This feature interview with former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre is a guest column written by Israel-based writer Ram Gilboa. Editor's note: It was also republished on the front page for November 3rd, 2017, the eve of GSP's return.
The Ritz Carlton Herzliya lobby has big glass walls overlooking the beach, and low, stout, round seats which are much more comfortable than you would guess before sitting down. The greatest welterweight fighter that has ever lived is sitting on one such seat in a sun lit corner booth. He was invited to Israel along with a small group celebrities and high-profile athletes, by NBA's Omri Casspi and the ‘Omri Casspi Foundation.' They tour the country, play basketball with kids, people read about it.
Georges St. Pierre is offered a glass of water with cut cucumbers inside. He wears a black v-collar, khaki shorts, has a tan, and he smiles a lot. Laughs, too. It's vacation hot outside, on the northern outskirts of Tel-Aviv, but the champion doesn't seem in a rush. He answers every question, and makes the interviewer feel much more comfortable than he would have guessed before sitting down.
Welcome to Israel, Thanks for meeting with me, it's an honor.
GSP: Thank you very much, it's my pleasure.
Everybody's asking the same question for the past few weeks, more actually: Are you coming back?
GSP: I want to. My agent is negotiating with the UFC, they had an offer, we made a counteroffer, you know that's how business goes. And then we heard a day after that UFC sold for $4 billion dollars. So we waited for a few days, to see what was going on, because even some of the employees were afraid of losing their job - even some of the high ranking people in the UFC were afraid. We wanted to let the management to take care of their own company first, and then see what happens.
Now we're talking again and I'm starting the USADA process to be tested, I'm starting it Aug 10. in Las Vegas. Because to be eligible to fight you need to be tested.
Unless you're Brock Lesnar.
GSP: Yeah exactly, but he had a free pass, I think it was an exemption of a month or something like that. But me, I don't want to be an exception, because I was very outspoken about Performance Enhancing Drugs. It would be bad for my reputation if I would have an exemption - I don't want to have a free pass, I want to be like everybody else. That's why I'll be starting the process Aug 10. I don't have any fight yet, but it's gonna happen now, because I'm getting tested, if I'm getting tested it's for a reason.
And before that I heard a lot of talk about Robbie Lawler-
GSP: The first offer they made us was for Bisping. We were interested in that fight, we made a counter offer, but like I said one day after we heard they sold the company. Bisping was already a world champion. They asked us if we wanted to fight in Toronto, I don't remember if it was the Rogers center or the Air Canada center, but it was to be Bisping. And I said yeah, I'm interested, but you know how negotiations go, they give you a price, they lowball you, you put a higher price, and then we meet somewhere in the middle.
GSP: I could easily fight at 155 if I wanted to
Former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre opens up the possibility of fighting at 155 pounds upon his return.
Is Bisping interested?
GSP: I heard he was interested. But I heard also that he was interested to fight Dan Henderson. I understand that. He's a proud athlete, and I'm a proud fighter too. And I have lost fights before, and for me that was important to avenge losses. If you want to be a proud person, then you want to avenge your loss. For me it was Serra and Hughes, and for Michael Bisping, Henderson is one of his losses - one of his most painful losses. So I understand why he wants to avenge it. As an athlete I understand. So that's why that fight did not happen.
GSP: Look, the reason that that fight was supposed to happen, I believe the reason UFC wanted to make it, and people were talking about it, it's we each have nineteen wins inside the Octagon. 185 is not my division, I don't make my career at 185, it was to be a super-fight, for it was an exceptional reason.
For me there is no reason why to go up in weight class, because when you go up in weight class you have to fight bigger guys - then you have to train against bigger guys. The guys are not better, they're heavier, but it means you have more chance to get hurt. Not because you get beat up - because you slip, or-
(St. Pierre points to two vertical scars starting at each knee and running narrowly further down the shin).
I had two ACL injuries in my life, and both of them happened when I was training with bigger guys; a heavyweight and a light heavyweight. Sometimes it's not even because the guy is good, you just get hurt.
I think your style, correct me if I'm wrong, because you're such an aggressive wrestler, wrestling bigger guys, you can hurt yourself.
GSP: Yeah, exactly. It's not only the fight, it's the training. To fight a bigger guy you need to train with bigger guys and it takes a lot more on your body. And it's not your weight class. I would have done it because it was a nineteen wins against nineteen wins - who will have the most wins [inside the Octagon], that's one thing I'm very proud of. But now he's going to fight Dan Henderson.
It's set? He's fighting Henderson for sure?
