Georges St-Pierre 1-on-1: On walking away, comeback plans, legacy

Former UFC champion Georges St-Pierre talks to Sportsnet's Donnovan Bennett about his upcoming return to The Octagon, why he wishes he stepped away sooner and what he's missed the most during his time away.

With the shake of his hand, I can feel the tendons in my right forearm holding on for dear life. And without exchanging any words, I knew that Georges St-Pierre was still in supreme fighting condition, since vacating his belt in 2013.

The setting for this interview with the three-time, former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion was a launch event for the fighting video game Nintendo Arms, a game that has become a secret obsession of St-Pierre’s during his time away from The Octagon.

Despite being challenged by others for most of his fighting career, St-Pierre now finds himself in the unfamiliar role of challenger himself as he seeks a fight with Michael Bisping in his return to competitive fighting. St-Pierre has issued a challenge to Bisping, and continues to text Dana White about the possibility.

The fight seemed destined to take place after St-Pierre volunteered to fight Bisping at UFC 206 in Toronto but now looks more and more unlikely with Bisping seemingly set to face Robert Whittaker in a title unification bout later this year.

UFC announced in March that former welterweight champ St-Pierre (25-2 MMA, 19-2 UFC) would challenge 185-pound champion Bisping (30-7 MMA, 20-7 UFC), but cancelled the bout when St-Pierre revealed he wouldn’t be ready to fight until the fall. Doctors have advised Bisping not to spar until September due to what he has called “a minor eye injury,” that has impacted his vision.

St-Pierre hasn’t fought since walking away from welterweight title four years ago after defeating Johny Hendricks. He now has no idea when or who he will fight next. As he laughed and worked the room, I wondered why the 36 year-old wouldn’t just enjoy his life and ride off into the sunset. Why deal with the politics of a fight that would put his record, health and legacy in jeopardy?

Although high off life out of The Octagon, St-Pierre says the “fighter’s high” is one he has yet to replicate.

“There is nothing in my life, there is nothing that can match it in terms of a feeling of gratitude,” he explains.

Still a premier draw for UFC cards and sponsors, he says the money from a title fight is not what he misses, or what has brought him back.

“Winning a fight. There is so much stress and sacrifice involved and risk that when you win, it’s such a relief that it’s unexplainable,” says St-Pierre.

For Canada’s most decorated MMA athlete, the pain and pleasure of fighting are impossible to separate.

“The feeling of being like almost on the edge of falling, but that’s the same feeling that makes me perform better.”

Yet the emotions tied to putting your life on the line every time you touch gloves is the very reason why he left in the first place.

“The stress. A lot of the cheaters that are in the sport, (that’s) the reason why I left.”

Looking up, he says, “I should have stopped earlier. At the end, I was not in a happy place. Not that I was competing against my will but (I had) a lot of people around me, a big entourage. I should have stopped maybe one fight before or maybe two, but I always feel I had to keep going, keep going, keep going. That’s the thing you always feel like when you finish a fight. If you are doing well, there is another guy coming, calling you out. So, it never ends.”

Now he’s happy again and happy to be the one calling Bisping out.

“It’s always a risk. That’s why if I come back, I take a big risk of putting my legacy on the line. I need to have a big reward. That’s why I wanted to fight Michael Bisping. If it’s only a big risk and small reward, it’s not worth it.”

Being reliant on not one physical skill but a broad base of expertise is why he’s willing to take that risk and confident he can fight off Father Time.

“The reason I think I was successful is I’m not the best striker. I’m not the best grappler, but I’m very good at mixing things altogether. So, when I fight a guy in a certain area I was able to bring him in the area where I’m more competent. MMA is like a triathlon. You could have the best swimmer, best runner, best cycler, but if you put it together it doesn’t mean you can do them all together.”

At an advanced age, he has to do more to make sure he has the body to put them all together.

For the first time in his life, St-Pierre is watching what he eats and has hired a dietician and a personal chef, despite being blessed with what he says are good genes.

“I’m lucky,” he explains. “My parents, my sisters are very fit and they don’t do much sports. My sisters have had babies and as soon as the kid came out they had a six pack, with no training. No lie.”

Talking trash to an opposing fighter using Instagram stories was not a promotional tool used, let alone available, to St-Pierre when he was working his way up the ranks. It’s why he watches the current hoopla surrounding the upcoming Mayweather vs. McGregor bout with bewilderment.

“I’m not a guy that is successful at trash talking. English is not my first language, so I choose my (verbal) battles very carefully.”

The more he talks about the fact he doesn’t talk, the more animated he becomes.

“It’s not really my personality. I try to stay authentic. Some guys are good at it, so they do it. I’m just not good at trash talking. I’m just not fast. I’m good at fighting.”

This all falls in line with his greater philosophy on fighting and life.

“There is a saying for athletes: ‘The main thing is keeping the main thing, the main thing.’ A sports psychologist used to say that to me. All the rest is distraction and tries to pull you away from the main thing.”

Now that he’s motivated and rejuvenated the main thing for St-Pierre is getting back in the ring. As fun as becoming a Nintendo gamer has been, the triathlon that is MMA is where his mind is at fearful peace.

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