If Mike Tyson could parlay savage knockout artistry into mainstream appeal, Georges St. Pierre's (Pictures) nuanced-if-numbing beatdowns are cut from the same cloth -- he transforms the prospect of mere physical domination into performance art.
Blessed with a blend of power and technical wizardry that keeps opponents guessing, St. Pierre does things that suggest the emergence of a new breed of mixed martial artist, one that shatters previous stereotypes of mixed martial artists relying on core disciplines and an also-ran brand of less-honed complementary skills.
He strikes like a Thai boxer on the feet, mixing punches and kicks with flashy moves that a less confident fighter would never attempt. He stuffs takedowns with the brick-wall disdain of a cauliflower-eared Iowan mat freak, then dismantles pithy attempts at jiu-jitsu with the pretense of a hot knife cutting through butter.
St. Pierre probably isn’t double-parked outside whatever arena he’s competing in. He just fights like he is.
Now, as the UFC welterweight champ heads into Saturday night’s title defense against Jon Fitch (Pictures), he’s prepared to hit on all cylinders once more. Gone is the ghost of Matt Serra (Pictures), who shockingly knocked St. Pierre out in April 2007 after “Rush” seemed ready to rule the welterweight roost in his first win over Matt Hughes (Pictures).
For while St. Pierre has won the championship twice, he has yet to successfully defend his title -- and for champions, that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s easy to win the title, but keeping it against a capable, motivated challenger is what differentiates a champ from a man merely holding the belt.
In Fitch, St. Pierre faces a fighter who’s 8-0 in the UFC (tying him with Royce Gracie (Pictures) for the most consecutive wins in the organization), with a potent grappling game and a hard-nosed approach. It’s just the kind of challenger St. Pierre needs to serve notice that he’s ready for a memorable championship run.
“He brings a lot more problems to the table than all the guys I’ve fought before,” St. Pierre said. “I have a game plan and a solution to the problem.”
Known for his willingness to train with the best partners across multiple disciplines, St. Pierre’s progression in recent years is a product of being willing to put his ego aside and step into other disciplines, often against the best athletes available.
Whether it’s the Canadian wrestling team tossing him around in his native Quebec, pro boxers or top-notch sparring with fellow mixed martial artists, he’s not content to play the frontrunner game by bringing in mere bodies to beat on.
St. Pierre’s been able to dominate top wrestlers like Hughes and Josh Koscheck (Pictures), but Fitch, who grappled at Purdue University, brings additional credentials with a black belt in Dave Camarillo’s Guerilla jiu-jitsu.
The champ had a jetsetter-style training camp, shuttling between Canada and Albuquerque, where he preps with members of star-studded Greg Jackson Submission Fighting. He also went to Brazil to prepare for what could be an intense ground battle -- which is akin to going to Cuba to learn how to play shortstop, or East L.A. to sharpen up your body punching.
Unlike Hughes and Koscheck, Fitch isn’t the kind of wrestler who loses the initiative once placed on his back. In his lengthy climb up the UFC ranks, Fitch has shown the kind of intensity and heart that made him a logical challenger for the title. So, fittingly, St. Pierre sought out the solution.
“I went to the Gracie Barra Academy in Brazil. Gustavo Machado (Pictures) and a bunch of guys were there,” St. Pierre said. “I was focusing a lot on my ground training and skills, and it’s paid off. He’s pretty well rounded. He has a strong base in wrestling. My specialty is fighting wrestlers, but he’s got a lot more than that. He’s good standup and on the ground. He’s going to be tough.”
St. Pierre’s manager, Shari Spencer, said the champ has surrounded himself with the right people.
“One of the first things that really impressed me about the team surrounding him is that, while certainly a rising tide lifts all ships, it’s really about what’s best for Georges, first and foremost. That unity among the team is crucial to allowing him to maintain his focus on training and competing,” Spencer said. “Georges recognizes that iron sharpens iron, and is honored to train with some of the best because of his reciprocal support when they’re competing. So clarity of focus, quality of training, unity of intent and reciprocity -- all these characteristics of his training camp contribute to his success.”
Spencer added that as mixed martial arts continues to grow, she hopes to position St. Pierre to capture a slice of the marketing pie that’s increasingly lucrative for top fighters. A movie deal with Lion’s Gate has been signed, and discussions of a television role are in the works.
St. Pierre currently has two fights left on his UFC contract. Given his dominance of top-shelf opposition and the absence of sponsors on his fight trunks in recent bouts, his long-time affiliation with Affliction -- the clothing company turned promotional entity -- has been subject of rumor. Specifically, it’s been speculated that the champ might join the upstart promotion if he leaves UFC.
“We are indeed in discussions with the UFC, and we definitely want to stay with this organization,” Spencer said, “but have not reached a new deal yet that makes business sense for both sides.”
Whatever promotional banner he fights under, St. Pierre will carry serious bargaining leverage, and drawing power. It isn’t every day that a guy comes along who can take down world-class wrestlers and land dynamic strikes that make viewers double-take and gush over the replay. Wrapped up in a humble persona and charming, French-inflected accent, he might be the most marketable star in the sport given the game’s aging and AWOL cast of bigger names.
As St. Pierre’s star power grows, rumors have surfaced that the winner of his bout with Fitch will get UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn (Pictures) in December. The bout would be a compelling chance for St. Pierre to take on Penn, whom he defeated in March 2006 by split decision, but the champion says he’s focused on making his first title defense.
A rematch with Penn “is not set. It all depends on the outcome (Saturday),” St. Pierre said. “I don’t know if it’s going to happen. A lot of people want to fight me. I’ve made some mistakes. I’m the kind of person that never makes the same mistake twice, and I know I’m going to keep the belt.”