A nine-year-old boy tells his mother, father and two younger sisters goodbye, steps out the front door of their simple home on Rue Yelle, a small strip of asphalt with maybe a dozen houses on it, and leaves for school. Mom works in a nursing home when she’s not watching his sisters. Dad installs floors and carpets and teaches karate part-time.
Wearing his favorite pants, a pair of breakaway Adidas sweats, Georges St-Pierre begins what will be a 45-minute, two-kilometer walk to school. His lips are red and chapped, and he can’t stop licking them. He worries that he looks like a clown.
Following the two-lane Rang Saint-Regis, he passes some houses here and there, but mostly he just sees fields going on forever. Walking into Saint-Isidore, Quebec—population 2,000—can feel like walking into the only town on earth, especially when, like Georges, you feel fear in every step.
His school, Saint-Isidore-Langevin, is a red-brick building on the corner of a block in the middle of town. Three 12-year-old bullies wait on the school steps. They push him around. Mock his chapped lips. Take his lunch money. Grab his pants and tear them off.
There’s not much Georges can do. He’s small. He is, in his own words, nerdy. He doesn’t like fighting. He only fights if the bullies mess with his friends.
He never tells his parents. First time he did was the last. His father took him to one of the bullies’ homes, demanding money returned and apologies made. This humiliated Georges and made life more miserable at school.
He copes by focusing on a legendary dream: “to be the strongest man in the world.”
“That was my fantasy,” he says.
He chuckles. “I have realized that does not exist. There’s no such thing as the strongest man in the world.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, St-Pierre, now 36, strolls into a room at UFC headquarters in Las Vegas for lunch, seeming so happy you can feel it. He’s about to fight for the first time in four years.
“All right, gentlemens! Bonjour!”
There’s his hallmark French-Canadian accent, strong as ever.
St-Pierre sits, leans back in his chair, bounces like a kid. “We are going to war!”
He’s wearing white sneakers, fashionably faded and torn blue jeans, and a white T-shirt with blue stripes, with a few more wrinkles underlining his eyes than the last time he fought, only noticeable because he keeps smiling.
“We are going to waaarrrrrrrrrrr!” St-Pierre says again, still smiling. “Oh yes! Oh yes!”
On November 4 in Madison Square Garden, he’ll be the main event for UFC 217, a title fight for the middleweight championship belt against reigning champ Michael Bisping.
This is a big deal.
A chef brings in two plates full of salmon, asparagus and white rice. Both are for St-Pierre. “Normally, I would sit down and, like you, start eating some sandwich and chips over there,” he says, waving at a counter along the wall. “Now I have to eat right.”
Six months ago, he hired a nutritionist. He needed to get bigger to compete in the 185-pound middleweight division after fighting his whole life at 170 pounds. He says that if he were going to come back, he didn’t want to do more of what he’d already done.
“I want to take on the biggest challenge possible,” he says. “I want to come back and make a big boom.”
Just four years ago, St-Pierre was UFC’s pay-per-view king, and Conor McGregor was just some up-and-comer fighting in Ireland.
St-Pierre was the undisputed greatest welterweight champ ever—he’d gone seven years without losing, won 12 straight fights and successfully defended his reign as champion a whopping nine times. Along the way he helped make the UFC a global brand, with a striking physique in the Octagon, even for a fighter. He looked more like a gymnast, especially when he celebrated wins by doing backflips. He was rare in this world, with his good looks and a thoughtful, friendly personality, wearing custom suits to press conferences when most fighters wore AFFLICTION T-shirts. UFC President Dana White once called St-Pierre “the biggest pay-per-view star on the fucking planet.”
In the middle of all that, St-Pierre quit.
“I don’t like the fighting,” he says. “I like the lifestyle it gives me. ... I never enjoy it once in my life.”
But here he is, four years later, getting ready for another fight. He is bigger. His legs make waves in his jeans, his forearms ripple and swell—his handshake could hurt if you’re not ready—and his biceps and shoulders roll like small hills under his shirt.
“I wanted to finish differently than when I finished,” he says. “I was not in a happy place when I finished last time.”
St-Pierre first discovered professional MMA around age 12, when the sport was in its underground days, legal mostly only in places like the Kahnawake Territory near Saint-Isidore. The first time St-Pierre entered the Octagon, he felt like he had found “another dimension.” This, he decided, would be his path to becoming the strongest man in the world. “That is why I do this sport,” he says.
The bullies mocked him for this, of course, and kept stealing his money and tearing away his pants. You will never be a fighter. I just beat you up.
“When people tell me things like this,” he says, “this excites me.”
He kept going as he grew up, kept learning, grew bigger, got stronger. One day in school when he actually fought back, he broke a bully’s arm. And for that, classmates loved him in a way he’d never known—which he called “bullshit.”
