mma / Columns

The Magnificent Career of Georges St-Pierre

February 25, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
GSP - Georges St. Pierre

Let’s open at the close.

Georges St-Pierre’s legacy had already been established. He was the best welterweight that mixed martial arts had ever seen, setting the bar so high that his standing would not be in danger anytime soon. He had taken his moral stand too, walking away from the sport in 2013 in a decision at least partially motivated by his dissatisfaction with the UFC’s stance on drug testing. During his absence, he tore the ACL in his left knee. The right knee’s ACL had been torn in late 2011, which coincided with an apparent decline.

By Fight Metric’s count, St-Pierre absorbed only 248 significant strikes in the first 23 fights of his career. Then in the next four, the last before his self-imposed hiatus, he absorbed 240 significant strikes. This was a fighter getting only—a fighter with wear—and his opponents were getting closer to cracking the case. It seemed he’d left at the perfect time: still on top, still holding the belt, just before an opponent could get it away from him.

Then four years went by, an eternity in fighting. On top of the lack of activity and the knee injury, he was 36-years-old, a concerning number for someone that separated themselves from the pack based on athleticism. Still, he wanted to fight again, and he wanted to do something special.

For St-Pierre, Michael Bisping was the most beatable UFC middleweight champion in more than 10 years. His pathways to victory against Bisping were clearer and more well-defined than they were against previous middleweight champions, names like Anderson Silva, Chris Weidman, and Luke Rockhold. This made Bisping an enticing matchup for St-Pierre, but also created the potential for a more emphatic failure in his return. Failing against Michael Bisping would likely end his career on a bitter note and beating him was no simple task. Considering where St-Pierre was at in his career, moving up in weight, and Bisping’s ability, beating Bisping would mark perhaps the biggest achievement of St-Pierre’s career.

After delays due to injuries on both sides, Bisping and St-Pierre finally had a date: November 4, 2017. As the hours counted down to the fight, lingering concerns over whether current fans knew St-Pierre—one of the biggest draws in MMA history—were addressed with an emphatic yes. The fight drew a live gate of $6.2 million, the second-best total of St-Pierre’s career, and early pay-per-view indicators were strong. A later report from the Wrestling Observer Newsletter estimated the show at 875,000 buys, which excepting UFC 200 was the UFC’s best total for an event that didn’t feature Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey in almost four years.

On fight night, 18,201 fans in Madison Square Garden greeted St-Pierre as a returning hero for what would become his final walk to the octagon.

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After a career that spanned fifteen years, fourteen major championship fights, and nine successful title defenses, St-Pierre formally announced his retirement on Thursday, February 21. MMA retirements can never be counted as permanent, but it is notable that St-Pierre chose to retire after being adamant during his four-year absence that he was not retired.

If this is his final word, St-Pierre retires as no worse than the third-best MMA fighter ever. As it stands today, he would probably win a poll as the greatest fighter of all-time, and he deserves that distinction. Unless something unforeseen happens, Jon Jones will take that title in the near future, but unforeseen things tend to happen with Jon Jones.

St-Pierre’s career can be separated into three periods: the rise, the stumble, and the reign.

After a 5-0 start to his career in his native Quebec, Canada (including a first-round stoppage win over Pete Spratt, who had just beaten Robbie Lawler and turned down a UFC title shot), St-Pierre debuted in the UFC on January 31, 2004. He defeated Karo Parisyan, a promising welterweight contender before his career fizzled out due to injuries and personal issues, by unanimous decision in his first fight. St-Pierre made $6,000 for the fight, a pittance compared to the paydays he’d receive later in his career. Later that same night, BJ Penn upset longtime welterweight champion Matt Hughes to take the title. Soon after, Penn had a break with the UFC that put the welterweight title back up for grabs.

In June, St-Pierre scored the first of only two standing knockout wins of his UFC career (meaning it would be replayed for years to come), toppling future IFL champion Jay Hieron on the preliminary card of UFC 48. Since the UFC’s only television deal at the time was a taped show on Fox Sports Net, nobody would see preliminary fights unless the UFC aired it in spare pay-per-view time, or they bought the event on DVD. The brevity of the 102 second bout made it easy for the UFC to slip video of it on the pay-per-view, giving St-Pierre his first major exposure.

