Interview: Georges St-Pierre

Takedown - GSP

The last thing I expected to learn from former UFC welterweight champion and Montreal’s own Georges St-Pierre upon meeting him was a new way to peel a banana. With suitcase in hand during a brief stopover in Toronto on his way back from Brazil and en route back home, the incredibly charming and down to Earth mixed martial artist was geeking out over how he had just learned that primates opened bananas from the bottom instead of the top. He laughs it all off at the end by saying, “It was very educational for me this trip.”

It’s a great reflection of St-Pierres’ nature outside the cage lined octagon. He has an effortless affability that makes you wonder if he really did participate in one of the most dangerous sports on the planet. Although he stepped away from the sport in December, a decision he talks about with us, he certainly hasn’t stayed out of the MMA spotlight. He has still been attending events, hence the trip to Brazil where he was there to lend support to friend and training partner Francis Carmont. It has also largely been suggested and speculated that part of his departure has something to do with his remarks regarding his wishes for UFC to have healthier guidelines for fighters and possible drug testing. It’s something that St. Pierre seems amused that I didn’t bring up on his way out the door.

But St-Pierre isn’t in town to promote a fight or any perceived beefs he might have, though. He’s here to promote a documentary that was made about his life and his return from a potentially career ending ACL tear back in that forced him to relinquish his title for the better part of a year. Takedown: The DNA of GSP (screening at select Cineplex locations on February 20th, 22nd, and 24th before premiering on HBO Canada on Saturday, May 10th) takes a look at how St-Pierre grew as a fighter through facing his toughest challenge outside the ring yet.

We chatted with St-Pierre about revealing more of his personal life for the camera, his battles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the main reason why he stepped away from MMA for a while, why a $5 plate of spaghetti helps remind him of where he came from, how it’s boring to be a normal person, how he learned the hard way to not let his anger and arrogance get the best of him in the ring, and his upcoming appearance in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Why did you decide to do this movie and be a bit more revealing with people? I’ve seen you do interviews before, but I know you said with this film you wanted people to see a different side of you.

Takedown - GSP - F2Georges St. Pierre: With this movie it wasn’t me who decided what to show and what I don’t show. I told the producers and the camera people that I would open up 100%… well, maybe not 100%, but you know what I mean. (laughs) Way more than I ever did, though, and the reason we did this project was really because I hurt my knee. I tore my ACL, and I knew I was going to be out for a long time, so that was when we started the project. And when we started, I didn’t know how well it would have been. It could have turned out to be a real nightmare. If I didn’t come back and be a champion again, it would have been a nightmare for me, because this injury is a career ending injury for many, many athletes. American football, hockey, every different sport. So we took a gamble in a way. Well, maybe it wasn’t exactly a gamble, because I know I always surround myself with the best people. I always knew I was going to come back, but how well I can back was always, like, a gambling thing, you know?

Did you ever know while you were making the movie that you were going to be stepping away from fighting for a while in the near future?

GSP: I didn’t know, but I thought about stepping away when I fought (Josh) Koschek the second time. That was before my injury because I was starting to see everything that was going on in the sport any everything. But everything was building up and building up and building up after every fight. I could tell things weren’t always right. I just sensed it.

And a lot of it is because I’m an obsessive compulsive person, and I talk a bit about that in the movie. I’m crazy, you know? And that’s what you need to be a champion in this sport. My life has always revolved around how I can make myself a better martial artist. Everything in my life has built towards that purpose. And when you’re a champion, you’re the target and you have people challenging you all the time and a lot of critics and a lot of expectation. I started training in martial arts because I thought it was fun. Then the fun became a business. Then the business became a lot of expectation and critique, and none of that helped this obsessive compulsive problem that I have, which is great when you’re an athlete, but in your real life it can make you go crazy. It can make you lose your mental health. And that was what was going to happen to me. That’s really why I stopped because my mental health was in jeopardy and I felt it coming. I said “It’s too much for me, and before it gets too much for me, I’m going to stop.” And I just decided to take a break and step out of it,

I’ve never been a victim in my life. I always did everything by choice. I fought because I wanted to, and for the same reason I wanted to take a break; because I wanted to. I felt like I was mentally going crazy. I don’t regret any of it, and right now I feel healthier than ever.

I actually gained muscle mass because I sleep more. I was sleeping only five hours a night for the last ten years of my life. Only five hours. An athlete is supposed to sleep for at least eight hours if they want to be healthy, but I was only doing five. I couldn’t sleep because of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder that I had so much stress that I just couldn’t sleep. I was going crazy. I was going nuts. But that same Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is something that as a champion could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you use it. And before it became a bad thing, I decided to step away. I’m very happy right now.