GSP: Yes, he's fighting Dan Henderson, so it's not going to be nineteen wins against nineteen wins now, it's going to change. The whole idea of it is not as interesting from a business standpoint. so I don't see the interest, because it's not my competition. If I'm at 185, I'm gonna fight and go down - and the UFC, I'm sure they don't want me to get the title and go down after.
So you want Welterweight now?
GSP: My division is Welterweight. I could fight 155, 185 - 170 is where I'm comfortable, better, and it is better for me. I could make a super-fight, but I don't them to expect me to be fighting regularly at 185.
But you're Georges St. Pierre, you can probably choose whoever you want.
GSP: I can choose whoever I want - you know, in MMA things change very rapidly, sometimes you don't know what'll happen and there's a guy that upsets everybody. I could fight who the fans would like me to fight the most. For me that's important.
But you're coming back.
GSP: Yeah. I would like to say, they need to make sure they take care and negotiate the problems. You know, I have a very good agent with me. The fighters, they complain they're not getting paid a lot, they get exploited sometimes; The UFC runs a business, but it's also the fault of a lot of the fighters - they accept any fight, they will sign anything. They have to look at their career as a business as well. They have to hire some confident people to do that job. I'm an athlete, my job is not negotiating, it's not my field of expertise. I'm an emotional guy - it's normal, a lot of athletes are, and we're very susceptible to get our ego cut because of that. Dana White came out very often in public saying I'm this and that; I'm sure it's also to play with my ego, to make me, for example, come out of retirement and say ‘Oh ok, I'll fight for peanuts.' No, I'm not like that. I know the game.
That's how it is, and I will never blame a fighter if he doesn't fight me because he takes care of his own interest first, and prioritize the interests of his family first, that's completely normal.
Inside the Octagon we can see that you're a very smart fighter, taking the smart way to the win.
GSP: Yea, that's the way to go. People say: ‘Oh, he doesn't want to come back, he's scared,' and it's to play with your brain, to play with your mind.
I don't think one can make the claim that you're scared after the career you had.
GSP: I've heard this song forever. I'm not scared of nobody. I'm not scared of no human being. I'm scared to fight, every time I fight I'm scared, but I'll bite into my mouthpiece and I'll walk the walk.
Let's stay on the PEDs issue for a little more. Famously it was part of your reason to leave. Now we have USADA, and they caught Silva, they caught Lesnar, others. You think it's changing?
GSP: It's getting better, it's not perfect but it's getting better, yeah.
What can they do more?
GSP: Sometimes I feel the results of their testing came a little bit late. And I think it's unfortunate and it should not happen. I have not studied the situation, but sometimes I'm under the impression some of the fights happen that they shouldn't happen because a guy's cheating. Also, I think when something like this happen they should have not only a suspension but also monetary wise enforce a penalty. Maybe take the purse of the fighter to the other fighter.
Like Mark Hunt asks?
GSP: Yeah, because a training camp costs a lot of money. Mark Hunt, a lot of the guys when they're fighting - like me for example, I spend money. You spend money to make money and that's the idea of a training camp. When a fight gets cancelled because the other guy is cheating, there should be a penalty. The guy's who's cheating should pay a purse not only because of the USADA but because of his opponent. Because the other guy spend a lot of money to get prepared - and time. I'm a very wealthy person now, but I remember the time I was not making a lot of money, It was hard. Whether is for PEDs or an injury, you lose a lot of money, and some guys don't have the means. But if you have enough money to spend on performance enhancing drugs - because this thing is not free, these things cost money - you should have enough money to pay your opponent if you got cut using it. To reimburse him.
It is well known you started at Kyokoshin, and the you added Jiu-Jitsu. It can get so hard to add skills as you grow up - How'd you become such a great wrestler?
GSP: I've trained at the YMHA. I've started late, I was 19 years old. But they were very nice, they took me in. I've trained with Victor Zilberman - he's a Russian-Jewish from Moldova. His son David who is coaching me represented Canada in the Olympic games. There were a lot of very good wrestlers there and they took me underneath their wing when I was young.
But then again, you didn't start wrestling at five or six like a lot of these guys.
GSP: People don't understand, yeah I'm alright as a wrestler, but I beat people in the takedown because of my distance control - because of my Karate. This is something I learned since I'm 7 years old. I used my Karate footwork to control the distance, and I use is as a penetration drill that I do, this is my speciality, the way I penetrate on people, the explosiveness and the timing. It all started with Kyokoshin and Sports Karate. Kyokoshin I've done most, but I competed in Sports Karate also, that's my style that I come from, and mixed with the wrestling that's how I got the takedowns.