With Penn gone and the welterweight division thin on talent, the UFC tapped St-Pierre to fight Hughes for the vacant welterweight title at UFC 50. This was immense pressure for the 23-year-old St-Pierre, who idolized Hughes and had a chance to beat him to become the youngest champion in UFC history. Famously, St-Pierre was so reverent of Hughes that during the pre-fight stare-down he was unable to look him in the eye.

Hughes had been a supremely dominant champion, and St-Pierre therefore surprised many by making the fight competitive. He made Hughes uncomfortable on the feet—landing hard with a spinning back kick to the midsection, in a glimpse of his future wrestling prowess, scored the first takedown in the fight. But before the end of the round he found himself on his back with Hughes on top. St-Pierre attempted a kimura from the bottom, which Hughes countered into an armbar. St-Pierre tapped with one second left on the clock in the first round.

Despite the loss, it was an impressive performance from St-Pierre, showing that he could compete with the division’s best. In a testament to his mentality, and a sign of things to come, he came back on a tear. After beating Dave Strasser and Jason “Mayhem” Miller, St-Pierre had a big opportunity against two-time title challenger Frank Trigg. He tore through Trigg, leading to a fight against Sean Sherk.

Although very short for the division, Sherk had acquired a 31-1-1 record, with the lone loss coming to Matt Hughes. Like against Trigg, St-Pierre handled Sherk, out-wrestling the wrestler and stopping him with strikes in the second round. Because St-Pierre went on to bigger things, these pre-title victories are often overlooked, but they clearly established him as one of the world’s three best welterweights along with Hughes and Penn (who hadn’t been competing at welterweight). Had it not been for Shogun Rua’s run in Pride that same year, St-Pierre might be remembered as the fighter of the year for 2005.

Toward the end of 2005, BJ Penn re-entered the UFC fold, and the promotion immediately booked a number one contender fight between him and St-Pierre. Penn’s reputation preceded him; he’d never lost the welterweight title and he brought it with him to the cage against St-Pierre. He looked like a champion in round one, bloodying St-Pierre’s nose and showing good boxing. But took the fight back in round two, scoring two takedowns on the famously difficult to take down Penn. The third round was even more in St-Pierre’s favor, and the judges obliged him with a split-decision victory.

By November 2006, Matt Hughes had avenged his loss to Penn, made a big name for himself by squashing Royce Gracie and coaching on The Ultimate Fighter, and had firmly established himself at the top of the division. St-Pierre was the ultimate challenger. He had beaten every other top fighter in the division to get to Hughes. At 25, he was just coming into his own, while the 33-year-old Hughes was at the tail-end of his prime.

The result was a masterful performance from St-Pierre, the most emphatic changing-of-the-guard fight this side of Jones vs. Rua. St-Pierre dominated Hughes in the feet, knocking him down at the end of round one, and then finished him with a high kick and punches early in round two. It should have been the beginning of a long St-Pierre era, but the new champion had to learn an important lesson first.

Matt Serra won a season of The Ultimate Fighter geared toward UFC veterans, and with his split-decision victory in the finale came a shot at the welterweight title. Serra was a massive underdog to St-Pierre, who represented the new prototype of a fighter. As he would show even more later in his career, St-Pierre could out-strike the best strikers in the division, out-wrestle the best wrestlers, and out-grapple the best grapplers. He could transition from one thing to the next so seamlessly that his opponents could never be comfortable. How could Matt Serra, a blown up lightweight, deal with that?

It was an errant forearm that landed to the back of the head that first dazed St-Pierre. He did all he could to remain standing as Serra, sensing his moment, threw leather with the purest of intentions: to win a championship and create a legendary moment. St-Pierre could not recover in the wake of Serra’s onslaught, eventually falling to his back with Serra on top of him, landing punch after punch to the head. He could see no way out but one. And so Georges St-Pierre, the best fighter in MMA history, turned to his side and tapped the mat. He would live to fight another day.

What was about to happen should have been clear from the first Matt Hughes fight. Georges St-Pierre was about to become scary good. He was going to regain every ounce of what was lost in the cage against Matt Serra, and then take some more.