He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a pro fighter after that, to make a living by hurting people. But St-Pierre had fallen in love with learning martial arts and wanted to make that his life—he wanted to keep stepping through that portal, keep exploring that other dimension—even if that meant wrestling forever with the fact that sometimes he might have to hurt people, and other people might like that.
“I beat a guy?” he says. “Right at that moment, I enjoy. But the stress of it is unbearable.”
Tristar Gym is in a tan building in the middle of the block on an old, rundown street. The whole block seems to be under construction. Wrestling mats cover much of a concrete floor, a couple of smaller cages line the far walls, and an Octagon swallows the center. The ceiling is spartan, mostly bare piping painted gray.
It’s been almost two decades since St-Pierre met Firas Zahabi, a young jiu-jitsu instructor, here, on Ferrier Street on Montreal’s west side. “Honestly?” Zahabi chuckles now. “I just wanted to do it for fun. He wanted to be the best in the world, ever since he was a little kid.”
From the start, Zahabi loved martial arts as much as St-Pierre and had this revolutionary idea for the time: that a good pro MMA fighter needs to know all martial arts, not just specialize in one while ignoring the others. St-Pierre agreed.
Now Zahabi is St-Pierre’s head coach, and he owns Tristar Gym. “One of the most underrated coaches in MMA,” says Carl Massaro, a third-degree jiu-jitsu black belt and St-Pierre’s training partner. “A genius.”
St-Pierre and Zahabi clicked for the same reason they are still together—same as why he likes Freddie Roach, the legendary boxing coach he’s worked with for years, not to mention John Danaher, a fourth-degree black belt and revered jiu-jitsu coach in MMA—"also a genius," Massarro says—known for his quiet, even instruction. “Knowledge is a weapon,” St-Pierre says.
So, after much sacrifice and dedication, he became great—classic, nerdy-underdog-beats-the-bullies narrative, right?
That’s the sad irony of his story, though—just as he became the champ, which all the bullies told him he could not do, he began to suffer more. St-Pierre had one bully bigger than them all, chasing him all through his life, that mysterious force that causes all of us so much pain: his own mind.
It began with what Zahabi says is his most memorable fight, at UFC 94. First champion vs. champion fight, St-Pierre versus reigning lightweight champ BJ Penn, who was going up to welterweight to challenge for that belt, trying to become the first UFC champion in two weight divisions. Almost 15,000 people filled MGM Grand Garden Arena, and another 920,000 bought the pay-per-view. St-Pierre hammered Penn with ground-and-pound to end Round 4. Penn’s coach threw in the towel. TKO.
“That’s when he really blew up,” Zahabi says. “That’s when he really went from, like, known maybe in the U.S. to all the world.”
This is also when St-Pierre started feeling the weight of what he’d done. “It is hard to be champion for a long time, man,” he says.
St-Pierre’s gift of obsession became, as it so often does, a curse. “He has a very obsessive mind,” Massaro says. “He can’t stop the thoughts racing.”
He’d think how: “Every time I finish a fight, there is another guy coming at me,” St-Pierre says. “Because you are the champion, you are the target. You feel like the whole world is watching you.”
How any challenger will have so much more to gain and thus so much more to motivate them. “Who will be more happy, on the scale of happiness?” St-Pierre says.
How much more they have studied him. “They been preparing themselves for you much longer than you been preparing yourself for them,” he says. “You been preparing yourself for them eight weeks, during training camp. They been preparing themselves for you since they start.”
How the more he won and defended his belt, the more the belt demanded from him, and the less life he had outside fighting. He wanted kids, four or five of them, and to get married. The belt, he says, came to be a burden, a pack on his shoulders, every fight adding bricks, and all the things that came with it felt like those endless fields that marooned him as a child in Saint-Isidore.
What he obsessed over perhaps most—what caused him to tap out—was that the UFC had a steroid problem. “The UFC, at the time, they didn’t support me,” St-Pierre says. “That’s why I quit.”
St-Pierre tried talking to White and the UFC privately, and when that went nowhere, he spoke out publicly. “It was in your face, you know?” St-Pierre says. “They almost walked with the thing in”—he mimes sticking a needle in his vein.
Naturally, that all backfired, turning the spotlight and accusations hot and bright right back on him. And meanwhile, he was fighting against guys he knew were on steroids. “I was feeling, like, claustrophobic,” St-Pierre says. “It’s like, I am the champion, and I am clean, and you want the guy who is not clean to be champion?”
Winning didn’t even make him happy anymore. As the ref raised St-Pierre’s hand after his next-to-last fight, a unanimous-decision win over Nick Diaz, he was already thinking about Johny Hendricks, his next fight.