In the past three years, have you been training regularly, or on and off?
GSP: I've trained all the time. I feel I'm much better now than I used to be, and everybody says that, all my trainers; More skills, I'm smarter, I feel in much better shape, and mentally I feel better too.
And you want to get tested again?
GSP: Yeah that's why I'm doing it. I don't want things that I regret in life, and things that I have not done - and I don't want to at 80 years wake up, and tell myself: ‘Oh I was on top of my shape and skills and I didn't do it.' If I come back and I lose, at least I know I did everything I should have done, I have no regrets, I'll be happy. I can die happy. If I never come back, and I'll tell myself I should have done this, I should have done that - I don't want to have regrets.
An old boxing adage says "they never come back." You're a very dedicated athlete, you're going to prove them wrong and break that rule?
GSP: I didn't. I didn't retire. People have mistaken my break, I took a break from competition, it was because of mental problems, and because I was not agreeing with Performance Enhancing Drugs. I put the things on pause for a while, but I didn't retire.
You took a vacation.
GSP: Yes. I took a vacation. I put things on pause. That's how I see it.
And mentally right now you are?
GSP: I feel so much better. I feel the structure of my life is better, personally I feel so much better, and this is very important.
The biggest fight everyone is talking about right now is Diaz-McGregor II, what do you think of that fight, what do you think of McGregor's style in general? And the Diazs, are you still not getting along too well with them - I know you had some rough history.
GSP: I have no problem with Nate. It seems to me to me like it's Nick Diaz that is running for another shot at me. I wouldn't mind, I'm not afraid of Nick Diaz, I'll tell you. I am telling you right now: If it's what the fans want to see, I'm in.
Is Diaz going to be your first fight back in the Octagon?
GSP: I don't care if it's the first, or second, or third. If they want me to fight Nick Diaz it would be my pleasure. I don't mind, I am not afraid of Nick Diaz, I beat him last time, and I'll beat even worse, I'll beat him way worse next time that I'll fight him.
I beat him last time easily, but I was not happy - It's one of these fights that I'm not happy with. Because I didn't feel like I gave enough, for different reasons. It left me angry that fight, when I look back at it - maybe I won, but for some reason it left me angry and I feel like I could have done so much better.
Did he get in your head a bit? He got into a lot of people's heads.
GSP: He got in people's heads, but everybody knows who's who, who's bringing which set of skills, I have no problem, I'm not afraid of him.
I didn't mean to imply that you are.
GSP: Oh, no no no no - I'm just saying what he saying. He said I'm afraid but I'm not afraid of him.
I think one of the things McGregor did in the sport, he actually made the Diaz's the nice guys, because he fought a Diaz who looked full of respect by comparison.
GSP: Yeah, the way I see it is McGregor and Nate Diaz are both "bully" fighters, and the worst thing that can happen to a bully is when the tables get turned around and he gets bullied himself. That's what happened to Conor McGregor, that's why he lost that fight. Conor McGregor used to bully people and put people away in the first round because he's such an amazing fighter, and he gets into people's heads. But what happened was, he couldn't put Diaz away because Diaz is very resilient - If I make an analogy it's like Conor McGregor was pacing himself for a 400 meters race. He gave everything, but at the end of this 400 meters race, now somebody was telling him, ‘I'm sorry, you're not done yet, you have another 400 meters to do'. And if you didn't pace yourself, if you go all out thinking you're going to arrive at the finish line at 400 meters, now you have another 400 meters - you're done.
There was lot of mental breakdown into that fight, and I think it's a great example of how a Diaz brother can already beat people mentally, and they're very good at it. When I fought Nick I was ready for that.
Who do you think is going to win in their rematch?
GSP: I believe skillwise McGregor is better than Diaz. But I just don't know if he has the same mental resilience of Nate Diaz. Nate Diaz is very experienced - that was a fight that was won because of his experience.
I do not see this fight as a set of skills: ‘oh, because of his ground game, because of this, because of that'. Conor McGregor is very good on the ground, he swept Nate Diaz in the first fight. I see it as more of a pace and tactical match.
Because Conor McGregor is so confident - he goes there ‘I'll beat this, I will do that' - If I would be his coach I will tell him all the time, behind closed doors, how dangerous Diaz is and how much of a war this fight will be and how painful, and long, and uncomfortable it would be, and to get prepared for the worst day of his life.
No easy second.
