Renaissance Man: Why Are We Doubting Georges St Pierre?

It’s almost unheard of in any sport, let alone one as short-term and impactful as fighting, for an elite individual to take a sabbatical during their competitive prime and return to enjoy a similar level of success. It’s also almost unheard of, in general terms, for anyone to be as good at fighting as Georges ‘Rush’ St Pierre. GSP is not a man to be measured by traditional metrics… so why do we hold him to traditional standards?

“That’s the question that was asked before; has Ken transformed into the renaissance fighter that represents the UFC modern day? …so far the answer is no.”  – Mike Goldberg, on commentary during the second round of Shamrock vs Ortiz at UFC 40, November 22nd, 2002. 

History has a strange way of repeating itself. In 2002, the UFC had coaxed Ken Shamrock, one of its brightest stars in a long-since faded sky, out of semi-retirement to help plug the financial leaks in their sinking ship. Sure, Ken wasn’t the best fighter of his (or any) era, but he was the first total package guy who really got that intangible ‘it’ when it came to the fight business. While Royce Gracie may have rode proudly in the king-carrying litter, it was resting firmly upon Shamrock’s shoulders.

On Saturday night the question Goldberg alluded to during that contest will be asked once again, in somewhat similar circumstances. Georges St Pierre will return to the roost he once ruled; a roost nowhere near as rickety as the UFC was in 2002, but one showing the first signs of rust in the absence of those who once maintained it.

Much like St Pierre, Shamrock was a man who seemed to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. For any faults he had in the cage, Ken was way ahead of his time; a born fighter and an athlete in an era of martial artists. A brash showman amidst the camera shy. The UFC foisted that weight of expectation upon him, but more than anything, he placed it on himself. Maybe that’s why when the fighting part of the game did pass him by and the often fickle fan base moved on to blonder and more mohawked idols, Ken seemed to struggle mentally with his inability to be the star he once was.

Perhaps it was the wrestler in him. After all, his dues were paid, he’d reached the top of the game and here he still was, putting his body on the line to entertain the masses. Yet while beloved ‘rasslers in their 40s and 50s could still pop crowds with the announcement of that fabled (if often factually inaccurate) ‘one more match’, Shamrock was faced with an audience increasingly turned off by his ever diminishing returns. Younger fans regarded him as a bum, while some of his staunchest supporters did something much worse; they began to pity him.

The result? An embittered, battle-worn Shamrock trudged on through venues big and small, in search of the respect and recognition that once saw him dubbed ‘The World’s Most Dangerous Man’.

Georges St Pierre never wanted for respect and recognition; if anything, he carried the overwhelming support from his home nation and sprawling global following somewhat uneasily. GSP, as he would come to be known, may have been Shamrock’s polar opposite in almost every way, but much like Ken he was a man perpetually haunted by an internal struggle that, to this day, threatens to tarnish his once-gleaming legacy.

Where as Shamrock relished any opportunity to embrace his carnival barker, pro-wrestling roots, St Pierre styled himself martial artist-slash-professional athlete first and ‘superstar’ a very, very distant second. GSP was the sport’s Kwai Chang Caine; a purist, wandering North America on a spiritual quest for perfection through fighting.

In the eyes of many he achieved it. There was a time when all that separated GSP, Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko from the top of the pound-for-pound rankings was which of the trio had fought most recently. When Fedor fell, St Pierre and Silva remained. When Silva fell, GSP remained. Yet still he struggled internally, not because of how good he was in relation to others, but because of how good he was in relation to himself.

This propensity for severe self-criticism seemed to haunt St Pierre throughout his career. His fights defied the universal truth of MMA; that the sport was so unpredictable, any contest could and should be enjoyable. The French-Canadian was often so much better than his opponents, his fights became boringly predictable and despite the spoils of war, he would often seem visibly perturbed as fans booed over his post-fight interviews.

Outside of the cage St Pierre spoke openly of his need for a sports psychologist following a sensational loss to Matt Serra. While certainly not the first fighter to require such help, ‘Rush’ was one of the first to make it public. Some praised him but many fans – and peers – dubbed him mentally weak. When he made the decision to hang up his gloves four years ago, it came amidst swirling rumours regarding his mental health and personal life.

That was then… this is now

Fans aren’t obliged to trawl through years of history. St Pierre’s last five opponents (Hendricks, Diaz, Condit, Shields and Koscheck) all experienced a significant downswing in their careers after fighting him. This allowed those who caught the tail-end of GSP’s run to feasibly conclude that he simply ran when the going got tough, against a group of what they perceived to be less-than-elite opponents. This wasn’t helped by his controversial final outing against Johny Hendricks, the result of which was publicly panned by the media and UFC boss Dana White. White has always excelled at controlling the narrative, so his assertion that GSP simply didn’t want to be there any more was taken as gospel by the majority of the fanbase.

It’s that narrative, and that narrative alone, that has us questioning the return of one of our sport’s finest exponents. St Pierre fought nothing but the elite and still managed to drown almost every opponent he faced in every facet of the game. He defeated a murderers’ row of welterweights across two eras; from the Matt Hughes’ and BJ Penns, to the Carlos Condits and Johny Hendricks’. He did so while fighting in a way that prolonged his career. He was, arguably, the perfect fighter.

No UFC legend had taken time off and come back to recapture similar form. Not Shamrock or Tank Abbott, not Gracie, nor Coleman. Even Randy Couture, on his best day, was a slave to matchmaking and a piss-weak talent pool.

But St Pierre isn’t just any other man. He isn’t just any other legend. He’s not a good fighter, nor a great one. GSP is an elite combatant, one of the few men legitimately mentionable in the conversation of ‘best ever’.

Nobody has achieved what he has achieved…few ever will.

So why are we doubting Georges St Pierre?

It’s simple: Because we are wrong.

Written by Brad Wharton

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