LAS VEGAS—Georges St-Pierre can trace a direct line from November 12, 1993, all the way to November 16, 2013.
St-Pierre—who was bullied by older kids as a child—was entranced from the moment he saw the seemingly frail and weak Royce Gracie carve a path of destruction through the first UFC tournament.
When he was 15 years old, St-Pierre went to a friend's house for a barbecue. His friend went to the video store—back when seeing a movie required more than firing up Netflix—and rented VHS tapes of the first UFC events. St-Pierre watched, transfixed, as Gracie bested much larger men and forever altered our idea of what a fight could look like and how a smaller man would fare against larger foes.
It would change St-Pierre's life, ultimately leading him to the UFC's 20th anniversary show this Saturday night, where he defends his welterweight title against Johny Hendricks.
It also led him to Wednesday afternoon's UFC 167 open workouts, where the legendary Gracie—clad in a weathered and worn gi—led one of his famous Gracie Train entrances, this time with St-Pierre and his camp in tow.
St-Pierre, also wearing a gi adorned with his Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt, took to the mat for a series of grappling movements with his hero. Triangle to armbar to Americana. Americana to armbar to triangle. All fluid and done with great respect.
It was a poignant moment, and not just because of the anniversary and all the trappings that go along with it. This was the man who essentially created St-Pierre, the welterweight champion. Gracie had no input in St-Pierre's training; in fact, Wednesday afternoon was the first time the French-Canadian had rolled with the elder statesman.
But what if St-Pierre had never squinted through those grainy old VHS tapes back in his teenage years?
St-Pierre says he still watches those old Ultimate Fighting Championship events. He can recite the name of every fighter and give you the kind of details that only an expert eye can see. His face glows when talking of his respect for the fighters who paved the way for him to become one the most famous mixed martial artists on the planet.
"Of course I do. I respect all of those guys. It was a different era, a different time. It was much tougher back then," St-Pierre says. "It was a real fight. There were no time limits or weight classes. It was incredible. When I watch tapes from back then, I just didn't know what would happen. We thought someone could die. There was too much unknown.
"I don't think I would have had the courage to do that. I probably would have stayed at school."
He ultimately mustered the courage to follow in Gracie's footsteps, from his meager beginnings all the way to his reign as one of the best fighters in history. And St-Pierre wishes some of the rules and practices from the old days were still in effect today. He believes that a mixed martial arts bout is a real fight and should be treated like one.
Take the modern five-minute rounds, for example.
"I believe we are trying to mimic boxing. If you really want to see who is the best fighter, I believe you should just let them fight. Maybe a 15-minute fight without rounds or a 25-minute fight," he says. "When you stop a fight, you stop the momentum. It could change the result of the fight.
"I believe if you want to see the best, you just let them fight. Me, I believe the sport will be more real if there were no rounds. Maybe the scoring could be based on every five minutes of a fight, but I believe they should change. I believe it might happen in the future. And most fighters, if you ask them, agree with me. They believe it's a fight and you should just let them fight. Don't break it up in the middle. It's supposed to be a fight. You want to see the best man? Let them fight."
Before he ever fought in the UFC, St-Pierre went to Las Vegas with friend David Loiseau to see UFC 40 and the main event featuring Tito Ortiz and Ken Shamrock. That was 11 years ago, before St-Pierre had any aspirations to compete and fight. He was simply accompanying Loiseau, who had scored a regional promotion win over Tony Fryklund in Montreal earlier that year to earn a call-up to the UFC in early 2003.
It was a very different time for the UFC; several years would pass before the lovable cast of the first The Ultimate Fighter season would capture the attention of people across the world and help catapult the promotion to the greatest heights it would ever know.
The night before the fight, St-Pierre and Loiseau sneaked into the MGM Grand Garden Arena and took a stroll in the Octagon. They just walked right in and stepped into the cage, with nary a security guard to be found. All these years later, he is still incredulous that he and Loiseau weren't caught on their venture. Such a thing would never happen today.
"I just got in the cage and did some shadow boxing. I was a fan. I wasn't even a fighter or anything," he says. "There was no security. I couldn't believe it."
Despite the fame, money and attention that St-Pierre has garnered since that November night, he still finds the time to go back to his roots—to the days, people and events that turned him into a fan. His longtime trainer Firas Zahabi says that pulling out those old tapes is still a regular practice at his Tristar Gym in Montreal.
"I think those old tapes will always be watched," Zahabi says with a laugh. "We watch every fight we can from the golden days. They're like comic books. You can never have fights like that again."
St-Pierre seems happier than usual. Perhaps that's because he has had the best camp in many years, according to Zahabi. GSP says he is ready for Johny Hendricks, and even if the bearded power puncher is just the latest toughest fight of his career (as every fight usually is), it will be no less of an accomplishment if St-Pierre beats him and knocks back another would-be welterweight title challenger.
Or, perhaps, it's because St-Pierre is here, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena, in the presence of the man who made all of this possible.
Without Gracie, would there be a UFC? Perhaps.
But without Gracie, there would be no St-Pierre.