rankings but is third in the UFC's media-voted tally, behind only Hendricks and Carlos Condit.

"I'm excited for the opportunity, for sure," Lawler told SI.com Friday evening. "I envision two southpaws going out there and getting after it. Hendricks is powerful. He comes to fight, and so do I."

At 31, Lawler is three fights into his second run in the UFC. His initial run began all the way back in 2002. The man known as "Ruthless Robbie" has been around long enough to see St-Pierre rise to the top of the sport ("He's been the best for quite some time; he's awesome," Lawler said.) and have an insider's understanding of why GSP might need to step away ("He's been fighting at a high level, and it wears on you a bit."). Thats Lawler's title shot won't come with the opportunity to dethrone a long-reigning champion is not a concern. "I concentrate on the things I can control," he said. "And if I can't, I don't worry about it."

That hastily arranged title bout will be the main event of UFC 171, with the promotion moving Glover Teixeira's scheduled challenge of light heavyweight champion Jon Jones from that card to UFC 172 the following month.

St-Pierre's departure is unprecedented. Several champions have relinquished a UFC belt because of contract disputes, perhaps most notably Randy Couture. And Frank Shamrock announced his outright retirement back in 1999 after the fourth defense of his light heavyweight belt. A little more than 14 months later, though, Shamrock returned to the sport with a different promotion, and fought sporadically for nearly a decade until calling it quits after being TKO'd by Nick Diaz in April 2009.

But no other departure -- not even that of Couture, a popular Hall of Famer who's gone on to Hollywood -- had the impact that St-Pierre's will. For one, those other situations happened before the UFC was on the map. You didn't hear about Randy walking away on SportsCenter. You didn't hear about anything MMA-related on mainstream sports television back in those days. However, you will hear about GSP's sabbatical on sports news shows, especially considering that Fox is the UFC's television partner and the home of a new sports network itself. The sport is in a different place now, and when the UFC's biggest pay-per-view performer vacates his championship belt, it makes a dent not just in this sport but in the sports world in general.

St-Pierre has been instrumental in the UFC's growth, helping change the way his sport is perceived. MMA has had its share of tough guys, from grinding wrestlers to submission aces to striking whizzes to even bar room brawlers. Gentleman Georges could do much of that, save for the brawling, and he mixed it all into something sublime that we would simply term "An Athlete." If you're of a certain age, you might remember The Superstars, a television show that pitted stars from various sports in a mélange of athletic events, to determine who was the all-around best. If the show was revived and MMA were to put forth a representative, it could very well be GSP. Or could have been.

St-Pierre walks away while on a 12-fight winning streak, and having defended the belt nine times. If that's not a portrait of dominance, consider that before running into Hendricks he had barely lost a round in any of his five-round title bouts. He didn't finish people, but he thoroughly beat them like an eternally reigning champion does.

And in making his announcement, he departed again dominating the action, leaving on his terms. How rare is that in sports, particularly rough-and-tumble combat sports?

"I choose this life," St-Pierre said at a reflective moment during the conference call. "I choose to do this. Nobody ever forced me. But the problem is, as much as I choose to do it, now I choose to not do it. It's my right. I'm allowed to if I choose to not do it. Nobody can understand the situation that I am in. It's all this pressure, all this weight I carry on my shoulders has been building up over a long time."

Why has he made that choice? He insisted he has no physical ills. He has denied a gossip site's report that there are family problems. So what is it, then? "My life is a frickin' zoo," he said during the call.

He wouldn't go into specifics, other than to paint a picture of what it's like to wake up in the morning as Georges St-Pierre, champion fighter. "The problem with me, and the reason that made me champion and the reason I am where I am -- it's the biggest quality and also the biggest issue for me -- I'm completely obsessed about something," he said. "When they say you're going to fight that guy, on that date, I start right away thinking about it. And not only thinking, but getting completely obsessed about it. I think about it constantly. When I get ready for bed, when I eat, when I get in my car, when I train. It's completely crazy."

And now the craziness is over, if we are to believe the tone and inflection in St-Pierre's voice. He seemed to be exhaling deeply with every description of the "frickin' zoo" of a life he's leaving behind.

Will time away from the octagon -- and away from the promotional whirlwind that seems to have swept him up -- bring about the peace of mind that might allow him to return? St-Pierre wavered on this, at times speaking like he'll definitely return, at other times sounding unsure. Of one thing he sounded certain, though: If there is to be a return, it'll come about the same way this departure did. "It has to be," he said, "on my own terms."

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