Last Friday, Georges St. Pierre did something that is all but unheard of for a thirty-two-year-old champion fighter on a twelve fight winning streak. He abdicated his throne, turned in his belt at the HR office, threw up deuces, and walked away on indefinite leave in the name of his mental health. This is terrible news for the the UFC’s business model and for anyone who loved to watch St. Pierre fight. This is banner news for people who enjoy seeing combat sports athletes make nearly unprecedented, totally rational decisions with their own well-being in mind.
St. Pierre is near the top of a very short list of humans gifted at physically harming other humans of comparable size under limited rules. He’s unquestionably the GOAT welterweight, having violently yoked the torch from Matt Hughes’ clenched fists. His body of work resides in a completely different orbit than even weightclass greats like Hayato Sakurai and Jon Fitch (who you may remember from such events as UFC 87: Georges St. Pierre Puts a Terrifying Beating on Jon Fitch). He’s a two time UFC WW champion, he holds the UFC record for wins with nineteen, he’s second behind Anderson Silva for consecutive title defenses with nine; he’s a bunch of other impressive numbers.
His resume is ridiculous.
Parisyan, Hieron, Miller, Trigg, Sherk, Penn x2, Hughes x2, Koscheck x2, Serra, Fitch, Alves, Hardy, Shields, Condit, Diaz, and finally, controversially, Hendricks.
Two losses, to Matt Hughes and Matt Serra, both viciously avenged.
His sabbatical, at least temporarily, marks the exit of not only a spectacular athlete and tactician, but also a man who was iconized as the next rung of MMA’s evolutionary ladder.
Modern no (quite a few) holds barred fighting is a relative zygote. There’s plenty of debate about where to pinpoint the newest rebirth. The late 1980′s initial incarnation of Shooto in Japan as well as a variety of jiu-jitsu and vale tudo goings-on in Brazil can certainly stake a claim. However, the inception of the Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993–proceeded slightly by Pancrase and followed immediately by Rings–is probably the most cited milestone. At that inaugural UFC event, Royce Gracie, in a manner that almost seemed understated, announced to the world that we didn’t know shit about full contact fighting. The sport hasn’t stopped changing in the twenty years since.
Massively oversimplified, the early metagame worked something like this:
Royce, not even remotely the best fighter in even his own family, appeared, tapped-out everyone in sight with holds that observers outside of the grappling community didn’t even understand, and bodied the entire game for the first three and a half UFC events (accepting that the entire game was a little bit tilted in his favor and maybe “bodied” is a bad verb to use for a sport that advertised itself like The Running Man). His more fearsome and hyperbolically mythologized half-brother Rickson put in similar work, with a top control bent, in Japan under the Vale Tudo Japan banner.
Submission grappling on the mat instantly became the paper, scissors, rock nuclear option. Conclusions about the most dominant martial arts style seemed foregone.
They weren’t, obviously.
Dan Severn and more importantly Mark Coleman followed by acolytes like Mark Kerr and Kevin Randleman showed that with top tier wrestling, a little bit of submission defense, brute strength, and preferably headbutts, ground and pound could nullify strikers and brutalize submission artists out of their comfort zone. It turns out wrestling is really useful in a fight, and allows you to control where it takes place. By learning just enough about BJJ to defuse it, wrestlers could bulldoze.
Maurice Smith, Bas Rutten, and Pedro Rizzo (and to some degree his predecessor Marco Ruas) provided a blueprint for stuffing takedowns, surviving deep grappling waters on the ground, and punishing outgunned grapplers on the feet. Oh, and holy crap, kicks actually work outside of the movies. With enough defensive wrestling to keep the fight standing, and tactics to stall and stymy wrestlers and submission artists on the ground, high level striking was perfectly viable.
The talent pool churned, and styles and tactics continued to appear, adapt and vie for dominance. We continued to look for answers to the original “What’s the best martial arts style for fighting?” question. The original answer,“Obviously Brazilian jiu-jitsu, why are we still asking this?” was obsolete. We realized that maybe we were asking the wrong question. We began searching for something else.
What if someone, and stick with me here, was really good at multiple disciplines? I know this is crazy but, what if someone was good at all the disciplines? What if there were disciplines we hadn’t even considered (stop bogarting that thing) because everyone was approaching MMA from the angle of adapting other skills to MMA, instead of approaching it as a different universe entirely? What if instead of cast-offs and past their prime transfers from other sports, we had athletes who had come up focused solely on fighting?
Here’s one completely debatable, fluid take on the version control log.
Vitor Belfort may have been perceived as the first step. Nineteen-year-old BJJ prodigies were supposed to depend on submissions. It wasn’t unheard of for them to flop on their back and buttscoot like a dog with a gland problem. They were not supposed to punch you super fucking hard. This was borderline cheating. It was like he didn’t even pay attention when they announced what kind of a fighter he was.
Frank Shamrock followed. The UFC booth’s habit of spamming buzzwords started early, and with Shamrock came uncomfortable repetition of “Crosstraining” and “The Alliance” (I’m still repressing “The TK Guard”). The Alliance was Sharmock’s partnership with grappler Tsuyoshi Kohsaka and kickboxer Maurie Smith. “Crosstraining” was actually paying attention to multiple facets of the fight game, including ones you weren’t good at, as well as the revelation that fitness and endurance might be an important part of being a professional fighter.