I’ve seen you talk about your fights outside of the ones in this film, and you’re always very humble and very soft spoken, and there’s a scene in this film where you have just gotten out of surgery after having your ACL repaired and you are kind of out of it still, but you just go off on how badly you want to beat Nick Diaz. Were you surprised to see a moment like that and its one of those moments where you had your guard completely down and you might not even really remember saying something like that?

GSP: Yeah. I didn’t realize it was happening, but when I see it I know exactly what was happening. It was that obsessive compulsive that I was talking about. Even though I survived and I woke up, the first thing I felt was [knocks over microphone and laughs]. I was just thinking about how much I wanted to break Nick Diaz. That was the first thing, and you could clearly see that I had a problem in my head. You show that to a psychologist and he’ll tell you this guy’s completely insane.

And while that scene perfectly illustrates that, I actually didn’t want them to show it. I saw the movie and I was, like, “We can’t show that!” But the producer, he insisted, “Georges, that’s real and authentic. We want to show that.” And I was just scared that it would make me look bad, but you know what? I’m not perfect, and I don’t want people to think I’m perfect. I want people who have problems and issues to understand that I’m the same way.

In a way, it’s kind of warming to me. It’s boring to be a normal person. (laughs) Most people in my life are crazy. Normal people are boring, so I surround myself with crazy people, and I’m crazy, myself, so it makes everything fun. It makes for a great movie. We all have the ingredients for that.

There’s a scene in the film where you’re hanging out outside the Orange Julep and you’re eating this $5 takeout container of spaghetti, and part of your personality seems to be staying humble, so do you think there’s a correlation between humility and being a champion?

GSP: I think it’s important to never forget where you came from. As far as the Orange Julep thing, I’ve honestly just been going there for over 15 years now. I haven’t always been rich. I mean, I can say it now. I’M RICH. (laughs) I’m not afraid to say it. I’m happy, you know? (laughs) It sounds cocky, but it’s the truth. But I still go to Orange Julep because I was going there since I was young and I just love the spaghetti there. (laughs) People always say, “You’re crazy! How are you going to eat at this joint with just dog poop outside all around the tables?” And I’m just, like, “Yeah! I like it! It’s like a five buck spaghetti and I love it.” I go there every week! Even the Orange Julep people when they just see me coming in they just say, “Oh my God, that can’t be Georges St-Pierre again.” (laughs) But it’s right near where I spar and it’s a good spaghetti and I love it.

I still do a lot of the same things that I did back in the day when I didn’t have what I have now. When I first went to Orange Julep, no one cared about me and I was doing my own thing. Now I’ve changed, but I’m still doing the right thing. I think that when you do something and you’re successful at it, you just keep doing it. You stick with the same people who were there from the beginning, the people who were there for the REAL Georges St. Pierre and not the famous guy. You stick around for the people who were there from the beginning, and that was really important for me. People lose that sometimes when they have success.

Another thing that I’ve learned in life is that you can never tell how good of a person somebody is just by the amount of power that they have. I’ve seen some people who when they have no power, they are very nice people, but when you give them power they become very, very bad people. You can see that, but sometimes it’s the opposite, and you have someone who has no power and you give them some and they become even nicer people! They’re more genuine, they’re genuine. It’s true, and that’s one of the most important things I have learned to remember in life, to remember to feel real.

One of the things in the film that stands out is that you say that the one time you lost your temper in the ring, was when you lost your title to Matt Serra. How important is it to you to learn from those moments and when you got injured did you have a greater appreciation for that lesson?

GSP: Very interesting point. When I lost the fight to Matt Serra, I let the anger take me over. I got stung by a punch and I wanted to give it back because I was just so angry. I was so angry that I got stung by a guy that I was such a favourite to beat. I think I was an 8-1 favourite for that fight. I was feeling humiliated, so I wanted to give it back to him. But instead of fighting smart, I fought with anger, and when I did that I came back into a slugfest when I was dizzy. When you’re dizzy, you’re not accurate. And he wasn’t dizzy, so he was very accurate. So I came back and it was just punch, punch, punch and I lost that fight. I had to turn around and tap because he had me and I was completely dizzy, and I went down to a TKO.

