What a wonderful departure from my day job it was when I received a phone call at my office from Dan Magnie, President of ColoradoFightEvents.com, extending an invitation from Keith Schmelzer of Rocky Mountain Bad Boyz to interview Georges St. Pierre the at T’sKO Fight Club in Wheat Ridge.
WOW! Was it hard to concentrate for the rest of the day? Did I carefully choose what I was going to wear for the interview? Georges St. Pierre? What brought him to Denver? I couldn’t wait to find out!
After a call to ensure that local sports photographer Kathy Framarini was available, we agreed to meet at the gym at 10:30 AM on that Thursday. Trevor Wittman, the owner, head trainer, and striking coach at T’sKO had invited us for 11:00—but who could wait?
The day before, not only was Georges St. Pierre working out at T’sKO—but the ferocious Keith Jardine, Nate “The Great” Marquardt, Duane “Bang” Ludwig, Diego Sanchez, and Greg Jackson were also there.
For an MMA enthusiast, this was the Power Ball!
Upon our arrival at the club, Kathy, Dan, and I met with Keith Schmelzer, who introduced us to former IBF middleweight world champion Verno Phillips, who had just arrived at the gym to train for a Madison Square Garden match scheduled for February. Verno had been slated to fight middleweight world champion Cory Spinks this month, but for unknown reasons that matchup had recently been scrubbed. I was fortunate to get an interview with the soft-spoken Verno, who graciously answered my questions about his life and career.
Verno speaks with a gentle, lilting accent from his early years in Belize. He was brought to the United States with his family when he was ten years old, after already having had his first ring experience in Belize at the age of eight. His next fight came at age 14, and he has methodically built a sustained and successful career ever since.
Among his many accomplishments, Verno has been the recipient of over 1,000 trophies, including the IBF Light Middleweight Championship and the WBO Light Middleweight Championship. Verno’s parents are now deceased, but would be proud to see that their son is a successful, thoughtful, and strategic competitor who has a lovely wife (who is also his manager), a beautiful home in Parker, and a seven-year-old son who is being groomed by his parents to make his way into the professional world, rather than that of the ring.
I was surprised to hear that the young looking Verno is 38 years old. When asked where he sees himself in five years, he gestured to his head and said that if he was “still clean in the head”, he wanted to still be competing. When he feels that he is jeopardizing his mental acuity, he will re-evaluate his future, but for now is confident that he has established the foundation to remain financially comfortable whatever career path the future may bring.
The interview with Verno was not without distractions. On the mats were UFC greats Georges St. Pierre, Nate Marquardt and Luke Cadillo. Local Rocky Mountain Bad Boyz belt-holder in the 145 weight class, Nic Buschman, had arrived to have GSP autograph his title belt (although he did confide to me that Matt Hughes is his idol). I did get a moment to talk with Nic, and asked him what it was about Trevor Wittman’s gym that drew such an elite group of fighters. He told me that it was all about inspiration. He takes his training only from Keith Schmelzer (who he refers to as “Mr” Schmelzer) and from Master Mike Silva. I have been a fan of Nic Buschman in the local fight scene, and was pleased to hear that he will be turning pro at the end of January 2008.
As I was about to try and grab yet another interview with local UFC star Nate Marquardt who was coming out of the mat area, Georges St. Pierre had showered and dressed and was ready for his designated appointment with me. All this to say: check back for the Marquardt interview—it is long overdue and one that I’ve been looking forward to scheduling for nearly a year now!
As Kathy Framarini snapped some amazing portraits, GSP focused on my questions that, I admit, started out in a nervous celebrity-struck stammer! He was so gracious that it wasn’t long before I ignored the prepared questions and really got to know this remarkable athlete.
As I have found with most successful fighters that I have interviewed, Georges St. Pierre started at an early age—in his case, age seven. His father was a black belt in karate, and GSP found it necessary to learn to fight and defend himself after experiencing many playground toughs.
Georges St. Pierre grew up in a remote area of Quebec Province, and consistent education frequently meant having to change schools. He was the oldest child in his family, with two younger sisters.
Listening to GSP respond to questions in his heavy French accent made me ask him if it was challenging to have an interview in English. He laughed and said that three or four years ago, he hardly spoke any English at all, so he thinks he has gotten much better.
I asked him about reports that he engaged the services of a sports psychologist to prepare him for his fight against Josh Koscheck after his loss to Matt Serra. He explained that this had been a very challenging time in his life where he was distracted by many difficulties—including a car accident where family members died, business problems, government tax problems, and physical injuries.
The positive result of his time with the sports psychologist makes him a firm believer that the mental game is highly underestimated. He continues to use this tool to make himself more focused and a more unpredictable opponent.
Although I had read that Georges St. Pierre had been born May 19, 1981, it was still surprising to me that this accomplished, composed man sitting with me was only 26 years old. When I asked him if he was married, he smiled broadly and said that he was very single—“free as a bird”. Take note ladies!
When asked what his goals were for the next five years, he stated without hesitation that he intends to become the undisputed champion. I asked him if he was considering changes in his personal strategy. He acknowledged that there might be some, but that his first priority was to support the career of his training partner, Nate Marquardt.
GSP proceeded to describe Marquardt as an excellent ambassador for MMA; that he is a well-spoken person, led a lifestyle that was a good example to others, and even added humbly: “better than me”. When pushed a bit further and asked if any of the changes he was considering involved a change in weight class, he gave me a small smile, a subtle nod, and no elaboration.
I asked if he had any advice that he would pass onto a new fighter looking to enter MMA competition. He answered immediately that he would tell them: “never let someone tell you that you can’t do what you want to do.”
As the interview was drawing to a close, I asked GSP if he had a message to convey to his many fans. He said that he would want to wish them all a Happy New Year, with health for them and their families. He went on to explain how important it was never to under-estimate how important health is as we appreciate our lives.
This answer made me ask him if he had ever experienced an injury that made this focus on health such a priority. He told me that he had once torn his ACL, but it had healed through a combination of rest and time, rather than surgery.
For the critics of MMA that believe this is a sport of brutal bashing—akin to cock-fighting and a barely refereed melee—take note that the champions are true athletes of brawn, through disciplined training and scholars in the science of strategic cage and life maneuvers.
For photos of the event, see: http://picasaweb.google.com/ColoradoFightEvents/GeorgeRUSHStPierreAndColoradoFriends02