Fedor Emelianenko was so far beyond the existing skill ceiling that people only half joking labeled him a cyborg. Technically, athletically, and stylistically, Fedor was an upgrade from anything anyone had ever seen. He had the speed and agility of a much smaller man, brutal power in both hands, shocking raw functional strength, and endurance into the championship rounds. He was comfortable everywhere. He willingly dove into the guard of the division’s best grappler, traded shots with the its best striker, and deadpanned his way inevitable victory.
George St. Pierre was christened the next iteration of the idealized fighter.
The karate background of his youth had blessed him with excellent flexibility and kicking skills. In a sport where the jab and defensive boxing are both still criminally absent, he excelled at both. He was a positional grappling nightmare, with a ridiculous base, eventually able to completely no-sell submission and sweep attempts from quality grapplers.
Inexplicably, he grew from having almost no formal wrestling training to obliterating wrestlers with infinitely better credentials on paper in MMA fights. This can not possibly be overstated. Frank Trigg was a real, legitimate wrestler. Thirty seconds into their fight, Trigg changed levels under a GSP right hand and got very deep into GSP’s hips on a double leg. St. Pierre absolutely stoned him, got his hips back, dug an underhook with his left arm, and pancaked Trigg to his back. Collectively, thousands of MMA nerds looked around and asked no one in particular what the fuck was going on. When he denied Sean Sherk on a single from too far out, and responded by blasting a double right through him in the first round of his next fight, we knew it was no fluke.
He worked with top camps and trainers from Montreal to Albuquerque. He trained with world class wrestlers, BJJ black belts, pro boxing coaches, strength and conditioning specialists, gymnasts, whoever. He sought out anyone and anything that he thought would make him better.
St. Pierre was a strategic and tactical monster. Whatever you did well, he did just as well. Whatever you did poorly, GSP used to punish you. In a sport where most fighters are lucky to have a decent plan A, let alone a plan B, St. Pierre had a whole alphabet, and often his first option was so good he never had to worry about transitioning.
Matt Hughes couldn’t handle his range and movement in their second fight, so St. Pierre picked him apart with punches and more impressively, a variety of kicks. He landed a solid spinning back kick early, recalling their first meeting. He noticed Hughes trying to check his leg kicks, and kicked under the check, blasting out Hughes’ rear plant leg. When Hughes’ hands dropped, Georges launched a switchstep left headkick, cracked Hughes and pounded him out.
His first fight with BJ Penn had been a close decision, fought primarily with distance striking, which had resulted in Georges getting the tip of his nose badly clipped. Georges took no such chances in the rematch. He immediately employed his superior size and strength to grind down Penn on the cage, and put money in the bank with bodywork. He moved on to mauling him on the ground as the fight wore on and dragged Penn into a war of attrition. BJ, never known for his cardiovascular acumen, faded under the relentless pressure from the larger man and absorbed massive accumulated punishment. He never made it off his stool for the fifth round.
Dan Hardy is a threatening striker with less than spectacular wrestling. St. Pierre spent twenty five minutes on top of him reminding him of that fact, relentless attacking with submissions and never giving Hardy a chance to breathe.
Josh Koscheck is a fantastic wrestler, who can punch with power, but has no answer for a great boxer with takedown defense. In their second fight, St. Pierre found success with the jab early. Because he’s not an idiot, he continued with the left hand forcing Koscheck to figure out how to stop it. That never happened. GSP spent the remainder of the fight popping him in the eye with jabs and left hooks on tape loop.
In recent years, some combination of his overtly anodyne public personality, his overpowering strategic choices and his inability to finish fights caused him to be interpreted by some as “risk averse,” “boring as hell,” or, because this is MMA,“a scared pansy.” At the risk of being melodramatic, the underppreciation of George St. Pierre at this moment is a bit tragic. There were people who literally booed him after the announcement of his leave. Again, this is MMA, but even by those Death Valley standards, that’s appalling. What St. Pierre accomplished, and the standard that he set for those that will follow him, is nothing short of monumental. Thinking St. Pierre was boring, or awkward, or that he should have worked harder to finish in his last seven fights is absolutely fine. Acting like Georges St. Pierre isn’t one of the most important mixed martial artists of all time is nonsensical.
What’s next is Jon Jones and Cain Velasquez. Jose Aldo, Demetrious Johnson, Chris Weidman. Renan Barao and Anthony Pettis and much better fighters far deeper into every division (except maybe heavyweight but whatever). What’s next is guys like Rory McDonald who came up watching Georges St. Pierre and training to be a fighter from their youth. What’s next is more people with the real world class athletic ability of Ronda Rousey, and Daniel Cormier, and Sara McMann, and Jacare deciding that constantly worrying about other people punching you in the head, professionally, is a good idea.
If the sport gets its act together, and lasts long enough to keep evolving, what’s next is a nearly unlimited potential for better fighters and better fights and a better sport. Thank you, Georges St. Pierre, for twelve years of entertainment and everything you did to get us to what’s next.