Something similar happened a few years after that when I fought Carlos Condit. I got kicked in the head, and I was probably MORE dizzy then than I was when Serra got me because in that fight I went to the floor and I was completely out of it. I saw a flash when I got knocked down he got me so hard. And then, instead of saying “Shoot. I just got hit and I am going to give it back to him with anger.” Instead, I hit the floor and I accepted the fact that I was dizzy and that I could get hurt. So instead of getting back on my feet right away and getting right back into the war, I accepted that I was going to have to guard myself on the floor. I stepped on my own ego and I just accepted it. I parried punches, and blocked and blocked and blocked, because I learned my mistakes from that Matt Serra fight. If I didn’t lose against Matt Serra the way I did, I would have probably lost that fight with Carlos Condit. I would have just made that same mistake then.

It was the same mistake that Francis Carmont made this past weekend down in Brazil. I was down there with him. In the third round it was equal, and they went into the third round and I told him some stuff in French to give him the emotional space to just come out and fight with energy, but instead of using that energy to fight with intelligence, he used it to fight with too much anger. He committed himself too much and got taken down, and it was that same mistake. It happens to many people in a fight. It’s great to fight with emotion, but you have to use it in a positive way. You have to fight with your heart, not with your anger, which is a different thing which leads you to committing mistakes.

Are you very good at figuring out immediately when you are in the ring with someone when your opponent has gotten angry enough that you can exploit that?

GSP: Absolutely. I use that all the time. I especially used that with Nick Diaz all the time. (laughs) Nick Diaz is someone that always overcommits all the time. You can see it the second that he starts taunting you. I use that as a bait, as well.

How do you get past that yourself because you really are a nice guy in a pretty violent sport where sometimes you have to get angry just to get to the next step to remain champion?

GSP: There is something about my sport where sometimes people when they write about it they try to say that I try to make it look like it’s not violent or barbarous. But yes, it is violent. It is barbarous. I’m not afraid to say it. You can write it down. It’s barbarous and violent. But it’s not street violence. We are trained for this. You see a hockey game where someone goes and takes a swing at someone with a stick? That’s street violence because they aren’t ever trained to swing a stick at someone. Us, we’re paid to fight. We train to fight.

And it’s not a form of entertainment that’s for everyone. I cannot force someone to LIKE what I do for a living. I could never force that. If you don’t like the idea of someone hurting another person in the ring as a sport, then you aren’t going to like mixed martial arts. Just change the channel. You won’t like boxing, either. You won’t like any of the Olympic fighting sports either. You won’t like karate or tae kwon do or judo or wrestling. It’s all the same thing. You’re there to hurt each other. It’s a hurt sport. It’s fighting. I don’t force you to like what I do for a living, and I also don’t want to be the guy to fight for the legitimacy of my sport. I never wanted to be one of those guys, and all I ask is that you don’t denigrate it. It’s just as much of a sport as boxing, wrestling, judo. It is a sport. It’s a young and still developing sport, but it’s still a sport.

There are two major fights in the film for you, with one happening before and one happening after your ACL tear, and having known people who have had the same injury that aren’t even athletes, it’s a hard thing to come back from. What did you think was a bigger fight for you, though? Was it the fight with Serra where you learned the most lessons, or was it the one against Diaz where you had to actually come back almost from scratch?

GSP: It’s different. The ACL started off as physical, but then it became mental. When you come back from an injury like this, first you have to do all the physical stuff to make your body physically healthy enough. To make your body 100% healed from an ACL tear takes about six months, and then even though you are physically healed, you can’t go back and fight right away because you just aren’t mentally there.

What I mean by that, is that you will be afraid to do any movement with the ACL. That’s the mental part. You have to regain the confidence with your knee, and that’s hard. And while it took six months physically, it took another two months for the mental part. That was very hard. At one point, and we talk about it in the movie, we talked about cancelling the whole thing with Diaz because I was getting my butt kicked in training for two months. I was sparring with guys who we barely professional and lower weight classes than me, and they were just beating me up. I was not even close to where I was when I left. It took me a long time to get back to where I was, and then I ended up getting to a point that was better than where I was before. But that is tough. You just need to not be afraid and that takes time.

A lot of athletes, they try to come back and they never do. They only think it’s a physical thing, but they need to realize that it’s a mental thing, too.

Finally, very quickly, what was it like getting a chance to play a role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier?

GSP: It was great! It was something really, really different and a lot of fun for me. That was something that I had never done before, and I am playing this French former bodybuilder and fighter and he’s a really, really bad guy. (laughs) It was great for me. It was so much fun to play a really bad guy for a change.

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