November 16, 2012

MONTREAL -- You are Georges St-Pierre. You are walking back to your corner amid a deafening commotion at the Bell Centre after five minutes of ferocious fighting with Carlos Condit. Your heart is pounding. Your legs are tingling. Your lungs are desperately needy.

These are not familiar feelings for you. You have always prided yourself on your physical conditioning, something that has enabled you to go and go and go for your entire mixed martial arts career. That, as much as your skill and athleticism, is what has made you a champion. And just as you always do, you trained like a champion in the months leading up to this UFC 154 main event.

But all of that gym work right here in Montreal has not fully prepared you for this night, because the inimitable experience of being in a fight -- something that lived inside you for so long like a fire eternally ablaze -- is now a fuzzy, flickering memory. You haven't fought in 19 months. You're not in your usual rhythm. You now have one minute between rounds to find the beat.

This is the moment -- if it comes, and there's a good chance it will -- when George St-Pierre will most miss Greg Jackson.

Much has been made these past several months about the fact that Jackson, because he trains both St-Pierre and Condit, has opted out of Saturday night's welterweight championship fight at the Bell Centre (PPV, 10 p.m. ET). The conventional wisdom is that this creates neither an advantage nor a disadvantage for either fighter, because both have gone through training camp without the guru strategist. One easily could make the case, however, that this is a bigger loss for Condit, because he actually trains full-time at Jackson's gym in Albuquerque, whereas St-Pierre typically just flies Greg up to Montreal for sessions with him and his main trainer, Firas Zahabi, in the Tristar Gym.

But I would argue that St-Pierre is the one most vulnerable in this scenario. Jackson's absence piled on top of GSP's absence is a tenuous combination.

It's not merely about finding an alternate way to implement a fight strategy, although Jackson is a master at that. "He's good at everything," St-Pierre told last week, "but Greg is at his best as a tactician -- how you are going to beat your opponent, use your skills to beat his skills. That's his main attribute."

With all due respect to Georges, a man who has spent a whole lot more time in the company of Greg Jackson than I have, I beg to differ. Or at least offer up a Jackson attribute that might very well be missed even more in Saturday night's fight.

Consider this: For years, St-Pierre has walked back to his corner between rounds into what amounts to the Greg Jackson Relaxation Spa. True, Condit has done R&R at that same holistic treatment center, and he'll miss it, too, on Saturday night. But he's not the one who's been out of action for over a year and a half and will be most in need of a tethering to normalcy, to composure, to whatever tranquility is possible in the midst of a fist fight.

Have you ever watched the scene that unfolds in the corner of a Jackson-trained fighter during the one-minute hiatus between fisticuffs? My most vivid recollection is of the UFC 152 main event two months ago in Toronto, in which Jon Jones lumbered back to his corner after the first round with much weighing on his mind. The light heavyweight champion had nearby been submitted by a Vitor Belfort armbar. His right arm was still throbbing and feeling vaguely compromised. The emotional baggage of having a sizable and vocal segment of the MMA world rooting against him -- this was his first fight after his refusal to take on a replacement opponent had triggered the cancellation of UFC 151 -- was bogging him down even as he went to work.

So Jones plopped down on the stool in his corner at that moment with a lot of noise echoing inside his head. And Jackson walked into the cage, crouched in front of him ... and said nothing. For one ... two ... three ... four ... five beats. Then the trainer took in a deep breath to model for his fighter what he wanted him to do. Then, quietly: "Find your waterfall, Jon."

We'd heard that phrase before from Jackson during Jones fights. The trainer and his young fighter have been known to seek out waterfalls and other spots of natural purity in the environs near a venue for a meditation session on the morning of a fight. It's their way of emptying the mind of everything extraneous in order to focus on nothing but what it takes to be the best fighter you can be. It seems to work for Jones. Check his results.

The Zen works similarly with GSP. I've not heard Jackson speak of a waterfall -- a chute d'eau -- in the welterweight champ's corner, but he nonetheless finds a way to transform the pause between rounds into a one-minute spa treatment. Greg will offer a few simple strategic adjustments in the last few seconds of the break, but nearly all of his minute with his fighter is peace and quiet. And breathing.

"It's important, what Greg does, because between rounds you need to recuperate," St-Pierre acknowledged. "If you don't recuperate, you're going to lose all of your skill and your technique. So to recuperate is the most important thing. That's why before you listen to instructions you need to be back 100 percent. And this sometimes takes you 30 to 40 seconds. And then the last 10 to 15 seconds are for instructions. I think that's the best way to do it."

St-Pierre considers this the normal operating procedure, because that's the way it's been in his corner for years. But he does recognize that it's not the way things go down in every fighter's corner. He's seen guys try to catch their breath while three cornermen are simultaneously barking orders. He's watched chaos drain the fight out of a fighter. "The problem is, people they try to give a lesson of fighting when you're in the corner," he said. "It's not the time for that. You need first to catch your breath. And then you can listen and be able to understand what your cornermen are saying."

St-Pierre insists it will be serenity as usual in his corner on Saturday night, with Zahabi being the restorative architect between rounds. "Firas has always been there in my corner, too, so it's not going to be ... it's going to be all right," he said. "Firas Zahabi is very experienced, and he's my main guy. So it's not a problem with that."

But in transitioning to a corner with one of his most supportive voices missing -- the voice of spirit healing and the self-possession that comes from that -- how does GSP replace Jackson? St-Pierre paused at the question before finally saying, "You cannot really replace Greg. Greg is a very unique guy, you know?"

Yes, we know.

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