The first stop was a fight against Josh Koscheck in August 2007. Koscheck was an excellent wrestler rising up the ranks. Of course, St-Pierre was favored, but you would have figured he’d win the fight on the feet. The first round was close, with each landing a takedown. St-Pierre pulled ahead in the second, taking Koscheck there and keeping him there for the rest of the round. In the third, St-Pierre beat Koscheck on the feet before landing on top after a failed Koscheck takedown defense.

This was the beginning of St-Pierre was the most effective wrestler in MMA. It was also the beginning of an incredible streak of rounds won. Beginning with the second round of the Koscheck fight, St-Pierre won 31 consecutive full rounds on all three judges’ scorecards.

In December, with Serra out with a back injury, St-Pierre stepped in on short notice for a rubber match with Hughes. It was even less competitive than the second fight. For his troubles, St-Pierre was awarded the interim UFC welterweight title, but he had his eyes set on the real thing.

In April 2008, the UFC debuted on Montreal, Quebec, with St-Pierre’s rematch against Serra as the headline attraction. St-Pierre had become a legitimate star, and he was about to take the sport to another level in Canada. The sellout crowd of 21,390 fans Bell Centre exploded with one of the loudest roars those that attended can remember when St-Pierre stopped Serra in the second round to reclaim his spot at the top of the division. For the next few years, Canada was a blazing hot market for the UFC, peaking with one of the biggest shows in company history. In a testament to both his in-cage success and his popularity in his home country, St-Pierre won the Rogers Sportsnet Canadian Athlete of the Year three years in a row from 2008 to 2010.

So began one of the best title reigns in MMA history. In his second try at a first title defense, St-Pierre dominated Jon Fitch, who seemed to beat everyone in the division save St-Pierre. Then came a rematch with Penn, who was the UFC’s reigning lightweight champion.

Going back, you can mark the Penn fight as the fight that took St-Pierre to the level of the second-biggest draw in the promotion. More than that, St-Pierre vs. Penn II was a clash of two elite fighters in their prime with tremendous stakes. It was the first time in the UFC that two reigning champions from different divisions collided.

In a sense, the fight was a letdown in that it was not competitive. The first round was relatively close with St-Pierre getting the edge, but from there on out it was St-Pierre, the larger fighter, having his way with Penn. After four rounds, the bout was halted and St-Pierre declared the winner. He was already one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet, but the win over Penn made that conversation about two men: St-Pierre and Anderson Silva.

It would be a disservice to write about the career of Georges St-Pierre without mentioning the fight that didn’t happen. His prime coincided with Anderson Silva’s, they competed in neighboring weight classes, and there were multiple points where it seemed like the fight for ultimate pound-for-pound supremacy would finally be made. There are several reasons the fight never came together, the key ones being the UFC was never in a spot where they needed to make the fight, Silva wanted the fight but also had other fights to occupy him, and until years later, St-Pierre didn’t seem to have much interest in moving up to middleweight.

The closest the fight came to being realized was probably in 2010, when Silva stated that he would drop to 170 pounds for the fight, and the UFC announced that would be the next fight on the UFC 112 broadcast. That same night, Silva put on a puzzling and, to some, infuriating performance against Demian Maia, and the UFC’s talk of making the St-Pierre vs. Silva fight quieted down.

In Fitch, St-Pierre had beaten one of the best wrestlers at welterweight and taken him down multiple times. In Penn, he’d defeated one of the best grapplers on the mat. Next, he fought one of the division’s best strikers, Thiago Alves, and dominated every aspect of the fight, including the striking. Then, St-Pierre played it safe against an overmatched Dan Hardy, and then jabbed up Josh Koscheck in a rematch. Through it all, he hadn’t lost a single round. They could not ‘andle ‘is riddum.

St-Pierre was on such a high level that he was a significant favorite against Jake Shields. Shields was a tremendous grappler that had won fifteen fights in a row and captured titles in EliteXC and Strikeforce. Later in his UFC run, he’d beat future welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, and top Demian Maia in a largely grappling-based fight. Still, most didn’t feel that Shields could take St-Pierre down, and he certainly wouldn’t beat him in a striking battle.

