St-Pierre The Provocateur

The more the world’s greatest welterweight wins, the more he pisses people off.
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So the great absurdity of Georges St-Pierre’s welterweight title defense tonight is that the fight itself, St-Pierre’s first in a year and a half, doesn’t matter, even though he is great and transcendent. It is a conditional, a predicate, because if he wins, he’ll fight Anderson Silva, middleweight champion and rightly acclaimed greatest of all time, and that is the fight people want to see. Which means that a bout against Carlos Condit is just something that has to happen, not as much a thing in itself as a way for questions about St-Pierre to be answered, those being, a) “Will he be fighting Silva?” and, b) “Is he still the same after tearing up his knee, or is he old now?”

This has happened before; to me, St-Pierre will always be the man who broke Josh Koscheck five years ago in Las Vegas. It was his first fight since his first title defense, which ended with him laying helplessly on the mat tapping as Matt Serra, a tiny jiu jitsu specialist who’d come in an eleven-to-two dog, laid in the punches. While Koscheck was very tough and rightly esteemed, St-Pierre was at the time the freakiest athlete in a sport filled with freak athletes. The questions were less about the fight than about him.

Everyone’s friend’s friend knew at first hand that before the Serra defense St-Pierre had been out drinking every night, or that he hadn’t even bothered to train, or that he’d been out drinking and boasting about how he hadn’t bothered to train, and so it was hard to take St-Pierre too seriously when he spent months hyping the Koscheck fight by talking about how he’d learned his lesson, and he’d been overconfident, and he’d had a lot of negative influences in his life, and they were gone now, etc. The fight was less a fight than a way to find out whether he’d been ruined by the knockout, and if not what he had learned from it.

The St-Pierre who fought Koscheck, as it turned out, was indeed completely new. Always very controlled and efficient, he now seemed to be running scientific experiments in the potentialities of discipline. In against the trickiest technical wrestler in the division at the time, he countered low kicks with takedowns, shrugged off shots, threw kimuras and triangles, flashed tripartite combinations from low off-kilter angles. Most notably, he didn’t get hit. At the end of three rounds, he’d landed 118 strikes in 145 attempts; Koscheck, who’d been taken down as many times as he had in his eight previous UFC fights combined, had landed 14 of 53, and hadn’t even attempted one in the second round.

In a moment any questions were answered in your basic “Neo figures out his name is an anagram” fashion, and all the promise of the sport seemed incarnate in one man. At its simplest, fighting is a game of rock-paper-scissors: A wrestler will take down a kickboxer and hold him there, but a jiu jitsu wizard will submit a wrestler off his back, but a kickboxer will knock out a jiu jitsu player but a wrestler will take down a kickboxer; there are multiple shifting ouroborosian dilemmas. As soon as people actually started having real mixed fights in the early 1990s, it was obvious that to do well you’d have to master more than one phase of the game, and fairly early on fighters like Frank Shamrock were intensively training in all three and working out elegant ways of transitioning between them. At the time of the St-Pierre-Koscheck fight, though, most of the top players were still basically specialists in one area who had a subspecialty in another: Anderson Silva, i.e., was a flawless Muay Thai striker with workable submissions, and Jon Fitch was a brilliant wrestler who had a good enough jiu jitsu game to lay in the guard without worrying about being submitted, and so on.

What made St-Pierre so unusual and promising in his early career was that he was a tremendous athlete who hadn’t trained up in one art, but across all of them; he was the representation of the heretofore theoretical pure mixed martial artist. Against Koscheck, the representation figured over into reality: St-Pierre was suddenly and quite confidently throwing fists as easily as he ran takedowns, while torquing limbs as easily as he did either, and he was using all of it to simply dust a legitimate top contender. In his next two fights St-Pierre, apparently after a demonstration effect, avenged the only two losses of his career, first by submitting Matt Hughes and then by knocking out Serra in three minutes to reclaim his title. That was almost five years ago, and St-Pierre not only hasn’t lost since, but went four years without losing so much as a round.

Still, in retrospect the Koscheck fight seems more consequential than anything he’s done since, not just because it signaled the emergence of a fighter who represented everything toward which his sport had been aspiring, and not just because it marked the full bore emergence of St-Pierre’s signal strategy of going directly at a fighter’s strength and straight-out bettering him at it. It was that, but it was also the point at which we began to surmise that St-Pierre genuinely hated and would do anything to avoid losing and getting hit, and that those intimately related aversions would in the end leave our fully formed avatar of fight theory a representation of something else: Our desire for certain kinds of great athletes to be almost anything other than what they actually are.

