- A three-time Canadian Athlete of the Year, Georges St-Pierre has been absent from MMA for four years. He returns Saturday to fight Michael Bisping at UFC 217.
This story appears in the Nov. 6, 2017 issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
That hyphen in Georges St-Pierre’s name is jarring; but not as jarring as the hyphen in his career. For the better part of a decade, St-Pierre was a hegemonic fighter. The three-time Canadian Athlete of the Year, he won the UFC’s welterweight belt in 2008 and then defended it nine times. But after a particularly violent fight in 2013, GSP, as he’s known to most, disengaged his belt and walked away from the sport.
For any other fighter, this would mark a hiatus before the inevitable “unretirement.” For GSP, his return was always shrouded in legitimate doubt. Even at the height of his powers, St-Pierre was a measured, even delicate, soul, cutting the figure of someone more likely to work in the office next to yours than in a steel Octagon. In his distinct Quebecoise accent, he was always able and willing to “go deep” and to talk about matters beyond kicking and hitting. On his frequent visits to New York, he split his days between a jiu-jitsu gym and The Museum of Natural History, where he could indulge his hobby of studying dinosaurs.
After a four-year interregnum, though, St-Pierre, now 36, has returned to the phylum of combat. On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, he headlines the UFC 217 card, fighting Michael Bisping, a Brit, for the middleweight title. Apart from the MMA equivalent of ring rust (cage rust?) GSP will have to negotiate moving up to 185 lbs. Yet with that comes an opportunity to become only the fourth UFC fighter to win belts in multiple divisions. (The previous fighter to achieve the feat, Conor McGregor, did so at last year’s MSG card.) Before his return, St-Pierre talked pugilism, poutine and paleontology with SI:
SI: Why come back?
GSP: Why not come back? I’m better than ever. I’m in my prime. I have a different set of skills. So I think about this: I get to fight in Madison Square Garden, this historical venue. For a world title. In the most prestigious [MMA] organization. If I didn’t come back I would regret it. I say to myself, ‘Many people would like to be in my place; I have a chance to do this; I should do this.’
SI: If most of us were to take four years off from our jobs, there would be a considerable adjustment. What’s yours been like so far?
GSP: It’s funny, I was always training like I was working. So this return has been more mental, more about the competition aspect. But I can't remember heading into a fight feeling this relaxed. I feel like I’m a better fighter than ever and mentally, I rejuvenated myself.
SI: What does fighting mean to you at this point in your life?
SI: The usual athlete response is that “Legacy isn’t something I think about. That’s for others to discuss.”
GSP: I do think about legacy, though. And to me it’s almost like a personal legacy. You come back and you have a lot to lose and a lot to gain. Which will it be?
SI: To what extent is this a sport; to what extent is this a job?
GSP: Both. There are things I don’t like to do. The press conferences, the stare-down, the trash talking. I like the fighting and the training—
SI: I was going to ask you just that. You’re a measured guy. How do you deal with the fact that part of your job is selling the fight?
GSP: How do you say it? Not my first rodeo. I’m used to it. Part of it is that you can’t let it get into your head. My opponent and I, we want the same thing. So it’s natural before fight to try and get an advantage psychologically. But you can’t let it happen. I never make it personal. I’m better off that way.
SI: You’ve trained in gymnastics, you’ve trained in basketball. What’s the difference between training for competition and training for fun?
GSP: When you train for fun, you improve a lot more. When it becomes a business, it becomes stressful. But for an athlete who competes, I believe confidence comes from training, so it becomes more important, even if it becomes less fun.
SI: What’s the dynamic when the opponent is taller and bigger [as is the case with Bisping who, at 6-1, three inches taller than St-Pierre and likely to weigh more on fight night]?
GSP: You don’t want to engage in positions where weight can be an advantage, especially in terms of grappling. Also you need to move a lot, not stand still. But I’ve been the smaller guy in other fights, too.
SI: Beyond the obvious, how do you see the fight going?
GSP: I see a lot of things happening, really mixed, mixed martial arts. A real variety of positions, hand movement, scenarios. And in the end, I will be the winner.
SI: The physical strain of MMA is obvious. What are the mental strains?
GSP: The obvious one is the pressure that comes with risking your life. There’s stress that comes with the risk of being humiliated. But for me there’s stress that comes with working so hard, making these sacrifices, and then losing, not seeing the value of everything you’ve invested. That’s the worst scenario.
SI: Worse than getting hurt?
GSP: Worse than getting hurt. Working hard and not succeeding, that’s the worst.
SI: Sounds like life.
GSP: Right. But fighting is unique. And I should say, too, that when you win, the feeling is amazing, like nothing else I experience. You can’t replicate the emotions of fighting.
SI: You’ve described yourself in the past as “sensitive.” Do you have empathy for your opponents?
GSP: I will after a fight. During, my goal is only to win. It’s never to damage an opponent. I never want to hurt him from a personal point of view.
SI: Your first UFC fight was in 2004. It’s a much different sport now, and a much different UFC. But even in the four years since your last fight, what changes have struck you?
GSP: The promotion feels different. The faces are different. But for me the thrill of competition is the same and that’s what brought me back and makes happy.
SI: What’s the most Quebec thing about you?
GSP: My accent.
SI: People reading this won’t appreciate that.
GSP: Okay then, the food I love to eat. After a night of partying, have you ever had poutine?
SI: Hope you’re not eating that when you have to cut weight.
GSP: Absolutely not. But November 5th….
SI: You still have your love of paleontology?
SI: Are there lessons—evolutionary biology or whatever—that you apply to fighting, or—
GSP: No it’s something totally separate from fighting. And that’s why I like it.
SI: What’s your best paleontology fact?
GSP: The tyrannosaurus rex had feathers.