LAS VEGAS – Georges St-Pierre is sitting in a chair in his hotel suite, earnestly trying to explain why he's obsessed, and messed up in the head.
This is the man who is the UFC's model of decorum, its finest gentleman, desperately trying to make the point that he is hardly the polite, genteel, non-violent man everyone thinks him.
He's one of the world's great athletes and is by far the UFC's biggest star, but he's best known for his humility, his charm and his non-threatening nature.
On Saturday, he'll defend his welterweight title against Johny Hendricks in the main event of UFC 167, the company's 20th anniversary show, in front of a sold-out crowd at the MGM Grand Garden.
Hendricks, St-Pierre said, is by far the greatest challenge of his career. St-Pierre has met, and beaten, some of the most dangerous men to have ever walked the face of the Earth – guys like Hall of Famer Matt Hughes, two-division champion B.J. Penn and Nick Diaz, but Hendricks, he said, is the toughest.
Hendricks was a three-time state wrestling champion in high school and only a bad call in the waning seconds of the Oklahoma state finals when he was a freshman kept him from being a four-time champion. He's regarded by some wrestling experts as one of the 20 greatest high school wrestlers of the last 25 years.
He earned a scholarship to Oklahoma State, where he was a four-time All-American and a two-time NCAA champion.
As a fighter, he's 15-1 and perhaps the hardest puncher in the welterweight division, maybe the sport. Like St-Pierre, Hendricks has laid waste to a series of tough guys, knocking out Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann with a single blow and besting Josh Koscheck and Carlos Condit over three rounds.
St-Pierre leans forward in his chair, to emphasize his point: This guy is dangerous, and I have to be ready.
"I'm crazy in the head," he says, tapping his temple with his finger. "I'm obsessed with Johny Hendricks. That's all I think about. To be a fighter, you have to be crazy in the head, and I am. All I think about is what I'm going to do to Johny Hendricks. I'm thinking about the same thing, day after day, night after night. But it's the job."
He's been so good at it that he has become the face of the sport. He's an idol of millions around the world, and is the UFC's biggest pay-per-view draw.
"GSP is the [expletive] man," UFC president Dana White said.
When St-Pierre decided to become a fighter, this was what he dreamed of: Being regarded as the best to have ever done it, accepting every challenging, ducking no one.
He has largely accomplished that. He became rich and famous, and for a shy, intensely private man, that was a problem.
As he was building his name in the UFC, he would be mobbed by fans when he was in Las Vegas. He accepted the attention as a part of his job, because he knew he could blend into the background when he returned to his native Quebec.
That changed, though, after he avenged the most bitter defeat of his career by stopping Matt Serra to regain the title in front of 21,390 rabid fans at the Bell Centre in Montreal in 2008.
"After that, everything changed for me," St-Pierre said. "I could go home before and it would be my safe place. In English Canada, it was like it was in the States, but at home [in Quebec], it wasn't like that until after the second Serra fight.
"And I was like, 'Oh no! Is this going to happen even at home?' "
Suddenly, St-Pierre was as revered in Quebec as any of the Montreal Canadiens, a world-wide star whose time was suddenly always in demand.
Firas Zahabi, St-Pierre's friend and long-time coach, chuckled and interrupted as St-Pierre was trying to explain dealing with the trappings of fame.
"Georges," Zahabi said, laughing, "tell him about the time you broke that guy's neck."
St-Pierre rolls his eyes and shakes his head.
"It's crazy, I'll tell you," he says.
St-Pierre said he was leaving a club in Montreal heading for his car when he saw a group of people standing outside staring at him. They looked like trouble, and that's the last thing he wanted.
So, instead of walking directly past them, he took a more circuitous route to his car. That didn't escape the notice of a man who was among the group he avoided.
St-Pierre saw the man come toward him taunting him. He said he put his hand in front of him, hoping to get the man to stop. And, it worked, because they never had any contact.
Or, at least until Zahabi got a call from someone who said St-Pierre had snapped the man's neck, and that the incident was captured on video. The man was claiming he'd asked for a picture and St-Pierre declined. Instead, Zahabi was told St-Pierre pushed him and snapped his neck.
