St. Pierre visualizes Toronto celebration

Fighting is not easy, even if watching Georges St. Pierre tear through the cream of the crop of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s welterweight division makes it seem so.

The UFC welterweight champion has won 14 of his past 15 fights and also won 30 consecutive rounds. Much of his success, obviously, is due to physical gifts that the rest of us mere mortals don’t possess, as well as a work ethic unsurpassed in the sport.

St. Pierre isn’t content with being great; each time out, he’s looking to improve upon his last performance.

What gives Georges St. Pierre a heads-up over the competition? It's all in the eyes.
(Getty Images)

He’ll meet Jake Shields, perhaps his toughest test to date, in the main event of UFC 129 on April 30 before a North American-record crowd at the Rogers Centre in Toronto expected to be in excess of 55,000. The pressure on St. Pierre will be immense, not only because of the challenge that Shields offers, but also because of the weight of the expectations he’ll carry with him into the cage.

The card will be the first major show held in Ontario since mixed martial arts was legalized in the province last year, and St. Pierre will be the overwhelming favorite of most of those in attendance, as well as the millions around the world who will watch on pay-per-view.

It’s expected to be a zany scene inside the Rogers Centre. UFC president Dana White has long campaigned to have the sport legalized in Ontario and New York, the latter of which is an ongoing battle, and the card on April 30 will be something of a celebration of the sport.

White has preached repeatedly about how fighters are often overcome by UFC jitters and how the first time a fighter competes in the promotion that it can be mentally overwhelming and sap him of strength. He expects those pressures to increase tenfold for the Toronto show.

“It’s definitely going to impact some guys,” White said. “Nobody has ever been around this. In Japan, there have been huge crowds at PRIDE shows, but it’s dead quiet. Nobody says a word there. In Toronto, it’s going to be insane. People are going to be roaring and I have no doubt that some guys are going to have a tough time handling that.”

It’s almost impossible to prepare for the scene, since it’s never been seen in MMA before, but nothing he encounters will surprise St. Pierre. He’s already made the walk from the locker room and stood in the center of the cage, gazing around at the raucous crowd.

He has, that is, in his mind. St. Pierre is a large believer in visualization and took advantage of a promotional stop in January to check out the stadium. He made certain to replicate the walk he’ll make as he heads to the cage to meet Shields, and to close his eyes and imagine the scene when he finally hits the cage.

“It’s something I’ve done for a while and it helps me to be more comfortable in whatever the situation may be,” St. Pierre said. “It’s going to be a huge crowd that night, and I just went over in my mind what it will be like so there are no surprises.”

It’s called mental rehearsal and is almost always far more productive than just “focusing,” as many athletes say.

[Related: Nick Diaz next for Georges St. Pierre?]

Brian Cain, the sports psychologist who worked St. Pierre’s corner at UFC 74 when he fought Josh Koscheck in 2007, advises his clients to be very specific when they mentally rehearse.

And so, Cain doesn’t want a baseball player just to close his eyes and see the pitcher he’ll be facing. He advises them to visualize everything that will happen, take in the sights and smells and sounds of the game, down to the minutest details.

White said he’s never felt St. Pierre was weak mentally, though he said he saw a dramatic difference prior to his last loss. St. Pierre was knocked out in the first round by Matt Serra at UFC 69 in 2007, though he had won eight in a row in dominating fashion since.

But on that night, White said St. Pierre wasn’t himself. Accompanied by actress Laura Prepon, White visited the locker rooms of both St. Pierre and Serra before the fight.

“I don’t know what was going on in his life at that time, but there was something happening,” White said. “I will believe that forever. The way he acted backstage was so weird. We went back to see Matt Serra and you know how he is? He was laughing and joking and being himself. We walked down to GSP’s locker room and it was completely the opposite. I had never seen him like that. He was so tense and tight. Laura asked me, ‘Is he always like this?’ ”

St. Pierre was knocked out in the first round and lost his title in what many regard as the biggest upset in UFC history.

Not long after that, he began to use visualization, and the results have been hard to argue.

“Even before I became a world champion, I would see myself as the champion and see myself as a role model,” St. Pierre said. “It made a very big difference to me because I felt I was more prepared. There were no surprises. It’s a very important part of what I do.”

Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Apr 13, 2011