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LOS ANGELES – By any objective measure, Georges St. Pierre is at the top of his game.
The Montreal native is more than two years into his second reign as UFC welterweight champion. He has won seven straight fights and racked up a UFC company-record 25 consecutive round victories in the process. And, oh yeah, he is ranked No. 1 in the Yahoo! Sports monthly Top 10 pound-for-pound poll.
But where others heap praise, the champion only sees room for improvement.
"There are a lot of holes in my game," said St. Pierre, who turned 29 last week. "The people who say I am the best or that I cannot be any better, they are comparing me to other fighters. I compare me to myself, and I see a lot of things that I know I can do better."
So instead of taking time off before he vanishes into the seclusion of coaching the next season of "The Ultimate Fighter," St. Pierre is nearly 3,000 miles from home, intent on patching those holes only he can see.
St. Pierre is spending a week working out at the famed Wild Card gym in Hollywood, home of Freddie Roach, trainer of the fighter many consider boxing's pound-for-pound king, Manny Pacquiao.
"It is time to focus on my boxing," St. Pierre said. "When I get to the other side of my career I don't want to be one of those fighters who have been hit too many times, so they keep getting knocked out. If you have the opportunity to work with someone like Freddie, you take advantage."
It is clear as soon as St. Pierre arrives for his Monday afternoon training session that the two have taken to working with one another. As Roach wraps St. Pierre's hands, the latter relates a minor mishap.
"I was shadow boxing in my hotel working on that hook like you showed me," St. Pierre said. "And I wasn't paying attention and I hit my knuckle on the door."
The story elicits a cackle from Roach, who never takes his eyes off St. Pierre's hands until the wrap job is done. As the champ runs off to work on his form in front of a mirror, Roach elucidates the dynamics that face a veteran boxing coach in training a mixed martial artist.
"It's a challenge for me as much as it is for him," Roach said. "The footwork and the stances are different than what I'm used to working with. I've never looked at MMA the way some [in boxing] have. A fighter is a fighter and a good one is going to pick up knowledge from wherever they can and apply it as they can."
Roach dons the pads and works out with St. Pierre in the ring for close to an hour, in seeming defiance of Roach's Parkinson's syndrome. The gym, a nondescript room on the second floor of a small strip mall, is a frenetic whir of activity, as training fighters sneak glances at the champ in center ring. St. Pierre seems oblivious to the buzz around him, frequently stopping to quiz Roach at each step in their work. A session on the speed bag finishes GSP's workout for the day.
"Georges is such a tremendous athlete, and he's such a fast learner," Roach said. "We were working at different distances and different angles than he's used to fighting in MMA, but he picked it all up so fast."
It didn't take long after St. Pierre's Los Angeles arrival for word to hit the street that he was in town, so Wild Card was overrun with fans and onlookers over the weekend. But with the gym closed Monday to all but members there specifically to train, St. Pierre was able to slip off quietly to dinner.
Most fighters of St. Pierre's caliber would have a chauffer and a go-fer on hand, but the champ carries his own bags and does the driving for his party as its heads to a nearby chicken joint.
St. Pierre is a mainstay of the well-respected Tri-Star camp in Montreal. But he is notable even among MMA's nomadic culture as a fighter who will travel far and wide to improve his game.
In his early UFC days, St. Pierre drove from Montreal to New York weekly to train at Renzo Gracie's school. After he lost the UFC welterweight title to Matt Serra in a 2007 upset, he upped his training with Greg Jackson's Albuquerque camp. Next was a stint working with the Canadian Olympic wrestling team, which has helped propel his current string of excellence in a division laden with accomplished wrestlers like Josh Koscheck and Jon Fitch.
So St. Pierre working with Roach is simply the next logical step in the journey.
"When I won the title the first time, I got a big head," St. Pierre said while picking at a baked chicken plate. "I didn't respect Matt Serra like I should. I will never make that mistake again. You can never stop learning. You can never be too good."
St. Pierre is his own harshest critic. His most recent title defense, against Dan Hardy at UFC 111, was such a thorough victory that he won on an average score of 50-44. But because it was the third time in four fights that St. Pierre won on a five-round decision, some criticized his performance, and it is clear he took those words to heart.
"Every time I go out in the cage, I want to fight a flawless fight," he said. "I wanted to score a spectacular win. I came out and I had him and almost ended the fight [with a first-round armbar]. It is funny sometimes how the whole fight can turn on such a little thing. He gets out of it and the fight goes another four rounds and now all I hear is that I have become a boring fighter.
"A lot of the fans who say that I did well, I appreciate that. But even if it is just one percent of the people who criticize me, it is [that] one percent who will push me to become an even better fighter."
After only a few days working together, all signs seem to indicate St. Pierre and Roach are destined to meet again. Roach – who opened his gym on a Sunday for what he says was only the second time ever to work with St. Pierre – has asked for DVDs of St. Pierre's next opponent, Koscheck, a fight that will happen after the two are opposing coaches on season 12 of The Ultimate Fighter. And St. Pierre, for his part, already feels the trip out West was worthwhile.
"This is my attitude when I go to the gym: Did I leave the gym that day a better fighter than I did when I came in? I've only been here a few days with Freddie and each time I left feeling like I was better."
- Freddie Roach