***

About those aversions. Getting hit is terrible. Professional fighters are sold to the public as imperturbable men of iron, but the most insightful thing thing I’ve ever heard about them may have come from the trainer who told me that when aspiring fighters come into his gym, he asks if they were beaten as children, and discourages the ones who weren’t, because taking a hit the way you need to take one if you want to fight seriously isn’t really the sort of thing you can be taught to do. Which isn’t at all to say that all fighters are maladjusts working out one or another kind of psychological quirk, but that there’s no trick to what they do. Hardcore fans, the ones most liable to realize and adjust and account for this, are also the ones to whom it least matters. That might explain some peculiarities about fighting, and of the lesser narratives about the sport, and St-Pierre.

One line, as a for instance, is that getting knocked out by Serra was the driving and defining moment of his career and maybe his life, leaving him thoroughly motivated by fear and, by the way, unwilling to take a punch. He learned, the telepathists insist, to work on a safe style, one that would preserve his facial features and spare him the chance of another such humiliation. You can certainly read St-Pierre’s subsequent fights as evidence for this theory, given the considerable work he puts into creating space and distance and generally not getting touched, and there are even impressive statistics to this effect: In the eight fights he’s taken since Koscheck, in which he’s worked a total of 33 rounds, he’s taken just 189 significant strikes, and nearly half of those barely count, having come in a bout against Jake Shields, who, while he somehow managed to jack up St-Pierre’s eye, doesn’t so much hit as gently bat like a cat at a string. St-Pierre has had one fight in which he took five meaningful shots, and another in which he took three. In one full five round bout against Dan Hardy, whose nominal raison d’etre is his stand-up game, St-Pierre took four significant strikes, an average of one every six and a half minutes.

So a compelling theory, except that St-Pierre’s longtime coach Greg Jackson will tell you straight-out that the reason St-Pierre doesn’t get hit is that he’s better at wrestling—taking opponents down, working leverage and generally deciding where the fight will be contested—than everyone he fights, and so that it would be stupid for him to get into face punching contests. This would seem to make those statistics the result of very good takedown work and more generally a style designed to lessen the risk of losing and increase the chance of winning. Stipulate all you like that St-Pierre seems to mind the notion of getting clipped more than most great fighters, but Jackson’s answer still seems sufficient.

Fighting is not about fighting, though; a sport in which you can easily make more money for losing a back-and-forth contest than for winning a one-sided one is one in which style counts in real ways, and in which tactics very directly reveal character and priorities. To say that St-Pierre is smart and skilled and that he doesn’t get hit because he’s smart and skilled is to miss the point. No one drives a narrative about how the welterweight champion doesn’t get hit because they don’t understand the value of a takedown; they do it because they would rather see back-and-forth stand-up fights than great fighting, which is to say that this is all kind of a roundabout way of grousing that St-Pierre is a pussy.

You can see this in in the existence of the slightly more sophisticated cousin to the “St-Pierre doesn’t like to get hit” narrative, which says that he is too driven by a fear of losing to take risks, which is mostly just saying that he wants to win too much. In any other sport this would function as a kind of aphasic non sequitur, and in fact usually to say that an athlete is willing to sacrifice excitement so as to win is a kind of praise—who would demand that Carmelo Anthony stop playing defense and start dropping more 20-foot jumpers in triple coverage? But in fighting, saying that a champion fights safe, or fights not to lose, or even fights more than anything to win—and even Dana White, St-Pierre’s promoter, says these things about him—is less a way of talking about his game than of saying that his character and priorities are too geared toward success at the expense of entertaining the public. So: functionally a way of calling him a faggot.

If you pretend that’s not true, and take the accusation that St-Pierre is too focused on winning his fights and not enough on putting on a show as a claim with actual truth value, you can draw sketchy inferences from his fights to support it. Since winning his title back from Serra, St-Pierre has defended it six times, and not finished off his opponent with a knockout or submission even once. This is what the guy in the Tapout shirt means when he brays about how St-Pierre is a point fighter. Still and all, there are the actual fights.

At the time St-Pierre fought him, for example, Jon Fitch had a credible claim to being one of the top four or five fighters in the world. The man is cursed in that his style—a combination of grinding wrestling, defensive jiu jitsu and general mental indomitability—involves the subtlest and least appreciated aspects of the game, but all of it also makes him fairly impossible to beat. St-Pierre didn’t break him, but he did take him down seven times, bust him up with jabs, and generally do enough to get the fight stopped. That St-Pierre didn’t knock out or submit Fitch had much more to do with Fitch having been formed from iron than anything else. This bout served as notice that St-Pierre had arrived as a fully mature fighter, because no one does this sort of thing to Fitch. (The challenger was, when this fight happened, in the middle of a stretch that ran over eight years and 24 fights in which he wasn’t knocked out or submitted, and in which St-Pierre was the only man to beat him; this is what he looked like after it was over.)

