The prospect of defeat is what motivates UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre.
In April of 2007, a tough Long Island underdog named Matt Serra stunned St-Pierre—and most MMA fans—with a barrage of unanswered strikes that forced the referee to stop the match 3:25 into the first round. Initially, GSP claimed that personal issues affected his focus going into the fight, but after the post-fight adrenaline had worn off he admitted that Serra was simply the better man that night. From then on, the Quebec native stopped making excuses and began making improvements.
“Georges obviously never wanted to lose again…So we both really focused on finding ways to win, and we started breaking down and analyzing fights,” says Firas Zahabi, a longtime friend and training partner who became GSP’s head coach after his loss to Matt Serra. “We started taking the preparation more seriously. We became much more calculated.”
It’s that devout preparedness that has earned St-Pierre a spot— maybe even the top spot—among the best fighters in the history of mixed martial arts.
At 32, GSP already has more than a decade’s worth of experience in MMA. Besides his trademark shaved head, the 5’10”, 170 pound St-Pierre is identifable by his lean frame, circus-acrobat agility, and impressive strength. Heavy doses of gymnastics and Olympic weightlifting have kept him in a physical condition that would shame athletes in more traditional sports.
In Canada, GSP’s stardom has made MMA one of the country’s most watched sports, and, by extension, he’s indirectly increased national interest in other combat sports, like boxing and Muay Thai. His victories have also earned him the spoils of a champion. He has his own fitness app, and he’s appearing in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, due out in the spring of 2014.
Still, even after six years and nearly a dozen wins, what motivates George St-Pierre most is avoiding the bitter taste of defeat.
“You don’t want to lose,” says St-Pierre, who’s looking for his 12th straight victory since losing to Serra when he fights Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 in Las Vegas this month. “You don’t want to be humiliated. You fight to win, and at all costs.”
From the go, GSP has had the kind of fight presence and charisma that’s made him one of MMA’s marquee stars. Between his pro debut, in January of 2002, and his first loss to Matt Hughes, in October 2004, GSP had won six of his frst seven fights via TKO or submission.
“Some guys just have that thing…that ‘it’ factor…that thing you can’t put your fnger on. But they have that thing. That’s GSP,” says UFC President Dana White. “He has ‘it.’ He’s a huge pay-per-view star for us. The biggest pay-per-view star in the UFC right now.”
The “it” factor that White speaks of is a combination of things. It’s partially GSP’s cool bravado, partially his action-star looks and physique—but another part is his explosive performance in the Octagon. It all started somewhere, though, well before the fame, when GSP was just a promising young fighter trying to gain ground on the mat in a still-evolving sport.
“My toughest fight didn’t happen in the UFC. A lot of people don’t realize that. It happened in an organization called TKO. I was very thin, I took the fight, and I fought a guy named Thomas Denny. After the first round I was so tired I told my corner to throw in the towel,” says St-Pierre of the 2003 match. “My corner said, ‘We don’t have a towel; you’re going to die in there.’ I heard the bell, and I went back out and I beat the guy up. I was like, 20 years old.”
With a few exceptions, that’s the way GSP has fought in every bout since then, with a win-or-die attitude that’s both intimidating to opponents and compelling to fight fans around the world.
In his 2004 loss to Hughes, GSP was controlling the fight against his more seasoned opponent until a slip in concentration got the best of him. GSP submitted to an armbar with just one second left in the first round, costing him the then-vacant UFC welterweight title. “After that loss, he was a man on a mission,” White says. “He doesn’t have many losses, but the guys he has lost to he’s come back and annihilated.”
From there, GSP collected five straight victories and eventually evened the score with a dominant second-round TKO over Hughes at UFC 65 in November 2006. Then, GSP lost his next fight to Serra—who’d earned a title shot with an incredible string of wins on The Ultimate Fighter 4 reality series—in a wild first-round TKO that remains one of the biggest upsets in MMA history. That second loss—and the fear of a third—drives GSP to continue to win. “He became motivated when he was knocked out against Serra in his first title defense,” says Phil Nurse, GSP’s striking coach. Since losing to Serra, eight of GSP’s 11 consecutive victories have come by way of decision. Although he scored a submission win over Hughes in their rubber match and a TKO over Serra with an onslaught of knees to the body, GSP has fought every second of every match since July of 2009 with few signs that he might be slowing down. In that time, he’s gone the distance with Jake Shields, Carlos Condit, and, most recently, Nick Diaz. If anything, his fighting style has only become more calculated.