St-Pierre started getting migraines before fights, hyperventilating. “Getting almost psycho,” St-Pierre says. “It make you turn a little bit cuckoo. That’s what happened towards the end.”
The Octagon was no longer a portal to another dimension—it was a black hole.
Including Penn, St-Pierre won 13 of his first 20 fights by knockout or submission. He defended his title seven times over the next five years. Each fight went all 25 minutes.
He fought safer, “more economic.” More conservative.
“Boring,” some said.
“To people who don’t understand the game, it’s boring,” he says. Many believe that standing up and exchanging punches and kicks is always strong. “People who understand the game ... even if you are on the floor, on the ground, you work. It is not boring.”
He laughs. “I’m boring, but I’m the one who used to sell the most pay-per-view? ... What else would you say about boring? It is calculated. [Floyd] Mayweather is boring, but he is the one who is selling the most. I would rather be boring and make money and make a good living than have cerebral damage.”
That’s how St-Pierre teaches kids. Don’t take a punch just to give one.
He had to apply that lesson to his life.
In his last three fights, according to official statistics, St-Pierre took 412 strikes, nearly a third as many as he took in his previous 24 fights.
Before his final fight, another title defense against rising star “Big Rig” Hendricks, St-Pierre called for more testing and even volunteered for a World Anti-Doping Agency test, with Hendricks agreeing to take one, too, before withdrawing when the fighters couldn't see eye-to-eye on who would oversee it. St-Pierre went ahead with the additional testing anyway and posted his results online—clean.
Then Hendricks rocked him. In Round 2, he landed a bomb of a left hook to St-Pierre’s right eye that temporarily obscured his vision. The rest of the fight included more of the same, and by the end, their faces told the story. Hendricks’ was spotless. St-Pierre says Hendricks “hit like a truck,” and he looked like an actual truck had hit him—nose swollen, bruises everywhere, the white of his right eye turned blood red.
However, St-Pierre had fought hard as always, and to the surprise of many, the judges gave him the win by split decision.
The fans booed as UFC commentator Joe Rogan entered the Octagon with a microphone and asked St-Pierre about the fight.
St-Pierre said he couldn’t remember it.
Then, as the fans booed him even more, he rambled, emotional, one thought barely connecting to the next. “I have a bunch of stuff in my life happening. I need to hang up my gloves for a little bit.”
White was angry. While St-Pierre says he was waiting in the locker room for doctors to treat him, White began the post-fight press conference with a public chastising of the fighter. He ripped St-Pierre for daring to say he was taking a break, said the right thing to do was to keep defending his belt, and said that St-Pierre owed it to the fans, to Hendricks, to “this company," to keep fighting.
Meanwhile, after doctors finished with him, St-Pierre put on a gray suit and purple tie and headed toward the press conference. He says a UFC official told him several times “you don't have to go,” but when St-Pierre insisted, he says the official told him, “You're not allowed to go.” [Asked to comment on St-Pierre’s version of events, the UFC did not respond.]
But he went to the press conference anyway, sat down at his mic, apologized for being late and said, “I did not want to miss this.”
His face looked even worse, bruising and swelling taking hold, a sharp contrast to his gray suit.
He said, “I need to make point.”
And, “I can’t sleep at night now. I am going crazy.”
“I give everything I have. ... I left my soul in the Octagon tonight.”
A month later, he voluntarily vacated the title.
He made a TV show about dinosaurs. Appeared in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and some other movies. Worked “to restructure my life, to make it better.”
But St-Pierre never stopped training. Maybe not as hard, but almost as often.
He’d go to Tristar, to Wild Card Boxing Club in Los Angeles, to Renzo Gracie Academy in New York. He’d bring Roach to Montreal. “I always knew he was gonna make a comeback, because why else would you do that?” Roach says. “No matter what he does the night before, the next day, he does train.”
Roach worried. He says, “I would rather see him go have some fun and enjoy life a little bit more.” Roach was a pro boxer for a long time, famous for being able to take punches. He hung around too long, five rough losses in his last six fights, before giving it up. He has Parkinson’s disease now.
In 2014, Roach told reporters that if St-Pierre didn’t return by the end of the year, he should retire for good. That came and went. Come late 2015, though, St-Pierre was thinking comeback.
Roach tested him, putting him through a full six-week fight camp. “He wasn’t like shot or all done. ... If he was there, I would be the first to tell him,” Roach says. “But the thing is, he’s not even close.”
St-Pierre built fighting into his life, not the other way around. “I was too busy,” he says. He needed to train on his schedule, not when a bloated team of coaches and trainers told him to so they could, in Massaro’s words, “justify their existence.” He says, “I made everything that works good for me—not me working towards other people.”
