Building the Perfect Fighter: The Team Behind UFC 154 Star Georges St-Pierre
Before he suffered a loss to Matt Serra in one of the biggest upsets in mixed martial arts history, Georges St-Pierre was a self-made man.
He studied kinesiology at University in Canada and had trained in the martial arts almost since birth. Already a world champion, St-Pierre thought he knew what needed to be done in order to be the very best.
Serra's right hand put an end to that line of thinking forever.
The loss changed St-Pierre's life and his perspective. Once satisfied with coaches and training partners near his home in French Canada, St-Pierre expanded his horizons.
And a fighter who was great became arguably the best martial artist of all time.
"In my career, there have been two great turning points," St-Pierre told me in a 2008 interview. "The first is when I lost to Matt Hughes and the second is when I lost to Serra. After those losses, I made a lot of changes in my training, my entourage, and everything in my life. I become better after every fight, but after these two losses I became way better.
"It gave me a little push up. Before I lost to Serra, I was lifting weights by myself I was training by myself pretty much. I thought I knew everything already. After I lost, I decided to work with a specialist, a sports conditioning guy. It's helped me improve dramatically. I became way more explosive and he helps me peak at the right time. Periodization of the training. It's changed everything. It helps me a lot."
That "sports conditioning guy" was Jonathan Chaimberg, a former world-level wrestler from Canada who has worked with top athletes in both Major League Baseball and the NHL. Although the two no longer work together regularly, he had an incredible effect on St-Pierre, turning a natural athlete into a machine.
"He adapts very quickly," Chaimberg said. "The way his body adapts is amazing. He's definitely a great athlete. Very fast twitch. It's fun to train athletes who are explosive. They have that athlete gene, as I call it. They aren't just good at their sport, if you put them in any other sport like basketball and football, hockey, whatever it is, they'll pick another sport up pretty quickly. They have a good athletic base.
"He's right up there. When it comes to running, jumping, strength and skill, Georges is unbelievable. A phenom. It's different when you work with these other guys. All they have to do is play one sport," Chaimberg continued, comparing St-Pierre with top athletes from other sports he's worked with. "Someone like Georges, he'll have seven different disciplines he's working on from wrestling to jiu-jitsu to boxing to Muay Thai to strength and conditioning. He has so many different things he needs to worry about."
When St-Pierre came to him, the fighter was like a lump of unformed clay. The raw materials were there, but he didn't know how to make the most of his talents. Potentially, St-Pierre was an Olympic-class athlete. But despite his success in the cage, he couldn't do 10 pullups and fell short on other standard measures of physical fitness. That would soon change.
"He adapts to movements right away," Chaimberg said. "Not only will his body adapt, but from an ego standpoint he will always want to get better. If you give someone like Georges exercises in the gym and he doesn't hit them perfectly, you know that by the next workout he'll have really tried to perfect them. What's fun about that is that his body adapts very quickly to the training. He started out only being able to do a few chinups, and in five months he was doing them with 80 pounds strapped around his waist."
It's this competitive nature that has driven St-Pierre's success. Another of his strength and conditioning gurus, Rushfit creator Erik Owings, also credits St-Pierre's singular will with his rise back to the top of the sport.
"When he tries something and he can't do it, he keeps doing it until he can succeed at it," Owings said. It's this pursuit of perfection that Owings believes allows St-Pierre to fight at full speed for all five rounds of a championship bout.
"Georges had certain limitations, like anybody. He's human. We always think that these guys who go out there and crush their opponents must be living in the Matrix or are superhuman. Georges is very human," Owings said. "He's a phenomenal athlete, but there's a baseline level of fitness every fighter has. Some a little better than others. But when a guy gasses in the ring, it has nothing to do with an inability to do pushups, pullups, bench presses, or run a mile in six minutes. Even if you have superb numbers in the traditional fitness realm, you can easily fatigue in a fight.
"What makes you fatigue and what keeps Georges, and all the other greats, from fatiguing in the cage is one thing and one thing only—efficiency. They are efficient in the movements that they do. I call them great spenders. Everybody in MMA has $100 in their checking account, $100 of gas in their tank. Some guys, when they go for a takedown, it's like going to the grocery store and spending $60 on a loaf of bread. When really all he needed to spend was a dollar."
"Georges is a guy who took athleticism and brains and combined them to take things the furthest. Farther than everyone else," head trainer Firas Zahabi said. "Some guys have a lot of brains. Some guys have a lot of brawn. Georges St-Pierre has a lot of both. It's extremely rare and it takes a lot of man hours to build. The fact that he's a very bright guy really helps. He's been able to put the two together."
For St-Pierre, training is the fun part. While competition in the cage is the ultimate setting for a technique or strategy, the acquisition of knowledge is what makes fighting worthwhile.
"It's like war," St-Pierre said. "We've seen it in the past, the country or civilization with the most advanced weapons win the war. Genghis Khan dominated the world during his time because he had a weapon nobody else had. America won World War II with the atomic bomb. Same thing in MMA. I want to have a weapon that nobody else has. That's why I've been traveling a lot. I want to have some techniques, some weapons, so I can win and dominate my sport. That's what I need to have to stay ahead of the game."
