“When you’re as rich as Georges St-Pierre is,” White said, “to stay mentally tough and to keep having the drive and the passion to win that he does, that’s what separates him from all the rest.”
A version of the quote appeared during the UFC’s series of Primetime specials for St-Pierre’s fight against Johny Hendricks and later in a Forbes.com story where an executive from Under Armour also called GSP “the Michael Jordan of MMA.”
So, you know, no pressure.
Viewed with the benefit of hindsight—now that we’ve witnessed St-Pierre’s grueling bout with Hendricks, its controversial outcome and the champion’s ensuing public breakdown—it’s clear White’s sentiments, while genuine, belied the truth.
Today we must assume St-Pierre could manage life as the greatest 170-pounder on the planet only with considerable strain. Really, the only reason that surprises anyone is because he made it look so easy for so long.
“I'm going crazy,” St-Pierre confessed Saturday night as he sat battered and broken—but weirdly victorious—during the event’s post-fight news conference. “I have some issues. I need to relax. I need to get out for a while.”
Later he added, “I left my soul in the Octagon.”
The announcement of GSP’s faux-retirement rankled White and inflamed the Internet, though the sudden revelation that he needs a break was more or less consistent with what we’ve heard from other longstanding UFC champs.
At least in the immediate aftermath of his UFC 162 loss to Chris Weidman, Anderson Silva appeared genuinely glad to be done with it all. Silva, 38, had been champion for a bit more than six-and-a-half years, is regarded as the greatest MMA fighter ever and had made the shortest possible work of much of his competition.
Yet after Weidman knocked him out one minute, 18 seconds into the second round back in July, Silva’s initial reaction was that he absolutely did not want the chance to get his belt back.
“Chris is the champion now…,” he told Joe Rogan in the cage. “That’s it, I finished my work. I (won’t) fight more for the belt. I’ll change my life now, because I’ve been working hard for a long time. I’ve had the belt for a long time. I’m tired. I’ll relax now.”
Silva’s feelings only added to what we’d already heard from Matt Hughes, who looked legitimately relieved when BJ Penn finally ended his dominant run as 170-pound champion at UFC 46. Hughes said he felt like a weight had been lifted and implied that he would enjoy seeing someone else take the heat for a little while.
He gave the impression there was real catharsis for him in dropping the title, and he added an unmistakable note of ironic glee directed at Penn.
Yeah, good luck with that, he appeared to say.
During their time as champions, Hughes, Silva and St. Pierre each routinely faced forms of stress and obstacles “normal” people likely can’t fathom. It stands to reason that in an occupation as unspeakably difficult and taxing as MMA, the guy at the top naturally takes the worst of it.
That’s what they signed up for and, yeah, they must be able to handle that stress better than almost anyone on the planet. Still though, for a sport that analyzes and debates most of its details to death, it’s weird how seldom we acknowledge how much we ask of these men. It’s odd how little we’re forced to confront the impossibility of the expectations we set for them and how—just maybe—they can tear a guy apart.
Our one reminder is that when it’s over, the men who’ve been kings for the longest rarely seem to want the throne back. At least not right away.
For St-Pierre—who has done it longer, arguably better and against stiffer competition than anyone—his departure might have been easier if he’d lost to Hendricks Saturday. At least then we wouldn’t be crushing him over a decision he couldn’t control and goading him into a rematch he doesn’t really want.
He’s said his desire to “go away for a while” is compounded by as-yet unspecified personal reasons, but—whatever they are—they’ve certainly been exacerbated by the fact he’s lived the last seven years of his life while tiptoeing across the razor blade of high-level MMA competition.
Owing to his widely maligned but undeniably effective fighting style, he’s spent more time in the Octagon than any other man in history. He’s had high-intensity blood feuds with Penn and Nick Diaz but also fought his own teammate in Carlos Condit.
Since avenging his only two career losses (to Hughes at UFC 50 and Matt Serra at UFC 69), he’s greeted and summarily defeated a constant revolving door of challengers who embodied the very best the UFC could bring him. In 2011-12, he took time off to rehab a significant knee injury (so, in other words, not time off at all) but otherwise has been the fight promotion’s best, most dependable soldier.
When you think about all St-Pierre did, how long he did it and the pressure he did it under, words like remarkable and extraordinary fall flat.
When you consider that he was so good that we complained about it, dismissed it as boring and that his promoter’s first response upon learning that he was hurting (really hurting) was to rip him in public, well, we clearly don’t deserve him, anyway.
If he decides to walk away, it’d be hard to blame him.
Of course, we know what happened with Silva and Hughes. Neither stayed content for long.
After losing his belt to Penn, Hughes fought 15 more times in the UFC, trudging on until back-to-back KO losses in 2010-11 forced him into retirement.
Silva will rematch with Weidman next month.
St-Pierre’s future is somewhat less certain, though White now assures us the rematch with Hendricks is also “on track.”
For his part, after going straight from the hospital to the news conference to fulfill his UFC 167 duties, some of the first words out of St-Pierre’s mouth were also a reassurance.
“I would never turn my back to the UFC,” he said, his face a jigsaw puzzle of bruises, a fat caterpillar of stitches under his right eye. “Ever. Ever.”
You want mental toughness? Eat your heart out, kids. Now, let’s hope the MMA industry is tough enough to honor St-Pierre’s final decision.
Whatever it may be.