Why fame, fortune won't sidetrack GSP
Less than a month from his 30th birthday, UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre will step into the Octagon inside Toronto's cavernous Rogers Centre on Saturday mindful of his growing celebrity and its impact -- on him, those around him, his country, his city and his sport.
That's in part because the greatest fighters, those who stand the test of time, are aware of everything.
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Being the best, a pantheon status St. Pierre (21-2) repeatedly stakes out as his ultimate goal, requires more than dominating the opposition -- although, as the Quebecois rightly stresses, winning is "the main thing, the main thing, the main thing."
In the most basic terms, St. Pierre's stature demands that some aspects of his life are no longer his, even if he wants to believe the job itself allows for a certain type of freedom. Most people won't know whether they're equipped for this reality until they've experienced it. It's daunting enough for a talent such as Jon Jones, the newly crowned UFC light heavyweight champion, to be warned by chief trainer Greg Jackson, the same man coordinating St. Pierre's corner Saturday during the title defense against Jake Shields, about the "adversity of success." That, essentially, the more one excels, the more demands, temptations, opportunities and pitfalls will line his or her path.
Jackson said he never felt the need to warn St. Pierre.
"Georges is one of those guys who's proven he can keep his success during success, for sure," Jackson said. "So I never really worry about Georges. But none of us were expecting him or any of these MMA guys to become as famous as they became."
Within the realm of imagined possibility or not, here he is, days away from headlining a card in front of 55,000 of his countrymen. If St. Pierre thought he knew what fame was prior to April 30, 2011, he's on the verge of breaching a level that could, unfortunately, prevent him from wandering his hometown of Montreal relatively undisturbed. We're not talking Manny Pacquiao hysteria yet, but more than any mixed martial artist before him, St. Pierre is inching toward that type of recognition.
"I know that the further I go in my career, the expectation will always be more and more and more," St. Pierre said. "For me, it's not a problem. I know that it's always going to be more pressure and harder and harder to make people happy. I like that challenge and I embrace it."
Shields, 32, a hardened veteran of the sport, is experiencing his first sliver of what life has been like for St. Pierre over the past three years. The demands are real, and as arduous a process as it is to prepare physically and mentally for the rigors of a five-round bout, nothing is quite as taxing as out-of-gym obligations.
"They have me getting up at 7 in the morning doing interviews, which is 4 in the morning my time," Shields of fight-week responsibilities. "It seems kind of ridiculous to me."
St. Pierre would prefer to do something else as well. Who wouldn't? But he makes time. It's like others under similar circumstances have said: A fighter isn't paid to fight; you're paid to sacrifice sleep and patience during a prefight public relations binge.
"It's not fun," the champ said, "but we have to do it."
“ It's not fun, but we have to do it. ” -- UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre, on promotional obligations
It's little things that make fighters -- or athletes or celebrities or anyone else who can't get through a meal without interruption -- jaded. The easy-to-dismiss things. The things that, for perception's sake, often become the biggest headaches. It's also the little things, if coped with well, that separate the Pacqiuaos, and, yes, perhaps the St. Pierres, from almost everyone else.
Acutely aware of this is the UFC champion.
"I try to learn from them," he said of crowd-frenzying fighters such as Pacquiao, who not only survive under intense pressure but seem to thrive under it. "I see how they do things. See what I can apply to my lifestyle out of what they're doing."
Key to that is acknowledging the negative while embracing the positive. It would be easy to crumble, to crack. It would be easy because few people are equipped to handle the limelight over the long haul and maintain their edge. But if St. Pierre can realize being the man in the face of a celebrity that "hasn't even scratched the surface," he'll have succeeded where no mixed martial artist has before.
"It's a little bit overwhelming sometimes because my life has changed drastically over the last few years," he said.
Although some people around St. Pierre suggest he's changed, most will say he's the same guy they've always known. Sure, he has more money. Yes, he has nicer toys to play with. But beyond the superficiality that comes with success at his level, he's not altogether different from the kid who made his way from Montreal to New York many moons ago, basically broke, searching for a future. Searching for a fight.
"Even when he comes to Albuquerque [N.M.], sometimes he stays in the same place," Jackson said with a laugh. "And he was saying the other day, 'Why am I staying in the same place? I have more money now. I can stay in a nicer place than I used to stay.' But that's just Georges. He was made to be champion."
When Jackson travels to Montreal, which he did last week as St. Pierre's camp hit its final throes, the trainer always lodges at the same hotel a short walk from Tristar gym, now made famous by the cover-model-looking French-Canadian. Without fail, St. Pierre will ask Jackson each day whether he needs a lift to the gym.
"I'm like, 'No, Georges, I can walk the 10 feet it is,'" the trainer said. "But that's just who he is. That hasn't changed."
Asked for the spelling of the hotel because the anecdote is cute and fits with the angle of the story, Jackson pauses.
"Just put 'hotel,'" he said. "There's so many crazy fans in Montreal they'll stalk that place out."
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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