This pursuit of high powered weaponry has led St-Pierre to some of the world's best trainers from Brazil to France and back again. Today his arsenal includes karate, Thai kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, boxing and wrestling. And while many fighters fall short trying to be a jack of all trades and a master of none, St-Pierre is capable of competing in a variety of disciplines at a very high level.
"Georges has been training since he was six years old," Zahabi said. "That's a heavy advantage for Georges. And the majority of his life he's been training properly. You don't see that with a lot of fighters. They might have started young, but they weren't trained properly. They weren't in the hands of a great coach. And, luckily for Georges, he's had a lot of great coaches."
"He scours the planet with a voracious appetite for great coaches," Owings said. "For the best information. That's why he's so good. You know who's responsible for Georges training? Georges and Georges alone. It's his dedication to training and his lifestyle. His ability is the result of his time spent with all these different forms of training. Georges has arrived at a level that few fighters do."
To improve his boxing he's spent time with Freddie Roach. For Brazilian jiu-jitsu, his coach of choice is John Danaher. Nearby in New York, Phil Nurse helps prepare the champion for the standup portion of the bout. For strategy, he's gone to Greg Jackson.
On each of these stop along the journey, he's grown as a fighter. Nothing but the best will do. When Owings turned him on to sprinting as a great anaerobic exercise, St-Pierre went to Britain to work with 1992 gold medalist Linford Christie.
He does nothing halfway. And what he sees, GSP is quickly able to replicate.
"Georges moves around so much because he's like a sponge," Owings said. "He's at the point where he can break down people's styles immediately. Like, you can catch him with your favorite sweep or submission one time—but try to catch him with it again. It doesn't happen. He learns and absorbs. He has an amazing ability to determine what he needs and what he doesn't need."
"I've never seen anybody work as hard as GSP. No one works as hard but also as smart," Zahabi said. "He's the biggest perfectionist. That's what makes the difference. I can push a lot of guys hard. Just as hard as Georges. But not many are going to reflect and think really deeply about things.
"Georges is a very deep person. You might not see that on the outside, because he doesn't share that with everyone. But he's a very deep individual, a person who reflects very deeply on his technique, his life, what it means to do what he does. He's a very intelligent person and that's something that he brings to the table that a lot of guys don't have."
It was this keen intelligence that nearly stopped St-Pierre in his tracks during his road back to the UFC after a ruptured ACL threatened his career. Fighters too often live on the edge of anxiety, worried about an opponent who can outwork and outfight him.
For St-Pierre, on the shelf months after surgery to repair his knee, thoughts turned dark.
"When you get hurt, for a long time you are forced to be pulled away from training," St-Pierre said at the UFC 145 open workouts. "You are forced to stop doing what you like to do every day. It makes you see things from a new perspective."
The injury will be on everyone's mind when St-Pierre steps into the cage for the first time since his surgery. Bleacher Report's fight doctor, Jon Gelber, broke down how St-Pierre might be limited physically:
His graft is likely strong, but the real question is: will his mobility will be the same?
He may not be able to move suddenly from side-to-side as quickly as he did a year ago. In addition, his quadriceps strength may be just a fraction less, which is all it takes for someone to lose at an elite level. Furthermore, GSP is now one year older and hasn’t been in the groove of competition as he was during his dominant reign.
Time on the shelf wasn't easy for St-Pierre, a certified workaholic and perfectionist, who was forced to start slowly and proceed cautiously while rebuilding his knee for combat.
"There was a period where things were shaky," Zahabi admitted during the first episode of UFC's Primetime series. "It was a really dark time for him....ACL injuries have crippled careers. Some guys have never come back. If there's one guy who can come back in MMA, I believe it's GSP."
For GSP, UFC 154 is a fresh start, a chance to prove again that he belongs at the top of the heap. Standing in his path is a tough test. After a win over Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit is the interim champion. While St-Pierre holds the lineal UFC welterweight belt, in his mind at least, he's the challenger and Condit the true champion.
He knows Condit has had great coaching. A product of the Jackson-Winkeljohn fight factory in New Mexico, Condit has had the chance to pick the brain of Greg Jackson just as GSP has.
And while Jackson won't be in either man's corner on fight night, this fight features none of the bad blood that characterized the UFC 145 fight between former Jackson proteges Jon Jones and Rashad Evans.
"We trained at the same gym at the same time, but we never really trained together," St-Pierre said. "I've only shaken Carlos Condit's hand. I've never really grappled with him, wrestled with him, or sparred with him."
St-Pierre and Condit will have 25 minutes to get reacquainted in Montreal on Saturday. But it's another relationship that's been on GSP's mind, one that he says he took for granted before the injury—his relationship with the fight business.
"When you get hurt and you cannot (fight) for some time, you realize how you miss it," St-Pierre said during the UFC 154 media call. "It's like when you're in love with your girlfriend. When you are with her everyday, sometimes you don't realize how much you love that person. But when you are away for a long time, you realize you really love the person because you miss her."
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