Georges St. Pierre will tell you for certain that he's learned first-hand what it takes to be a champion. After all, he's achieved it twice.
And St. Pierre, a 27-year-old two-time UFC welterweight titleholder, will tell you he's learned first-hand what it takes to remain a champion.
Go back nearly four years. With the welterweight title on the line at UFC 50, the then undefeated St. Pierre took on the experienced Matt Hughes. Just a second shy of finishing the first round, G.S.P. faltered to an armbar from Hughes. The title: gone.
Fast forward two years later, when St. Pierre had his revenge. At UFC 65, G.S.P extended his winning streak to six bouts after he defeated Hughes by technical knockout in the second round to capture the belt.
But St. Pierre's status as champion was short-lived as he squandered the title to the 11-1 underdog, Matt Serra, who made the athletic St. Pierre lose his legs like a day-old deer at UFC 69.
Calling the loss the worst moment of his career, St. Pierre returned five months later with a new sense of purpose. Failing to hold the belt made him "realize that in life, it's very hard to go up but it's easy to go down."
St. Pierre was not interested in falling further. He knew he wanted to fight, and he knew he needed increase his commitment. MMA needed to be the sole focus in his life, he realized, not something to be tossed in with school or work.
"I'm the kind of guy, when I like something, I'm very good at it," he said. "When I put all my efforts on something, I get it. And if I don't get it, it's like I'm going to die. It's like when you play poker and you go all-in; I really go all-in and focus on this thing. I've always been like this in life, not only in fighting but in other circumstances. Sometimes I would look at myself in the mirror and tell myself '[expletive] man, this thing had better work because if I'm doing this for nothing there's going to be a big problem.' I was convincing myself that one day I was going to see the light through the tunnel. And that's what I did."
In his latest bout, he was able to recapture the belt he had longed for, won and lost in the previous three-plus years by squaring his record with Serra. Hence, lesson No. 1.
Now, with belt in tow, St. Pierre faces, again, the second of his two major hurdles: retaining the belt. At UFC 87 in Minneapolis on Saturday, he'll find out how well the lesson of UFC 69 stuck as he prepares to face Jon Fitch.
One would imagine Fitch owns a mirror, too. Winner of 15 in a row, including his last eight in the UFC, the former Purdue University wrestler is one win away from being the best. Still, expectations heading into the fight make Fitch (17-2, 1 NC) a sizeable underdog -- a notion St. Pierre has ignored since falling to Serra.
Despite believing he's better in "every aspect of the game" than his 30-year-old challenger, St. Pierre (16-2) admits "it's not always the best fighter who wins the fight -- it's the guy who fights the best."
"For me it is a great challenge," he continued, "not only because I think I'm fighting the best guy I've ever fought in the sport, also because I'm going to have a chance to succeed where I failed last time."
A successful defense would likely produce a non-title rematch between G.S.P and current UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn for later this year, thus ensuring an automatic contract extension through 2009 for St. Pierre if a new one isn't signed earlier.
Discussions between St. Pierre's camp and the UFC have picked up in recent weeks. "Things are a lot closer" today than they were a month ago, said St. Pierre's manager, Shari Spencer, who awaits a final version of the contract before a decision can be made.
Lacking a background in athlete management, the 43-year-old Spencer might seem an odd fit to direct the career of one of MMA's most marketable fighters. "I trust him to win his fights, and he trusts me to take care of his business," said one of the few female managers in the sport. "It's a pretty nice division of labor."
For St. Pierre, a strong relationship with his representatives -- yet another lesson learned after an ugly falling-out with his longtime manager Stephane Patry in 2007 -- simply shows he's not willing to repeat mistakes.
"I don't tell people that I'll never lose again," St. Pierre said. "That's not something I can do because nobody is invincible. What I can tell you is that I'm going to come at 100 percent for this fight. And no matter what happens, I'm going to give it all -- give it all to the end. And if I lose, I lose to a better man. But I know that I'm a better fighter than Jon Fitch."