MONTREAL – For six months, Georges St. Pierre has wanted to erupt, to lash out, to tell the world how sick and tired he's been of Josh Koscheck.
If you poke a caged lion with a stick, you always have to be careful the lion doesn't get free and maul you. You can be sure, as he spent a month-and-a-half in Las Vegas with Koscheck in the summer filming the reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter," that there were plenty of times that St. Pierre wanted to maul Koscheck.
Koscheck hadn't left the Octagon following his victory over Paul Daley at UFC 113 in May when he began the torrent of trash talk about St. Pierre. Then, for six weeks in Las Vegas, he poked and prodded St. Pierre, hoping to get a rise out of him. He's continued the verbal onslaught ever since.
St. Pierre is a man who values his image nearly above all else. The thought of rolling around on a floor, brawling with Koscheck, is abhorrent to him.
The taunts and pranks didn't go unnoticed by St. Pierre, who will defend his title against Koscheck on Saturday in front of a UFC-record crowd – expected to top 23,000 – in the main event of UFC 124 at the Bell Centre.
During the show, St. Pierre was, as he always seems to be, calm and in control. He responded with a grin and a shake of his head, largely ignoring Koscheck despite a fire that raged inside of him that told him he ought to shut his foe's mouth for good.
Finally, on Wednesday at a workout for the media and again on Thursday at the final news conference, St. Pierre opened a window to his soul. He displayed a passion he's rarely shown publicly before, something contrary to his carefully crafted, gentlemanly image.
As the news conference ended Thursday, St. Pierre was asked about a comment he'd made earlier, in which he said he'd be done with Koscheck after Saturday. St. Pierre won a decision over the former NCAA Division I national wrestling champion at UFC 74 in 2007 in a non-title fight. He pointed out that if he prevails again in Saturday's title fight, Koscheck figures to be in his rear-view mirror forever. "I'm doing this job, because I want to be the best," St. Pierre said. "I don't want to be number two. I want to be number one. I've always been like this. And I don't want to be just number one, I want to be the greatest. That's my main goal. When I do something, I want to be the best of the best. Now I'm fighting Josh Koscheck and I fought him before. People say, 'Oh, the pressure is on you. You're in Montreal.' It's true. I'm in Montreal, but I am at my best when I'm fighting in my hometown. But also, if I win against Josh Koscheck, when I beat him, that's going to be the end of it. It would be two times I beat him.
"If he has the same mentality as me, Josh Koscheck, he'll have to reconsider his career. If he wants to be the best, after he loses two times to me, it's going to take a long time again before he goes for the title. Maybe, never again. He'll have to climb up the ladder a long time. I'm going to beat him on Saturday night and that will be the end of it. I'm not going to talk about him for a long, long time and I'm going to feel very happy."
He spoke passionately, through clenched teeth, obviously speaking with his heart as much as he was with his mind.
St. Pierre is arguably the UFC's most popular fighter, so in demand that UFC president Dana White dared to suggest that St. Pierre is more popular in his native country than NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky is merely the greatest player in hockey history and the Canadian Press Athlete of the 20th Century.
White later amended his comment to indicate he meant St. Pierre is more popular on a global basis, but the point was made: People love the guy, and not just in Canada.
He made an appearance in the Philippines and the massive turnout made it seem as if Manny Pacquiao had stopped on the street corner. St. Pierre took calls on an Albuquerque, N.M., radio station on Wednesday and so many people attempted to get through, the telephone lines crashed. He signed autographs at the UFC Fan Expo and people stood in line for hours to get a few seconds of personal time in front of him.
"It's really incredible, when you think about it, that people were willing to give up the better part of their day to stand in a line for his autograph in order to get about 10 seconds of his time," his manager, Shari Spencer, said.
Spencer has helped him build his brand and land him endorsements from blue chip companies like Under Armour, Gatorade and Affliction.
The brand is everything to St. Pierre, who said he's attempted to pattern his behavior after Gretzky. Gretzky is arguably the most dominant athlete in team sports history and he was a great ambassador for hockey from the day he first stepped onto the ice until his last day as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Similarly, St. Pierre has attempted to maintain an equally wholesome image and avoid some of the unsavory stereotypes that often are associated with the fight game. That's why he continually bit his tongue when nearly everyone else watching the reality show wanted to see him lose it and haul off and give Koscheck his comeuppance.
"To tell you the truth, there were many times (when Koscheck taunted me) that I had something to say in my head, but because of my brand, because of who I am and because of the way I want to portray myself, I didn't say anything bad," St. Pierre said. "But sometimes, I said it to my friends and they were laughing. People don't know what's happening in my head. Of course, I'm a good guy on camera, because I take my business very seriously. For me, when I'm in front of the camera, it's a business. The way I dress and everything, it's a business, it's professional.
"I try to portray myself like Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan. Of course, I'm a human being and I have some bad thoughts in my head sometimes. I'm human, I have some bad ideas, but when I'm in front of the camera, it's business and when it's business, I think of my business and my brand."
Koscheck, who seemed tense and disinterested at Wednesday's media workout, clearly has tried to anger St. Pierre in order to affect the way he fights. St. Pierre, though, was on to the game early and wouldn't fall for it.
St. Pierre said he'd be disappointed if he won by decision, rather than finishing Koscheck, but said he's not going to be baited into a slugfest. It's all about maintaining control in St. Pierre's world.
"I'm going to fight smart and methodical," St. Pierre said. "Of course, the crowd's going to be there and that's what Koscheck wants. Koscheck wants me to lose my temper. He wants me to fight like an idiot and lose my temper, because that's how he can beat me. I don't think skill-wise, he can beat me. In boxing, the guy who is the better boxer, he wants to box. The guy who is not as good as the other guy, he wants to brawl. When you brawl, it's like flipping a coin. That's what he wants me to do, to go in there and lose my mind. But that's exactly what I'm not going to do. "I have a lot of tools in my bag. If he stuffs one takedown or two, I don't mind that. I can knock him out standing up. I can beat him on the floor. I can do whatever I want."
Pretty much, that's true. He's nearly a deity in Canada, though strangely, he's more popular outside of his native Quebec because the Francophiles aren't into fighting as much as the English-speaking population. He's centered his business interests in the U.S., because it's where most of the brands he's going to be affiliated with are located, and because it will leave him a refuge at home in Quebec where he can get away from some of the maddening crowds.
It says something about the character of the man that he's on display nearly every hour of every day, but he has the control of his emotions and doesn't crack.
If White was growing fighters in a Petri dish, he couldn't have grown one to be a better representative of his business than he's gotten in St. Pierre.
"We're fortunate not only to have him representing our company, but also to have him as an ambassador for the sport of mixed martial arts," said Tom Wright, the UFC's director of Canadian operations. "He's one of our global icons. Clearly, one of the biggest draws we've ever had. Certainly, in this country, when we look at pay-per-view sales, they go along like this and all of a sudden, we see this major blip that comes along when GSP fights. People just love him, not just here but truly, around the world. He's the kind of guy you want representing your country and the sport. He's so good, it's almost like he's too good to be true."
St. Pierre waves off comparisons to Gretzky and said he hasn't accomplished nearly in MMA what Gretzky did in hockey – yet.
So for now, it's OK to refer to him as the Wayne Gretzky of MMA.
But don't you get the idea that if St. Pierre keeps this up, someday in the not-too-distant future, some Canadian father will be telling his son about Wayne Gretzky and will refer to him as "The Georges St. Pierre of hockey?" It probably won't happen. But the fact that it might tells you all you need to know about St. Pierre.
- Josh Koscheck
- Wayne Gretzky