LAS VEGAS – The specter of UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman and ex-kingpin Anderson Silva loomed large in the lobby of the MGM Grand on Monday as welterweight title-holder Georges St-Pierre and top contender Johny Hendricks made an appearance at a news conference to promote their Nov. 16 title bout.
Like Weidman, Hendricks is the power-punching former wrestling star who is tasked with defeating a long-time, and seemingly invincible, champion.
St-Pierre, like Silva before him at UFC 162 on July 6, is the popular champion who is weary of the myriad obligations and the intrusions into his personal life that owning the title for so long brings.
"Look at what happened to Anderson Silva," St-Pierre said. "You never know what can happen. The moment someone seems invincible, sometimes that's when they fail. It's a crazy sport we're in. One mistake can change everything."
Silva made a mistake that is almost impossible to imagine the ever-cautious St-Pierre making when he defends his belt against Hendricks at UFC 167.
Trying to lure Weidman into a standup battle, Silva put his hands on his hips and stuck his chin out at Weidman. Eventually, Weidman caught him with a big left hook and ended Silva's record winning streak with a brutal knockout.
St-Pierre has already lost the title once to an unexpected knockout. Matt Serra stopped St-Pierre at UFC 69 in Houston on April 7, 2007, in what most still regard as the greatest upset in UFC history.
There's virtually no chance of St-Pierre opting to mimic Silva, but Hendricks isn't going to be shy about punching if he does.
"He won't do that," Hendricks said. "I know he won't. But if he does, it's going to be probably worse than that fight was."
Hendricks knows what is at stake. A win over St-Pierre would be a life-altering moment for him, just as it's turned out to be for Weidman.
St-Pierre is the biggest draw in the sport, and there will be plenty of demand on Hendricks' time between now and the fight. But the laid-back Hendricks has been preparing for this moment for a long time.
"Any time you do something like this, the way this sport is growing and seeing everything happen, I know if I beat GSP, my world's going to change," Hendricks said. "I made corrections to my life for that, and I've already put them in place to make myself better and to really enjoy the thing and not take anything for granted."
Part of the reason for St-Pierre's incredible success is just that: He hasn't taken anything for granted since that loss to Serra. St-Pierre hasn't lost since, reeling off 11 wins in a row, the last nine in title fights.
St-Pierre is a private person who on Monday described himself several times as "shy." But he was able to relate to an interview Silva gave to Canadian journalist Joe Ferraro the day before he lost to Weidman, in which Silva admitted he felt the burden of his long winning streak and being the champion.
UFC president Dana White has repeatedly said the pressure on his champions is enormous, and Silva only vocalized it.
St-Pierre accepts the attention as part of the job. He handles his obligations well, even if he'd prefer to blend in with the crowd and go about his business unnoticed.
But there are few more famous faces in mixed martial arts and everywhere he goes, even to an airport bathroom, he's on stage.
"I can understand what [Silva] meant by that, because I heard about that interview even though I didn't see it," St-Pierre said. "It seems when you're the champion for a long time, the fans, the people, they demand something different. As more fights happen, the put on more pressure and the pressure builds up, builds up, builds up, builds up until it explodes.
"It's hard sometimes, mentally. It's hard for me sometimes because my life has changed, and you need to find a way to keep having fun."
St-Pierre said, "I don't enjoy being bothered," though he said he never declines a request for an autograph or a photo.
It can, though, get crazy. Several years ago, he was flying from Montreal to Las Vegas and had a connection in Toronto. During the layover, he went to use the men's room and stood in line with his head down, hoping he wouldn't be noticed.
"There were a lot of people and I was sitting on the toilet and I heard a fan screaming, 'GSP! GSP, are you there?' " St-Pierre said. "And I was sitting there and I said to myself, 'Are you really serious? Is he calling me when I'm on the toilet.' I didn't say a word, because I didn't want to be like, 'Hey, hey, I'm coming.' So I waited and I was like, 'I can't believe he's doing this to me.' I'm a shy guy and I don't like to be in the spotlight.
"When I finished, I flushed and I even waited an extra five minutes to make sure so that everybody who was in the toilet when the guy called me, they were gone, so there were different people there."
But upon leaving the bathroom, St-Pierre ran into the man who called him and had to pose for a picture with him.
So, St-Pierre knows as well as anyone how difficult it is to continue to compete at a high level while dealing with the oddities of stardom.
Like Weidman, though, Hendricks wants to find out what the lifestyle of a superstar is like for himself.
He held up his fists, saying he wants to use the power in his hands, not his wrestling, to his fight against St-Pierre. He said he is going to go for it and go for it with violent intentions.
"When I'm in there, my goal is to break someone's jaw and make them forget who they are that night," Hendricks said. "I want them to wake up and say, 'What the hell happened?' That's my goal every fight."
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- Johny Hendricks
- Anderson Silva
- Chris Weidman