Saying Goodbye to Georges St-Pierre, Who Is Retiring as MMA's Greatest Ever

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterFebruary 21, 2019

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 04:  Georges St-Pierre of Canada celebrates after defeating Michael Bisping of England in their UFC middleweight championship bout during the UFC 217 event inside Madison Square Garden on November 4, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Anderson Silva has the title defenses. Fedor Emelianenko has the mystique. Jon Jones has the genius. But there can only one greatest mixed martial artist of all time, and on Thursday, he stepped before the assembled media to announce his retirement. 

"There's no tears," former welterweight kingpin and middleweight champion Georges St-Pierre said during his retirement news conference in Montreal.

His GOAT status may not be unanimous, but it isn't exactly a hot take, either. He finishes third behind Silva and Demetrious Johnson with nine title defenses—informally considered one of MMA's most important data points when evaluating the greatness of a career. And that's only one piece of a convincing puzzle.

"The gap between Georges St-Pierre as a mixed martial artist and the rest of the world is too big for anybody else to close," said ESPN analyst Chael Sonnen, who fought Silva twice, in 2017. "That is the greatest fighter we've ever seen."

St-Pierre doesn't leave behind a complicated legacy. It's a simple one, and it's pure greatness.

St-Pierre has a 26-2 professional MMA record against the cream of the crop in his own peer group and the group that came behind them. He ruled the welterweight division for seven years—his reign only ended when he voluntarily vacated the belt in 2013—and he added the middleweight title, which he also voluntarily vacated, in 2017.

At 37, there's no reason to suspect the known workout fanatic couldn't compete right now. In fact, he is retiring only after negotiations with lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov fell through. One would expect his skills are still sharp. And since he avoided massive slugfest-related damage over the years, his head should be as well.

His career trajectory was fun to watch, and it's equally enjoyable to retrace.

St-Pierre sampled karate as a teenager to help him with bullies, which was his first brush with combat sports. Wrestling, jiu-jitsu and boxing followed. Early in his UFC career, he was a flashy, karate-flavored striker, notching four knockouts on his way to a 7-0 record.

In 2004, the 23-year-old St-Pierre got a shot at the vacant UFC welterweight title. Across the cage was Matt Hughes, the smirking Midwestern legend who must have reminded GSP of the worst of his school-age wedgie-givers. St-Pierre lost, but he subsequently launched himself on a rampage toward a rematch.

While seeking the sequel, St-Pierre went into the cage after Hughes had defeated BJ Penn and told him, "I'm not impressed by your performance."

That became the tagline of his career.

In 2006, GSP got his wish and knocked Hughes out to win back the title. But in St-Pierre's very next fight, Matt Serra pulled one of the biggest upsets in UFC history—he was a 7-1 underdog that night—with a first-round knockout shocker.

Just like that, GSP slid all the way down to the bottom of the mountain.

Serra was only there because he won a season of The Ultimate Fighter dedicated to granting a few fading Cinderellas one final shot at the glass slipper. St-Pierre was beside himself with humiliation, but it changed him. Suddenly, hype no longer existed. 

"So, I'm going to fight this guy that basically everybody tells me that I'm going to walk through him, and I start kind of believing in my own hype," St-Pierre told Fox Sports in 2016.  "The guy comes in the locker room, it's my turn to fight, he walked in the door: 'St-Pierre, you're up next. Are you ready?' And when he asked me this question, 'Are you ready?' I said to myself, 'Shoot, now I'm not ready'. I should have put more into this, and now mentally, I got broken. As I'm walking to the Octagon, if you see that fight, I'm walking and I'm like '(expletive), I'm really not ready for this.'"

He never made that mistake again. He never lost again, either.

As with the Hughes defeat, St-Pierre returned better after losing to Serra. Dramatically so.

Preparation became an obsession, as if he could reach some critical mass that would rewind him back to the  Serra stunner. If nothing else, maybe it could atone. The last vestiges of his karate beginnings fell away like the shredded remains of a T-shirt suddenly four sizes too small.

After a rubber-match defeat of Hughes to grab the interim welterweight belt, St-Pierre had Serra in his sights. Here was the new and improved GSP, showing off a wrestling style meticulously honed for MMA. His takedowns were nearly unstoppable.

He passed Serra's guard like regular people open cans of tuna. The end result was a TKO, but it was the rare kind that involved no fists or feet. St-Pierre slammed his knee into the rib cage of a helplessly turtled Serra, like a raptor trying to break into a brontosaurus egg (and no GSP story is complete without at least one dinosaur reference). Soon thereafter, St-Pierre hoisted the unified welterweight belt that no one would take from him again.

The caliber of GSP's victories over the years is amazing to rattle off. Hughes twice. Penn twice. Carlos Condit. Johny Hendricks. Nick Diaz. Sean Sherk. Josh Koschek twice. Frank Trigg. Jake Shields. Michael Bisping. Of these 10, six wore UFC gold.

In addition to his unparalleled MMA ground game—so good that scuttlebutt around an Olympic wrestling bid never seemed that far-fetched despite his lack of pedigree in the sport—GSP made use of a stripped-down striking game that was as remarkable for its simplicity (jab, kick, random Superman punch, repeat) as its effectiveness in keeping the fight where he wanted to keep it. Add to that some of the best game-planning and cardio in the sport, and St-Pierre was the total package.

GSP could have done even more, but he stepped away from the sport for nearly four years. He also took criticism for a risk-averse style later in his career. He was selective about his opportunities, competing two times per year at most. Talk of massive occasions, be it a move down to lightweight for Nurmagomedov or Conor McGregor or a move up to middleweight when Silva was in his prime, never seemed to move beyond the talk stage.

His list of victories could be longer and could feature more finishes, but it's plenty impressive as is. If the book against St-Pierre sounds like it's written in nitpick, that's because it is. His dominance had a breadth and depth that no other's can match.

MMA fans respect St-Pierre for how he carried himself outside the ring, too. He was the rare MMA star who didn't hesitate to criticize the UFC and its business practices, which don't have a reputation of being fighter-friendly. He also wasn't afraid to turn the UFC down if he didn't feel a fair offer was on the table. That may have been one reason why he didn't fight again after taking the belt from Bisping in 2017. One can't help but wonder if he'll continue that kind of discourse with the UFC or the public.

His overriding characteristic was his humility, which bordered on bashfulness.

No matter how accomplished, wealthy, telegenic or beloved he was, St-Pierre always seemed unsure of himself. It was dissonant to watch a world-famous cage fighter who appeared more nervous to do an interview with a blogger than the blogger was to interview him. He was chronically self-aware, perhaps a by-product of the restless intellect that powered his intense interests in paleontology and other things.

That enduring humility always appeared when St-Pierre let down his guard.

"There's no such thing as the greatest of all time. It doesn't exist. It's an illusion," St-Pierre said in a UFC media call in 2017. "Even though you're the best, it doesn't mean you're not going to lose. And it doesn't mean nobody's going to beat you. ... You can be the best one day, but tomorrow you're not. That's the truth about this sport."

I beg to differ, champ.

    

Scott Harris is an MMA and feature writer for Bleacher Report and CNN.

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