He found a private gym at a secret location in Montreal where he can train whenever he wants, like midnight. “It will be 12:30 at night when I am going to fight Michael Bisping,” he says. “I want my system to have a lot of energy when it is late. But if my training facility where I train at is not allowing me to train, only allowed me a window that is in the morning, it fucking me up. Now ... I train whenever I want, wherever I want.”
He trains differently, too. “I used to be more, OK, be ready to fight ... 25 minutes,” he says. “But I switched.”
Before, he’d roll—train in jiu-jitsu—for five five-minute rounds. “If you look at a fight,” he says, “it’s very rare that you’re going to spend five minutes—an entire round—on the ground.”
Now, it’s eight three-minute rounds, each round with a new, fresh opponent.
Since Bisping is a powerful and indefatigable striker, St-Pierre’s solution on that front is fittingly extreme: “I bring in guys who—they are trying to kill me,” he says. “Literally! We bring in a guy who is like a big guy. Fresh. And they come at me like”—he makes a monster face—“BREAHHHHHH!!!”
He laughs. “[Bisping] is going to be heavy,” St-Pierre says. “He’s going to come hard. But he won’t come as intense. You can’t maintain that for five rounds.”
So, yeah, he remains obsessed. “Obsessed as hell!”
But he feels healthy. Happy. “Sleep better. Eat better.” He says, “I had that break, so I can breathe now.”
Some say St-Pierre is returning for the payday; others say he misses the fame. St-Pierre says that’s impossible. He says, “If you give me the choice—even when I was poor—‘You are going to win your fight and make zero dollar and stay broke, or you will lose your fight and make $10 million,’ I choose to win the fight and make zero dollar.”
And St-Pierre plans to do more than win: He wants to submit Bisping or knock him out. Yes, even with four years of “ring rust,” even going up 15 pounds—he wants to end the fight on a finish, like when he was young.
Before, he says, “I might have had an opportunity I did not take, because the calculation in my mind—the risk—was not worth it.”
Now, against Bisping: “I will take the risk.”
He’s bigger, someone says. He’s a good striker. That would favor him.
“On paper,” St-Pierre says, smiling again. “We’ll see what is going to happen. Then you can take your paper and throw it in the garbage.”
It reminds him of the bullies of his youth. Their voices still echo in his head.
He laughs hard. “What you just say to me,” he says, “it excite me. That is why I am doing this. ... Watch me, man.”
About three weeks before the fight, St-Pierre starts zoning out.
He’ll go to dinner with coaches and training partners, but he’ll seem distracted. His thoughts race, his mind fixates on the fight to come—the fight with Bisping, the fight within himself. He will contemplate all possibilities for victory, for defeat, for embarrassment.
Closer to fight night, the more alone he feels. The pain required for future pleasure, the solitude required to bear the coming unbearable stress.
Some nights he gets in his blacked-out Range Rover and drives, no destination except out of his own head. That takes some doing.
He’ll pull into parking lots of shopping centers, movie theaters, grocery stores. He’ll watch people. Young couples on dates. People in their 30s, with children. An old lady leaving a grocery store with her bags.
“She doesn’t know who I am,” St-Pierre says. “She doesn’t even know what I do.”
He laughs, delighted. “Nobody cares! The people who care are a small percentage of the world. What happens in my fight is not going to have any effect on the world. What I do is miniscule. ... It is very small. So when I see it all this way, I feel good. It relieves the pressure.”
Then he can go home. Rest. Breathe.
So. November 4. Madison Square Garden. UFC 217.
He hates fighting and the stress of it all, perhaps, but in a way, that’s what he misses most. He says this makes his life feel right, feel full. “Pleasure come from suffering,” he says. “That’s why you cannot be pleasure-full. If you are hungry, and I give you food, it is a pleasure. But you have to be hungry to have the pleasure.”
And the thing about going up to middleweight is he’s wanted to for a long time. Ever since he first won the welterweight belt, he’s wanted to try taking this one, too. He hasn’t stopped thinking about it, same as that obsessive mind of his can’t stop thinking about anything he wants to do until he has tried. “If I fail, I fail,” he says. He sighs deeply. “I did it. I am happy. I am clear in my head.”
St-Pierre will walk through the crowd, go to the Octagon. Four years ago he said he left his soul in there. Maybe this whole thing is about getting it back. He has to fight again to feel free. A tax of pain so he can later enjoy pleasure.
He won’t like it, with all its unbearable stress, but he will do it anyway.
There was a poor, scared little boy back in Saint-Isidore, and he survived his pain by clinging to dreams of moments like these.
So St-Pierre will climb the steps, the crowd will roar, and he will step into the Octagon. He will enter that other dimension and feel clear in the head, finally back in his cage.
Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform and more. He has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is BrandonSneed.com. Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.