NO DOUBT GSP WILL RETURN, EVEN BETTER
Doubt. We have all have it. Love, money, job, even friendships, they all can cause us to conjure up questions about ourselves, our situations. Sometimes relevant, most of the time just useless, plain old fashioned worry. The kind doctors warn about bringing on undue stress.
But when you are handsome, young, and ultra-successful. Having not only reached the height of your profession, but also proven it several times over to the extent of being widely acknowledged as one of the best ever, how could there be any insecurity?
He threw away the crutches days ago, only a slight limp betraying the usually flawless movement in the gait so natural with all the special athletes. UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre even with that hitch in stride didn’t appear vulnerable as he entered the studio off Ventura Avenue for an appearance on Inside MMA.
But this time, as he comfortably maneuvered into a chair backstage, he might’ve shown just how tough he is with a refreshingly candid conversation about things he wished he had changed and things he would change with this “fresh start.” St. Pierre is rejuvenated in spirit so much he dares broach subjects taboo for most super athletes, second guessing himself, revealing he has doubts rolling around his head just like us average folk.
“Your critics? It’s expected to say you don’t care. Easy to say, but you do care. It can bother you.” says St. Pierre, a slight smile emerging from his lips as he leaned forward for emphasis. “Right now I feel reborn, feel good. This injury could be the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Not just any injury, but the first significant one for the 30-year-old Canadian. Not just any injury, but one that has ended other careers, the dreaded tear of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament. St. Pierre is in Los Angeles to rehabilitate from the ACL surgery on his right knee in mid-December. It will be a long, punishing process to return to the graceful, forceful combatant who has reeled of nine straight victories. Avenging his only two losses to Matt Hughes (defeating him twice) and Matt Serra along the way.
The man known by all for his simple initials GSP, has doubts about the way he was training, about the injury he should’ve discovered earlier. To the point of calling himself something no one else would to his face at least.
“Stupid. That’s how I feel about it. I should’ve canceled and waited to come back to train. I knew something wasn’t right, didn’t feel right and was affecting my work. But I kept pushing. That’s how I hurt my ACL. It was a stupid thing,” he grimaces at this reflection. “The trainer would ask ‘you okay?’ and of course I would automatically say ‘okay’ and then go back and put myself at risk. I knew that before I was scheduled to fight (Carlos) Condit. I also knew I wasn’t ready, the knee was bothering me and at first I was told it was a hamstring, just work through it.
“Then (Nick) Diaz was scheduled instead, I really want to fight him. But I didn’t improve. Finally another x-ray and we find out it was the ACL. My doctor told me to stop training immediately; I would ruin my knee forever. So here I am, getting back slowly, hoping to be going full strength in training by July and then back to defend my belt in October, November. But I will be back, I am anxious for the new (interim) champ coming in, Diaz or Condit.”
What is very much on his mind, if not a concern, is the pacing in rehab to reach that point of self-prediction of being full force by summer, something few have been able to do in a six month window following major knee surgery. But again St. Pierre uses words like “blessing” “timing” and “best thing” to describe his mental state about his physical gauntlet ahead. He has had more time, than any time since he began his stellar career, to evaluate and reevaluate what got him to this stage in his life. And what he wants is a triumphant return to the octagon.
“There is a perfect line of training.” He illustrates by stretching a microphone cord and moving a hand. “It is better to be under than over. For eleven years I’ve been training with big energy. When I first started everyone in the UFC doubted me. Then I became champ. Then they say I cannot finish a guy my time is up. The game changed and I didn’t have as much fun as I did before. I usually pushed myself too hard in training to compensate for all these things. I didn’t want to have any doubt I was totally prepared when actually I was over prepared.”
The “doubt” word creeps in and out of the conversation, more so than any other champion would care to admit. Far more than the seven year-old St. Pierre would’ve ever imagined when he began karate lessons wanting to emulate his celluloid heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone heading his personal favorite list.
“I would go to the movies and be fascinated watching these guys. These actors were my role models, the way they carried themselves inspired me,” still excited from the boyhood memory. “I knew they (their characters) weren’t real but there was something about it all. There were no big MMA stars then. As I got older started training in the other disciplines of MMA that changed. There were fighters I looked up to. But my MMA career began at the movies really,” he laughs strong and free for the first time since we’ve sat down.
It was the self-assuredness the actors brought to their roles that gave a then scrawny kid in Montreal hope that he too could find within himself. He did, building up a 6-0 record in convincing fashion and grabbing the attention of the UFC. He debuted in their organization January 31, 2004 with a unanimous decision win over then highly regarded Karo Parisyan. No one could foresee how this would be an ironic look back seven years later. He was almost instantly dubbed a rising star, no questions about the fight going the distance, however the more he won that way, opinions changed.
