Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
By all appearances, Georges St-Pierre did it right. The former UFC welterweight and middleweight champion captured gold in the octagon, made millions and retired with his faculties intact.
There are no guarantees the latter will remain true, as St-Pierre learned from multiple doctors after hanging up his gloves. He’s been reminded about the importance of timing when he visits the place that shaped him into a world-class MMA fighter.
“One of the happiest places and the saddest places for me to go is the gym,” St-Pierre, who trained for most of his career at the famed Tristar Academy in Montreal, said Thursday on The Joe Rogan Experience. “It’s the happiest place for me to go because I can practice the sport I love, because I love training, I love the science of fighting.
“And it’s very sad, too, because after training, there’s always some guys that come to me because they seek some advice. I always give them advice regarding fighting. But a lot of them, my advice would be, ‘Hey bro, you should hang up your gloves and find a real job. Because I’ve seen this movie, and it’s not a good ending, my friend.’ But if I tell them the truth, they get mad at me. ... [They say], ‘He’s jealous and he’s arrogant.’”
For those St-Pierre considers his real friends, he’ll take them aside and tell them the truth. But he also dispenses the wisdom he’s gained from fighting to a lot of random strangers who are looking for his endorsement.
When you’re a fighter as famous and successful as St-Pierre, you get approached by a lot of parents whose dreams of MMA stardom run through their kids. Those folks may not get the answer they want from the ex-champ.
“I always tell them the same thing – I disappoint them always,” he said. “I say, ‘How’s school going?’ [The kid will say], ‘I don’t really like it.’
“I say, ‘Stay at school. Be good. Keep training, it’s good for you. But don’t put your eggs in the same basket.’ And the parent always looks at me like this, [wide-eyed].”
According to ufcstats.com, St-Pierre has absorbed 497 strikes over 13 years in the octagon. That figure is undoubtedly higher when those he took in the gym are added, and there’s no concrete data on the severity of each strike, or which one had a more significant impact on his brain. Since he’s retired, he’s read about the impact of concussive and sub-concussive blows on athletes from all sports.
All things considered, he considers himself lucky to be in the shape he’s in.
“I could be brain damaged, but so far, I think I’m good,” St-Pierre said. “However, it’s not a guarantee that I will not have problems in the future. So far, so good. I don’t think I have any issues. But I saw many doctors, because for me, my health is the most important thing. And there is never a doctor that will tell you it’s good if you go back to fight. It’s always a risk.”
The former champ still gets the urge to fight, mainly when he’s in that gym doing the thing that he loves. He jokes that UFC President Dana White would have the best chance of convincing him to come back if a contract materialized between rounds. And there is some precedent for repeated enticements to return – he came out of retirement in 2017 and added another belt to his collection.
But St-Pierre is also determined not to wind up a cautionary tale.
“It’s sad,” he said. “I see a lot of guys, they hang on way too long in the sport. I mean, everybody keeps fighting for different reasons. I fought myself, not because I like to fight [but] for the legacy, because I like to win, I guess, better than I hate to lose. So that’s why I came back.
“But some guys, they keep fighting, and they always ask me, what do you think about this guy still fighting? And I’m like, ‘If it were me, I would have retired a long time ago,’ because you have a prime window, and when you’re past your prime, what’s the point? You’re hurting your legacy. But if you it because you love to fight, or you need the money, that’s OK. That’s your choice. But I think it’s a very sad thing.”
Fights take a toll on fighters, but the real damage, St-Pierre said, happens in the gym.
“I believe the best way to improve is when it’s playful,” he said. “I’ve seen so many guys – I can’t say names, but it’s crazy how many guys I’ve seen that have left their careers in the gyms because they spar too hard. Every sparring for them is about winning the rounds. You cannot improve like this. You need to be playful. Of course, when you’re in training camp and your fight is coming up, you need to recreate that environment of discomfort, that stress. But when you’re outside of that preparation zone, you need to be playful, and that’s when you improve.
“I see guys sparring and they lose a lot of brain cells. It’s terrible.”
When he does strap on the gloves, St-Pierre invites his sparring partners to “play” and reminds them they’re not there to fight. Even then, he can’t help himself but reply if a young upstart catches him a little too hard. So the fire of competition hasn’t completely burnt out.
In his heyday, St-Pierre was accused of being too cautious in fights and playing it safe. His best answer to why he took that approach was that he was thinking about his career as a marathon, something others seem to forget in the octagon. Longevity was as much as priority as victory. That style ignited a debate into the merits of sport versus entertainment.
But as the person in the cage, St-Pierre believes it’s a pretty simple choice.
“I was blamed to be kind of boring because I was not taking enough risk,” he said. “But why would I take a risk if I’m winning the fight. Why would I take a stupid risk and give my opponent an opportunity to land a fatal blow to knock me out? It’s up to him to take the risk.
“If you’re a martial artist, you understand that. But if you’re watching a fight to be entertained, you do not understand that. And because we live in an entertainment world, that’s the way it is.”
Watch St-Pierre’s appearance on Rogan’s podcast in the video below.