GSP: YES. That's what I would remind my guy if I would be Conor McGregor's coach. Because in public, Conor makes it like it's going to be it's going to be another walk in the park, but I hope he doesn't believe what he's saying. Chances are it might not happen.
You think there's a chance that you will ever meet McGregor? You say that you can make LW, and obviously that's the biggest money fight.
GSP: McGregor is pretty big, huh? I don't know how he cuts all that weight, it's unbelievable. He's about my size, he walks around I think between 180, 185, I walk around 186, 187, 188.
GSP: No that's not true. That's not true. He walks around 180, 185.
I don't think he's coming back to FW.
GSP: I don't see that either. It's very bad for your health, for your organs, at long term.
McGregor is a big guy. He's a huge guy - for his weight class, he's huge. I don't understand how some guys cut like that - I mean, I have an idea.
A lot of Parsley?
GSP: I have an idea, but maybe they know something that I don't.
How'd you meet Omri Casspi, how did you get involved?
GSP: My agent, Mike Fonseca for C.A., contacted me and asked if I wanted to go to Israel, and explained to me it was a nice place and for a foundation and I always wanted to come here.
We're very glad that you came over and very glad to have you here.
GSP: I want to come back too. It is amazing. Such sites and so much history. I went to Jerusalem, the dead sea, it was just amazing. Because what we see in the TV, I'm sorry to say it, I don't want to insult nobody, but a lot of the image that we see from the middle east in Canada - It's sad to say but it's always bad stuff. I was thinking coming here it would be a lot of military, security, everybody would be a little more on the edge, but I see it's amazing. It feels a little bit similar to Miami. Or the beach in Tel-Aviv I went to, it even looks and feels a little bit like Rio de Janeiro. Some other places are very European and I just like it. I thought it would be fun but it's a lot better than that. It's a lot more relaxed and a lot of fun, and I feel very secure, and I would tell my friends they should come here when they plan a vacation. Not only the history.
Because I'm so busy during my everyday, when I go on vacation I need to pull the plug like they say, and to do nothing. When I go on vacation I just like to do nothing - just hang out at the beach, go eat the best restaurants, and do nothing. And here is a good place for that, to do nothing. Just hanging out, being lazy, see the nice sites near your hotel, do a boat ride, swim, beach, best hotel, good restaurant, that's the perfect place to do it. Everyone have been so nice with me, and I'm very happy, It's like paradise. For me it was a very pleasurable experience, and thanks for Omri Casspi for taking me on this trip.
You trained with some Israelis, you went to Amir Boaron's Gym.
GSP: Yes. It was a lot of fun, they were very kind with me to open up the gym let me go train with my friend Will - he trains with me in Montreal, his arms are the size of my legs, he's like the African version of The Hulk, you know?
It was a lot fun, they're very nice, we exchanged a little knowledge. Fighting is about knowledge, knowledge is a very important part of it, and we exchanged a couple of tricks, I showed Amir some stuff, he showed me some stuff. It's true, we showed each other some tricks, some of the stuff that we like to do, exchanged some ideas, because fighting sometimes is about the situation, and we learned some different tricks from each other.
Wanted to ask you, what was your toughest fight?
GSP: Penn and Condit. Condit hurt me the most, and then it was mentally a challenge, and Penn also hurt me. People think Hendricks was the toughest, but against Hendricks I was emotionally hurt, that's what showed on my face. The next day physically I was fine. Against Hendricks I felt I was against the system. I felt the system was corrupted against me, like Dana White was for some reason against me, and I didn't understand why; I was not trying to put the UFC down, but to bring ‘em up. When I spoke before the fight I wanted to help the sport, I wanted to help the UFC, so that's what showed, what was emotionally, mentally in my head. I felt the system was against me and I didn't understand why.
And who would you rank as the best welterweight besides you?
GSP: Hughes or Penn. BJ, when he was a welterweight is probably the most talented, when he was trying. Unfortunately, he was inconsistent, not a hard worker.
Georges St. Pierre, Champion du Monde, thank you for your time.
GSP: It's my pleasure, thank you for the interview.
The champ - contender? - gets up, shakes hands and walks towards the dining room across the hall. Other than cucumber water he hasn't had breakfast yet - his interviewer now realized that with some guilt. It's 10:50 and they've been sitting here for awhile.
Super nice guy.
Ram Gilboa is an Israeli writer working with many of the country's leading news publications, and does combat sports commentating on TV. He loves Jiu-Jitsu, Judo, Boxing, MMA, and long walks along the beach to watch a fight on sand. find him on Twitter at @RamGilboa.