“He’s utilizing his jab and working the distance really well,” says Serra, now retired and running several Brazilian jiu-jitsu schools in New York. “He’ll beat you up a little bit, let you stand up a little bit, and when he stands up—bam!—he hits you. He’s not just going toe-to-toe. If he does that it’s only a matter [of time] before he gets caught.” But GSP defies critics who say he fights to protect a weak chin. “No problem with that. I can take a punch,” GSP says. “What hurts you is what you don’t see coming.”
And GSP has been hurt. He calls Carlos Condit, whom he faced in November 2012, his toughest opponent ever. “He’s very unpredictable; he’s dangerous until the end. He hurt me very bad in the fight with a head kick,” GSP says. “When I stood up from the kick, it was the proudest moment in my entire career.” Still, with all that he’s accomplished at just 32, you have to wonder how long GSP will continue to fight—and how much more motivation he can draw from losses only getting smaller in his rearview. The decisiveness of most of his victories makes you believe that for GSP to fall, it could only be the “next GSP” who could knock him down.
“I don’t know, the sport keeps evolving and he keeps evolving with it ’cause he’s been the champion for so long,” White says. “He’s got a tough fight coming up with Johny Hendricks, and if he beats Hendricks, he’ll be around for a while.”
Questions abound in the future of any athlete, but what’s never been in question is GSP’s dedication to his training. His diet is strict, and his time in the gym is challenging by anyone’s defnition of the word.
“We use Olympic lifting and track and field in training,” says Zahabi, the owner of Montreal’s Tristar Gym. “I don’t like machines, and I don’t like anything Olympians don’t use. Olympians refine their training so greatly, there’s no need for us to go out there and reinvent the wheel.”
Zahabi has designed GSP’s training so that the champ is light on his feet, yet explosive. However, GSP and Zahabi have found that a lot of conventional methods of building strength don’t apply to them. That doesn’t mean that what works for GSP applies to everyone who steps in the gym, though.
“We don’t use the bench press. That’s one of the exercises you don’t need, in my opinion. And if you do, you should do only a small amount,” Zahabi says. “Bench pressing would help only if when lying down on the floor during a fight I had to push my opponent of of me. It’s very low on the list of the needs of a fighter.”
So, for now, the champ is motivated to stay on top, but he doesn’t get ahead of himself. He’s the current owner of the record for most successful title defenses in the UFC, and a win in his next fight would move him ahead of Hughes on the leaderboard for the most victories in UFC history, with 19. “It’s a motivation, but I keep my head on the goal, which is just winning the next fight,” GSP says.
And like any athlete well-versed in his clichés, GSP swears he doesn’t look back, only forward. But every now and then, he admits, he still thinks about losing. “Yeah, it could happen,” he says. “Nobody is invincible. It makes me remember that I need to work hard for what I have.”
THE GEORGES ST-PIERRE RUSHFIT WORKOUT
This workout can be done at home using just two-25 pound dumbbells.
|WARMUP REPEAT CIRCUIT 3 TIMES||CIRCUIT 1 REPEAT CIRCUIT 3 TIMES||CIRCUIT 2 REPEAT CIRCUIT 3 TIMES||CIRCUIT 3 REPEAT CIRCUIT 3 TIMES|
|Standing Sprint x 30 sec||Dumbbell Squat to Shoulder Press x 15||One-leg Pushup x 10 each side||Shadow Box x 30 sec|
|High Knee x 30 sec.||Bentover Dumbbell Wide Row x 15||Bentover Row x 10 each side||Bentover Power Row (alternating arms) x 30 sec|
|Plank Burpee x 30 sec||Walking Dumbbell Lunge x 16||Rest 45 sec||Biceps Curl x 30 sec|
|Speed Push-up x 30 sec||Rest 45 sec||Cool Down Repeat circuit 3 times|
|Weighted Crunch x 20|
|Floor Wiper (holding weight out for stabilization) x 20|
|Bicycle Crunch x 50