All of which runs as a microcosm for what St-Pierre does. In his next defense, he fought B.J. Penn, the antimatter universe version of himself—even more talented, so unconcerned with wins and losses that he disparages people like St-Pierre by calling them athletes, and proud owner of a 7-7-1 record over the past seven years—and beat him up so badly that the fight was stopped after the fourth round with Penn on his stool. In a Koscheck rematch, he broke the man’s orbital bone in the first round with a jab, leading to one of the more grotesque beatings you’ll ever see in a championship fight, as the already badly outclassed Koscheck had to fight with one eye and his face looking like this. And on and on it goes, with St-Pierre’s opponents tending to share something in common with the opponents of most truly great champions: After their title shots, they’re really never the same.

In fighting, though, it isn’t enough just to be better than your opponents, or even to beat them, or even to beat them badly, or even to ruin them and drop them down a tier or three for the rest of their careers. You have to actually knock them out or make them quit—or at least be seen to value doing so more than you value actually winning—to earn the praise as a warrior that fans and promoters and even a lot of fighters inexplicably consider the most important praise of all. Which leads straight back to the question of how the most popular and, at worst, third-best fighter in the world can return to fight a very tough opponent after a layoff of a year and a half and be greeted with general indifference and much talk about whether he’ll soon be fighting a man who regularly competes two weight classes above his own.

***

Anderson Silva is an actual genius in the areas, not generally useful but very much so to fighters, musicians and painters, of spatial awareness and timing. The only time anyone has ever criticized his style is during a brief period when he was so bored by his opponents that he just dicked around with them, not even really bothering to fight and yet still running up one-sided decisions. He has scored knockouts by what can only be described as a Daniel-san style crane kick and a short jab dealt while moving backwards. He doesn’t get hit either, but it’s just because he’s too quick; he enjoys standing right in front of his opponents and daring them—hands-down, dodging and laughing—even to lay a glove on him. Silva hasn’t lost in seven years, hasn’t done so meaningfully in eight, and may never do so again because he is very rich and getting, at 37, a bit old to fight.

Promoters would like very much for him to fight St-Pierre, though, because the public would very much like to see it. If St-Pierre wins it will probably happen, if only because there is too much money at stake for it not to. The idea of the fight is mostly absurd, because St-Pierre fights at 170 lbs. and would have to gain some muscle, which would greatly slow him down, while Silva, who fights comfortably at 205 lbs., would have to come in well below his ideal weight, which would slow him down as well, though not as much. The great spectacle would thus basically involve the two great fighters looking much worse than they actually are, and probably also the much larger one beating up the smaller one and so proving that he is, in fact, larger.

Described as such, the thing certainly doesn’t sound appealing. But whether or not it happens, the overwhelming desire for it is there, which is the most interesting thing about it. And it is partly about one unbeaten man and another unbeaten man, but mainly about contrasts in styles. That is St-Pierre as the technician, the man who very precisely applies the exact amount of force he needs to win in a given situation, and Silva as the artist, for whom the fight and the win are less important than the exaltation of unmanning someone else, be that by knocking them out or just wandering around disdainfully for twenty-five minutes. That is also St-Pierre as the master of the more mathematical aspects of the game like leverage, and Silva as the one who hits people in the face at will; St-Pierre as the tactician, and Silva as the improviser. More or less, the line goes, Silva would force St-Pierre to fight, which no one else is good enough to do. No one can point fight Anderson Silva.

If this is stupid—have Josh Koscheck tell you all about his broken orbital bone and ask him, by the way, if St-Pierre fights—it is also how things have to be, because promoters have taught fans that the game isn’t about what you do but how you do it. There are consequences for that, and this fight would be one of those. The people who run the sport believe that neither wins nor losses matter, that fighting is a kind of entertainment in which you ask the public to identify with one man as he faces a challenge embodied in another, and that the way to face a challenge is to punch it in the fucking face, and that this all happens in a sport-type context with regulatory bodies and ESPN writers and such involved is just a coincidence, a quirk of how business has evolved. By this logic, for someone as gifted as St-Pierre to impose his will on challengers with what amounts to calculus rather than by exposing himself to as much danger as possible constitutes an actual insult, a provocation directed at the very structure of the game, and one for which there should be some kind of punishment. St-Pierre will not satisfy everyone’s demands until he takes a beating.

For all that, to me he will always be the fighter who turned up to fight Koscheck in Las Vegas. We had always wondered what would happen if some brilliant athlete came up in fighting itself rather than through one of its constituent components, and St-Pierre has shown us that. Such a man, especially one with the right character and the right priorities, would not be an avatar of inventive hyperviolence, or a blank upon which millions of fans could project themselves, or a salve for masculine anxieties, or someone who would make watching men beat one another bloody in a cage seem respectable, or really anything very assuring at all. He would be idiosyncratic, defiant, unknowable and thoroughly, confidently himself. He would be, for a time, unbeatable.


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