The man was claiming that St-Pierre had extended his arms, put one hand on either said of his head and then suddenly twisted, breaking his neck.
"Out of the thousands and thousands of techniques that we drill, this isn't one of them," Zahabi said.
Laughing, St-Pierre added, "It sounds like a movie."
The man said there was video, so St-Pierre and his team asked to see it. It didn't come, so they asked again. After a while, it finally did.
And it wasn't exactly a shot of a high-level professional fighter mauling a fan.
It was, instead, clip of security footage. It was a wide shot that captured a fight, where one man was stomping the other in the head.
"That wasn't me [in the video]," St-Pierre said. "The guy was saying, 'Georges, you were too drunk to remember.' "
Clearly, the man knew who St-Pierre was and used the threat of a lawsuit to try to extort money from St-Pierre. Eventually, he dropped the claim.
St-Pierre shook his head. This is a culture he's not used to.
"We don't sue people in Quebec," St-Pierre said. "The mentality is not like that. When I was in school, I'd see people fight. Big, bang, everybody was fighting all the time, but nobody sued anybody. It's not like in the States, where you touch someone with a finger in the subway and they go, 'Ooooh, you touched me. I'm going to sue you.' "
But that brush with trouble was enough that it convinced St-Pierre that he had to bring security with him wherever he went.
He's a young guy – he's only 32 – and he likes to enjoy himself in his free time. What he doesn't want is trouble, or to be hassled when he's trying to have fun.
"Doing all of the stuff, when I make appearances [on behalf of the UFC], that's work," he said. "I need my time to get away from that, just to be private and have fun. I'm a young guy and I like to drink sometimes, go to the club. When I'm on vacation, I want to escape the crazy life that I have. If I don't have security, then I get a reality check and I'm put right back into it."
And so he brings security, often friends, who do a little crowd control and give the champ his space.
It allows him to unwind, to get away from the pressure of being the superstar, to be an average 32-year-old male who doesn't have to worry about keeping up an image all of the time.
"I was taught to do things the right way, and I try to set a good example all of the time," St-Pierre said. "I'm a good guy and I'm not saying I want to go out and go crazy. But I need my personal time. A lot of people respect that, but a lot of people don't."
That personal time allows him to spend the rest of the time, as he likes to say, "obsessing."
Hendricks is his obsession now, and St-Pierre knows it's a challenge like he's never faced. Hendricks punches extremely hard, and has great wrestling.
St-Pierre is clearly proud of his wrestling prowess, even though he never wrestled until he was 19. But he said most misunderstand his style.
Wrestling, he said, has little to do with the slew of takedowns he scores.
"I'm a karate guy, and my takedowns, my timing, all of the stuff I do, it's from karate," he says. "People don't understand. They think it's wrestling. Wrestling is for my leg finishes, but I used karate to cut distance. People just don't get it. … It makes me laugh when I hear them talk about that. Never interrupt the enemy when he's doing mistakes."
St-Pierre grins devilishly when asked about how he'll combat Hendricks. You'll see everything, he says, and it will be mixed martial arts at its best.
And so, despite much speculation that St-Pierre is unhappy and planning to retire, he says repeatedly he's still very much into the life of a fighter and planning to fight on for a long time. He's not thrilled about the fame, but training for fights, improving his technique and challenging himself against men who have devoted years to trying to find a way to beat him is what pushes him.
Though there's no obvious motivation beyond Hendricks – he's cleaned out the division, as White likes to say, several times over – but he has a goal.
"There are a lot of things I can't tell you," he says, again with a smile creasing his face, "but I have plans. I'm ready for other things. We'll see what happens. Moving up, moving down, fighting some other guy. I have big plans, but I can't tell you everything. I just can't give all of my secrets today."
It's no secret, though, that he is arguably the greatest athlete in the sport, and possesses a singular focus seen only among the best athletes in a given sport.
If he's crazy and obsessed, it's a good crazy and a good obsessed.
- Martial Arts
- Sports & Recreation
- Johny Hendricks