There was a stretch during the third round of the Nick Diaz fight when the champ let the challenger off the mat. After Diaz sprawled on a single-leg takedown, the champ drifted back and into a boxing stance.
"Here's your chance," the champ's posture said.
Wary, Diaz tested the waters with a leg kick, then another. St-Pierre stood firm, waiting for Diaz to either gain confidence or lose patience. Eventually Diaz began to press forward, searching for a home for one of those tumbling punch combinations that always get arena noise swelling. Each time he waded in, though, one of the champ's straight-arrow jabs met him and repelled him, neatly and cleanly.
The challenger's window closed with the round. A double-leg takedown ensured Diaz heard the horn from his back. But the point was proven. No one could say Georges St-Pierre had completely smothered Nick Diaz, or hadn't given him a chance to do his thing.
Eight months later, that sequence works as a metaphor for the second half of one of the most brilliant MMA careers to date. He is the best welterweight ever. He is a fighting machine in body and mind. Calling St-Pierre a finely tuned athlete is a compliment to the act of fine tuning.
And yet, he's slipping in the pound-for-pound rankings. His name used to be a fixture in barroom GOAT conversations; it isn’t anymore. He generates far less public buzz, at least in the United States, than he did as a young champion in his 20s.
Part of that is thanks to that conservative style so many people like to criticize. But that's only a symptom of the deeper issue. St-Pierre is in decline because of his heart. And I don’t mean courage here. I mean passion, or maybe any positive emotion, for the sport.
Fighting is just a job to St-Pierre. And that’s perfectly fine. Plenty of fighters take that mindset. But when it becomes too methodical, too mechanical, maybe ennui sets in, and maybe that’s risky, particularly when you have as many post-retirement options as would St-Pierre. There are plenty of jobs in which one can get away with clock-watching. MMA isn’t one of them.
Maybe this is why the champ is a significant but not overwhelming favorite against Johny Hendricks, a talented but far from perfect fighter who just happens to overflow with the same vitality St-Pierre lost behind his radiator.
Maybe this is why GSP hasn’t finished an opponent in his last six tries, and often appears more interested in getting out of Dodge than in, you know, fighting. That’s all well and good when you have the tools GSP does. But what happens in that hard-to-predict but equally inevitable moment when you can no longer rely on your physical skills or scientific preparation? What happens when going through the motions won't cut it, when winning requires a little more? I don't think St-Pierre has any of those answers for himself.
You can see the seams in all aspects of St-Pierre’s persona these days, but especially when the arena lights aren’t yet on and there’s no script loaded on the teleprompter. The next time you see him at a news conference, ask yourself how a man in such perfect shape can grow so exhausted from sitting in a chair. With each question about his fight, his legacy, his training, his goals, Anderson Silva, the champ slumps his shoulders just a bit farther, in a way no opponent has ever forced him to do. It’s like he’s being cross-examined at his own trial. Every question answered is just that much closer to getting it over with. He news conferences the way he fights. He does everything that way, at least when it comes to his fighting self, which appears to be the self absorbing most of his bandwidth.
Ask yourself why no one blinked when someone “in a position to know”—longtime GSP mentor Kristof Midoux—suggested just this week that GSP should retire in the cage after UFC 167, and may very well do so. GSP is only 32 years old and unbeaten—make that unchallenged—over the past six years. Why is retirement even an option, much less an unsurprising one? Because everyone can plainly see the grind has ground him down. They can see the cold hearth where something used to smolder.
That's why the Diaz example offers such a great illustration. He didn't do that to Diaz because he wanted to test himself against a great striker, or finally vanquish a longtime grudge, or prove something to Diaz or Dana White or anyone else.
He did it because he didn't want to hear it. He didn't want to hear that he hadn't let Diaz be Diaz, that he had once again sucked the life out of the proceedings. So he did just enough to satisfy his obligations and preempt any scrutiny. No more, no less.
Does any of this mean GSP will lose Saturday night? Of course not. Does it mean GSP will retire Saturday night? No, although if GSP wants to retire because he feels it's time for him to start a family or avoid brain injuries or just do something else, then that makes perfect sense. He doesn’t need the money. More importantly, fighting because “this is what I do” is only going to heighten his risk levels, particularly given that it’s so hard to discern the exact night when those athletic tools and muscle memory will fail as a safety net.
Regardless of what happens Saturday night, it’s strange that, for whatever reason, the greatest welterweight ever is facing early retirement because of no one else but the man himself. It’s even stranger that it might have already happened, and he just didn’t have the heart to tell us.