Montreal boy Georges St-Pierre fights the good fight in Vegas this weekend
Walk into Tristar Gym just off Decarie any day of the week and you’ll feel like you’ve just stumbled onto the set of Raging Bull. Haphazardly distributed around its centrepiece, the boxing ring, are weight machines, treadmills, heavy bags and wrestling dummies, with ne’er a sauna or aerobic soundtrack in sight. This is the real deal: where real athletes work themselves to the bone in relentless pursuit of physical excellence, where you can smell the sweat in the air. On the day that I walked in, I was on the hunt for Georges St-Pierre, who to those in the know is a veritable hero. But not that many people around here are in the know. Georges St-Pierre, a 27-year-old, bright-eyed guy born in Saint-Isidore, recognizable for his signature goofy-guy smile, is among the world’s heaviest hitters in the international scene of mixed martial arts. And guess what? He lives right here in our backyard.
"In the States, when I walk down the street, people everywhere recognize me, so I don’t really have a private life," he says. He’s just finished a workout in the ring and he’s stretching his body into pretzel shapes as he talks to me, his left eye glowing with a brand-new shiner. "Here, though, no one knows who I am. But that’s okay – at least I can take a girl to a restaurant without it being all over the papers the next day!"
On March 4, St-Pierre will be back in his home away from home, Las Vegas, for his biggest fight yet. The Ultimate Fighting Championship 58, which will be broadcast live on Pay Per View, is themed "USA vs. Canada," which, without stretching the hometown ego too much, we can thank two Montrealers for: St-Pierre, who will be confronting BJ Penn in the welterweight class, and his middleweight counterpart David Loiseau, who also trains at Tristar. Loiseau, a powerful striker and a riveting creative fighter in the ring, will be going up against Rich Franklin in the title fight. These two fighters’ international calibre is a tribute to Montreal’s longstanding history in fight sports, from the superstar wrestlers of yore (Mad Dog Vachon, Ice Man Thériault) to the glorious boxers of today (Otis Grant and the infamous Hiltons). That’s plenty to make this city proud. So why the lack of attention?
"I think when the sport started in Kahnawake, it didn’t give ultimate fighting a very good image," says St-Pierre. "Still today there are galas organized in this sport where guys fight who shouldn’t fight, because they’re not professionals. To be able to box professionally, you have to have had an amateur career, you have to have passed a test at the Régie des sports et loisirs. But in ultimate fighting anyone can go. People will say that’s not true, but I know – just with my notoriety I could get any old street person in and put him on a fight card. To me, that does the sport a disservice."
Shawn Mozen agrees. You could call Mozen Montreal’s own Joe Rogan – an expert in all things mixed martial arts, he’s a certified trainer in karate, jiu-jitsu, systema, boxing and kettle bells (a form of resistance training popularized by Russian fighters), and he does the colour commentary for all TKO fights. TKO, like UFC, is a recurring fight competition that happens in and around Montreal. It’s the place you can go to see the same guys that’ll end up being big names internationally, like St-Pierre and Loiseau, before they hit the big league.
"At the beginning here you had the drama of trying to do ultimate combat on the Indian reserve, and then bang, it’s illegal, ‘We’re going to arrest fighters, we’re going to this, we’re going to that,’ and it’s really given what is a very impressive sport, where you meet guys like Georges and David who are true gentlemen, a bad name," he says.
Block that hook
In fact, ultimate fighting has had a bad rap across the board at one time or another because of what Mozen describes as bad promotion. "Unfortunately, what happened with the UFC right at the beginning is that to promote it they went a certain way," he explains. "They went, ‘It’s going to be a blood sport, like a tough man competition to the extreme, and who knows what could happen.’ They put it out there like someone could basically die in the ring."
Ergo the revised image of today, the increase in regulations – no groin shots, no elbows to the head – and the general preference in the field for the term "mixed martial arts" over "ultimate fighting." It better represents what the sport is, which is a blend of all fight forms, from boxing to grappling to kicking and holding, that requires unparalleled levels of focus and expertise on the fighters’ parts. St-Pierre’s training, for example, involves no drinking, careful eating, and two two-hour training sessions a day, where he mixes it all up for his entertainment. He trains with a different expert for every genre, including Jean-Pierre Renaud, Victor Varzotsky, who’ll be in his corner at Saturday’s fight, and Renzoe Gracie, from the famous Gracie jiu-jitsu clan in New York.
"Today I’m doing boxing in the morning, tonight I’ll do my sprints," explains St-Pierre. "Tomorrow it’s jiu-jitsu in the morning, Olympic wrestling in the evening, and Friday it’s muy thai and then techniques or swimming in the evening, something like that. Every day I’ve got a routine that enables me to diversify my training. In this sport the most important thing is to be as complete a fighter as possible."
St-Pierre says it’s his passion for training that’s kept him on the straight and narrow. He started his career in martial arts at 7, with a class in karate. "I went to a school where it was pretty rough – I’d get my clothes stolen, my cash. And at home life was pretty hard too. I had a difficult childhood, and I’m not saying that that’s why I do ultimate fighting, but it helped shape my character.
"People often say, ‘Ah, ultimate fighting is so violent,’ but it’s rooted in martial arts. Martial arts incarnate respect. You can’t walk into a dojo and say to your sensei, ‘Hey, salut tabarnac!’ After every one of my fights I go and shake the hand of my opponent. I don’t need to hate the other fighter to fight him well. It’s a sport."
"Guys like David and Georges are extremely important in this sport because they remove this idea of the brutish or dumb fighter," says Mozen. "Georges comes off as very, very polite, as a gentleman – he has time for you, he has time for his fans, you know, he’s gracious in victory, gracious in defeat. When you look at him fight or David Loiseau, these are not just two guys that went into the ring to try to beat each other up. For that they’re really good ambassadors, because they bring a class to it, they eliminate the brutish mentality, and they also show the athleticism involved. This is going to go a long way to turning it around in Canada and stopping what began basically as poor marketing."
UFC 58 on March 4 promises one hell of an exciting lineup. St-Pierre’s adversary, BJ Penn, is an experienced skilled fighter, and the first non-Brazilian to win the jiu-jitsu world championships at the black belt level. He’s a worthy opponent for St-Pierre, the relative new kid on the UFC block, only two years into this high-level competition but a rising star that shows no sign of slowing down. If St-Pierre wins this one, he’ll be in line for a belt in no time. What can we expect from him on Saturday?
"I’m not really someone who does trash talk," says our humble homeboy. "All I can say is that BJ Penn can say what he wants, but I’ll let my fists talk in the octagon."
Mozen, on the other hand, paints the picture in the brash colours of sheer excitement: "The thing with Georges is he’s completely explosive, very athletic, very strong. A lot of guys are saying BJ Penn’s ground game is better, but I think both of these guys know who they’re fighting. Georges is a different fighter from when he fought Matt Hughes, too. He’s more experienced – he lost that fight in the first round, but after that no one was talking about Hughes beating him, everyone was talking about how good Georges looked in that fight. Now he’s not overwhelmed by the lights of Vegas, he’s not overwhelmed by a championship fight, he’s been there before, so I’m looking for Georges to come in and be maybe a little more patient this time. Not overextend himself and get into trouble, and to do what he does best. He throws surprises – this is the guy who took down Hughes, a great wrestler, and also had the audacity to throw a spinning back kick against him! So against a guy like BJ Penn, I think it’s going to be just explosive."
March 4, 10 p.m.
Live from the Mandalay Bay Events Center, Nevada, on Pay Per View, at a sports bar near you
Surf to www.tkozone.tv for news on the next Montreal fights