November 17, 2012

Georges St-Pierre Georges St-Pierre returns to his native Canada to fight Carlos Condit at UFC 154. (Josh Hedges/Getty Images)

ST-REMI, Quebec -- Sitting in a restaurant in northern Vermont enjoying a nice lunch and a much-needed break from my hours-long drive to Montreal, it occurred to me that a little further along my route I would be passing through the area where Georges St-Pierre grew up. The UFC welterweight champion is often referred to as a Montreal fighter, and the crowd at the Bell Centre will surely make him feel like one when he’s introduced before his title defense against Carlos Condit in the main event of UFC 154 on Saturday night. But GSP is no city boy. He actually hails from the vast Quebec countryside tucked between the St. Lawrence River and the U.S. border.

Pulling the smart phone out of my pocket while I waited for dessert to arrive -- you’re allowed to have a little something sweet in the middle of the day, unless you’re trying to make weight for a UFC fight or something -- I quickly scanned some online articles about St-Pierre’s youth and came upon one about a recent visit he paid to his old high school in Saint-Rémi, Quebec. Hmm, I thought, if it’s not too far out of the way …

And then, yup, to locate the land of GSP, I used my GPS.

I’m not sure what I expected to see when I pulled into Saint-Rémi, a tiny city of around 7,000 tucked into a landscape of farmland, small industry and windmills, lots of windmills, in southwestern Quebec. I guess I envisioned “Go GSP” window signs in storefronts, maybe even a banner strung across a downtown street proclaiming “Home of Georges St-Pierre.”

There was nothing, though, no visible acknowledgement that one of the greatest mixed martial arts of all time -- a three-time Sportsnet Canadian Athlete of the Year -- spent his formative years here.

I saw a bunch of guys gathered outside an apartment building down the block from École Pierre-Bédard, where GSP returned not long ago to talk to students about his school chin-ups record, which still stands, and the bullying he went through while in school. I wondered whether any of these men on the apartment building stoop were the ones who’d pushed GSP around back in the day. I decided not to bother them.

Right across from the school I saw an elementary-grade kid walking with his book bag and, imagining him to be of the age where he might have a GSP poster on his bedroom wall, considered pulling over and talking to him. But then I thought better of being that guy who pulls his car to the side of the road and rolls his window down to talk to a school kid.

I ended up at a convenience store in the center of town. As I walked up to the cash register with my bottled water, I noticed that among the staff gathered was a young man with a buzz cut, wearing a black T-shirt with some combative-looking logo across the front. He looked like what half of the Bell Centre crowd will look like on Saturday night. He’s my man, I thought.

“I understand I am in the home of GSP,” I sid to the woman behind the counter as I fumbled through my Canadian coins to pay for my water. She stared at me blankly. It turned out, as I learned when I look it up on my iPhone upon returning to my car, that 96 percent of the Saint-Rémi population speaks only French. The young woman took my money and gestured toward the black T-shirt guy, who it turns out is among the community’s bilinguals.

“What was your question?” he asked.

“I asked about this being the home of Georges St-Pierre.”

Now it was his turn to stare at me blankly.

“The mixed martial artist,” I said. “The UFC.”

He said something in French to the woman. She said something to him. I understood “St-Pierre” and nothing else.

“He’s not from here,” the young guy said to me. “He’s from Saint-Isidore.”

As soon as he said it, I realize that I’d heard that many times before. Georges St-Pierre, Saint-Isidore, Quebec. But I’m confused. Did I get the high school thing wrong? Was I in the wrong part of the province?

“Where is Saint-Isidore?” I asked the buzz cut guy.

He shook his head, as if to say, “I don’t know.” Then he asked the woman and quickly turned back to me. “She says it’s 10 minutes from here.”

How could someone have never heard of a place that’s 10 minutes away? Well, I suppose you could if that place is just a tiny village in the countryside, as Saint-Isidore is. Back in my car, I head in that general direction but, at a sign pointing the way into the center of the village, I stay on the windmill-lined main road to Montreal, where the TV stations will be all GSP, all the time, and the outside of the Bell Centre will draped with a huge banner depicting St-Pierre and Condit. Inside the building where the Canadiens are locked out, it’s going to feel like a GSP home game.

—Jeff Wagenheim 

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