By November 18, 2006 St. Pierre was facing Hughes, a man who had replaced his film stars as a new hero. GSP pulled the upset and was the new UFC champ. It was short lived, by April 7, 2007 he lost his first title defense when he was knocked out in the first round by Serra. It would be his last defeat, nine straight times he has had his hand hoisted into the air after the end of the bout. But at that time he was so renewed by the sting and quickness of it all, his motivation was over the moon. He had always been known for arduous preparation in his training, always admired for exceeding levels of pain and perspiration few had. It was ramped even more, too much in retrospect by GSP.
“That has always been the way I think. I like the challenges. When people doubt me I am very excited. Just like now with the surgery I am over anxious to come back but this time I will do it the smart way. Used to be, I would fight on Saturday and go back into training on Monday. I finally realize you don’t lose anything by taking off (a few days) you actually improve. In my head that was always my thinking. I always feel like an opponent is gaining on me when I don’t work out.”
It was his mission and a brutal training regiment ensued to get that title back, which he did in a rematch with Hughes December 29, 2007. He then beat Serra one of a remarkable seven defenses of his belt. And the challengers were always at their peak, a mixture of ground specialist and big hitters, even a legend B.J. Penn among those who have failed to dethrone St. Pierre. And it was regaining the crown still young in his career that should have absolutely derailed any doubt about the mental resolve he has as much as any subsequent defense.
His last title defense was April 30 against Jake Shields. GSP won by unanimous decision. Another success, well sort of in the eyes of some who have loud voices, who question how the caliber of champion he has been doesn’t just put each and every comer away. Of his seven defenses, only Serra (round 2) and Penn (round 4) have been finished via TKO, the other five were all distance goers, all succumbing to unanimous decisions to St. Pierre.
And though he and Middleweight king Anderson Silva have been able to dominate their weight classes creating speculation and hope they might be the only viable contenders for each other in some kind of catch weight super fight, it is the, again, doubt that GSP can’t shake. For such a cerebral fighter it is another mind game in reverse.
“It’s again the critics, sometimes they’re hard to ignore. I don’t think they always understand what I am doing,” he muses. “I’ve had some disappointed performances myself, to not finish the fight. But it’s the way I go into a fight, my mental preparation as well as physical training that gets overlooked. I am very meticulous in my style. I break my opponent mentally first then physically. When they can’t finish me and they know it, then the fight changes. They are fighting not to win but just to survive. It’s tougher to finish a man that is fighting to defend himself and not to win. He doesn’t have the same hope (as at the start). He’s not coming at you in the same way to present an opportunity.”
He rattles off the string of decisions, full noting them all. Including the most recent which seems like so long ago with the injury forced layoff. “Before Shields I was working on my weaknesses. Now I work on my strengths because if you don’t then it doesn’t get any better. You will stay the same fighter. I’ve given a lot of thought to all this since the injury.”
If there is doubt anymore it has completely left the structured face of GSP. He has made his own decision about this “rebirth” of his mindset and it is unanimous within.
“I went through a period where I was winning but wasn’t happy anymore. If I win I am not gaining anything. If I beat someone I’m not advancing the way I should feel. This injury, my first major one, was simply over training. I was burned out and still doing too much. More isn’t always better. I’ve had plenty of time to process this. Now with rehab, this new phase for me, I am figuring it out more thoroughly about all that’s needed for me to return even better than before. And I will.”
Except for the fighters themselves there will be no one more focused on the upcoming interim belt battle between Condit and Diaz than GSP. “Like I said a new champ is coming. I have all the respect in the world for Condit he’s a tough fighter and very nice guy. But I want to fight Diaz it’s just a match up I’ve always wanted, I think the fans do too. But either way it’s my belt to take. I will be ready no matter who it is when that time comes. I will be there.”
It is the biggest challenge of his career, more than getting that title back after losing it; More than any defense of his belt. More than any critic he’s ever heard or read. More than his newfound “less” approach to training.
In a perfect scenario GSP will be back in the gym and back in the cage before it’s time for a new calendar. Throughout the conversation his confidence grew as if he knows it isn’t about convincing anyone else. There is nothing to prove except he can have the fun again he’s been missing.
We are asked to move to the set, show time is near. As he walks through the narrow hallway the limp is less pronounced than minutes ago. Perhaps another decisive victory of controlling the mind to overtake the body. It is the GSP way. No doubt.
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