Athlete of the Year finalist: Georges St-Pierre

The wild world of UFC has exploded in the past decade, but amid all the chaos, welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre has remained a constant.

The 30-year-old Montreal native is the face of the brand and its biggest pay-per-view draw. UFC president Dana White thinks GSP is a bigger star than Wayne Gretzky, and on an international scale he might be right.

This past year has been one of record achievements for GSP. Rewind to Apr. 30 at UFC 129 in Toronto: With Mixed Martial Arts now legally sanctioned in Ontario, it marked the first time UFC held an event in the province. Not only was GSP on the card, but he helped pave the way for it by appearing on Parliament Hill to meet with politicians and lawmakers.

More than 55,000 fans packed into the Rogers Centre for the card, making it the largest crowd for an MMA event in North American history. The crowd — as well as millions watching in bars and on their couches at home — had their eyes peeled for the main event: GSP versus former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields. Shields came in having not lost since 2004, a span of 15 fights. For GSP, there was more at stake — namely defending his UFC welterweight title for a sixth time and carrying the pride of his nation.

It was the kind of fight we’ve come to expect from GSP, with the exception of a glaring injury. He suffered damage to his eye early in the bout and yet still made his opponent look ordinary in a five-round unanimous decision. The win placed GSP at or near the top of every key category in the sport.

With 22 wins, GSP has recorded the second-most among UFC fighters, needing just two more to tie Matt Hughes. He has the third longest streak of consecutive wins with nine. In fact, GSP hasn’t lost a fight since he suffered a TKO at the hands of Matt Serra in April 2007 (he’d get his revenge about a year later by beating Serra in front of a fired-up hometown crowd at Montreal’s Bell Centre). And with his win this past spring in Toronto, GSP broke the record for most consecutive title defences by a welterweight (only middleweight champ Anderson Silva has reeled off more title defences, nine, among all UFC fighters).

It was extremely disappointing for UFC, fight fans and probably most of all Georges when an injured knee forced him out of UFC 137 in October. GSP said he “cried” when the decision was made to withdraw from his main-event fight versus Carlos Condit. St-Pierre still attended UFC 137 and watched Nick Diaz pulverize B.J. Penn in a three-round slugfest.

Afterwards, Diaz accused GSP of faking his injury and being “scared” to fight. White said GSP flipped out backstage, telling him: “Diaz is the most disrespectful human being I’ve ever met and I’m going to put the worst beating you’ve ever seen on him.”

It was a rare outburst from GSP, who prefers to do his talking in the Octagon. But it illustrates an important point: he hasn’t lost his competitive fire. And it sets up one of the most anticipated bouts in UFC history on Super Bowl weekend in Las Vegas when the two will face off — a fight GSP specifically requested.

That doesn’t sound like a guy running “scared.”

GSP is still the man to beat, which is one of the reasons he’s been — for three years — Sportsnet’s Canadian Athlete of the Year. And considering how he performed in 2011, he shouldn’t lose this year’s fight either.

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