The fight was the main attraction for the UFC’s debut in Toronto. The promotion held the event at the Rogers Centre, their first attempt at a big stadium show, figuring they would sell about 30,000 tickets and configuring the stadium for 42,000. Then on the first day of the presale, all 42,000 tickets were sold. The UFC opened up additional seats for the public sale and sold every one of those on the first day. All told, the event smashed the UFC attendance and gate records, drawing 55,724 fans paying $12,075,000 (both records have since been broken, albeit by different events).

The main event saw St-Pierre’s streak of consecutive rounds won end in the fourth round. In a fight many were expecting him to finish Shields in, it was a flat performance from the champion. He was hindered in the fight by eye issues, whether from a jab to the eye or from an eye-poke, which may have been the reason for that. This also began a string of fights that saw St-Pierre take more damage than usual.

It would be another nineteen months before St-Pierre returned to the cage. Knee injuries pulled him from fights in October 2011 and February 2012, keeping him outside the cage for the longest period since he began fighting. He returned in November 2012 against Carlos Condit, an excellent striker and grappler with a wrestling deficiency that would cost him against St-Pierre.

St-Pierre controlled the large majority of the fight, with the key moment coming early in the third round when Condit knocked the champion down with a head kick. St-Pierre, showing growth from the Serra fight, stayed on his back until he’d regained his senses. Then he worked his way back up, pressured Condit, and took him down. Despite the knockdown, two judges scored the round in St-Pierre’s favor. He won a wide decision on all three scorecards.

Then came the Nick Diaz grudge match that St-Pierre had been harping for since 2011. It was notable that St-Pierre didn’t look as fresh in the later rounds as he typically would, but he still won every round o the fight. In terms of pay-per-view sales, it was the biggest main event fight of St-Pierre’s career.

November 2013 might have marked the last fight of St-Pierre’s career. He wanted to take time off, but first he had to fight Johny Hendricks. Hendricks carried a 15-1 record into the fight and a reputation for big power for quick knockouts over Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann.

The fight was well contested. Hendricks clearly won rounds two and four by a significant margin, but not enough of a margin to warrant a 10-8 score. St-Pierre clearly won rounds three and five, but by a relatively small margin. It came down to round one, which Hendricks seemed to win closely, but not close enough to be a tossup. However, two judges leaned toward St-Pierre, which was enough for him to keep his title. It was his ninth successful title defense.

After the fight, St-Pierre walked away on top.
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St-Pierre opened against Michael Bisping like he hadn’t missed a step. He was still quick, he moved well, and he was able to take Bisping down. The betting odds on the fight were close, but after that first round showed St-Pierre still had it, it became his fight to lose.

The second round told a different story. He took Bisping down again, but he got back up. The size difference between the two was more apparent on the ground than on the feet. Then Bisping began landing strong punches, although they didn’t wobble St-Pierre. If St-Pierre wasn’t tired, he was certainly slower. It was a close round, but a good showing from Bisping.

St-Pierre opened the third round with a takedown, but this proved to be to Bisping’s advantage. St-Pierre, once one of the best guard-passers in MMA, could get nothing done in Bisping’s guard. Meanwhile, Bisping sliced St-Pierre’s face with strikes from the bottom. Bisping worked back to his feet, which at this stage figured to be to his advantage. The ground exchange had left St-Pierre in a hole for the round, and he’d need to do something to come back and win it. Then, with less than 90 seconds left in the round, Bisping ducked into a St-Pierre left hook that put him on the canvas.

St-Pierre attached with a relentless series of elbows, but Bisping was still alert enough to defend. Then St-Pierre pushed Bisping against the fence, postured up, and tried to punch his way through Bisping. But Bisping was still alert enough to defend. Then in an apparent attempt to take advantage of some space and get back to his feet, Bisping exposed his back. St-Pierre pounced. He secured his hooks and wrapped his arms around Bisping’s neck. He strangled his opponent into unconsciousness. Georges St-Pierre was the UFC middleweight champion.

The crowd exploded as the feel-good storybook ending came to life before them. The man they cheered as a returning hero was also a conqueror. He rebounded from what should have been a loss to Johny Hendricks. He came back from two torn ACLs. He fought through fatigue and trying times in rounds two and three. This is what makes Georges St-Pierre great. If we saw what happened after he lost to Matt Hughes and Matt Serra, what else could we have expected?

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Georges St. Pierre, Dan Plunkett