LAS VEGAS – When he was at his peak, in the midst of a lengthy championship reign in which he defended the UFC welterweight title nine times and won 11 consecutive championship bouts, countless men would eagerly have traded places with Georges St-Pierre.
He was good-looking, rich, the idol of millions, amazingly athletic and had seemingly not a care in the world.
At least, that’s how it appeared from the outside.
The truth was a lot different when it was St-Pierre telling the story.
The pressure to succeed, to maintain the image of this wholesome, clean-cut champion was nearly unbearable. His private life was in a bad place. He suspected many of his opponents were cheating, using performance-enhancing drugs. He was overwhelmed by the lack of privacy, by everyone who wanted something from him or for him to do something for them.
On top of that, he was in a sport in which even clean opponents could deliver life-altering punishment.
As his defenses rose, so too did his desire to escape it all.
He shockingly walked away from the sport at the peak of his powers in 2013, after he’d won a controversial decision in a Fight of the Night battle at UFC 167 with Johny Hendricks.
St-Pierre was poised to tie Anderson Silva’s mark for the most consecutive successful title defenses, which flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson broke on Saturday at UFC 216 with his amazing submission of Ray Borg.
He was the biggest pay-per-view attraction in the sport when he walked away a short while after defeating Hendricks on Nov. 16, 2013. At the time, Ronda Rousey had one UFC fight and Conor McGregor had two.
Seated at the head of a long table in the Chuck Liddell conference room at the new UFC headquarters recently, St-Pierre sighed when asked how he regained his interest in fighting. He’ll challenge champion Michael Bisping for the middleweight title on Nov. 4 in New York at UFC 217.
“I want to finish differently than how I finished before,” St-Pierre said. “I wasn’t in a happy place when I finished last time. I wanted to finish in a happy place. I’m happy now. A lot of things have changed in the sport. I’m at peace. The personal parts of my life are much better.”
The obvious change in his workplace was the implementation of 24/7/365 drug-testing by the UFC, administered by the highly respected United States Anti-Doping Agency. St-Pierre had been one of the sport’s most outspoken voices, calling repeatedly for year-round drug testing.
He said many people felt he was paranoid, but he knew better. The MMA world is a small circle, he said, and everyone knew who was cheating and who was not.
The sport, he pointed out, is dangerous enough without allowing an opponent to artificially enhance himself.
And while it is vastly improved, he said, it is not perfect.
“A lot of people said I was a paranoiac, but I was not a paranoiac,” St-Pierre said. “A lot of the champions have failed. I don’t want to accuse people, but there are still a lot of things that will happen, unfortunately.
” … The only physical attribute, or physical enhancement, that the steroids will give you is they enhance the power and the strength. This is only from the performance-enhancing drugs that were from the ’70s and ’80s. But we’re in 2017. Now, they enhance the reaction time and reduce a decision-making time. They make you a better man not just physically, but also up here in the brain.”
He’s justifiably proud of the fact that he won his championships and made all of his defenses without the assistance of any enhancers. And while it bothers him that fighters would resort to cheating, he understands it.
The money in MMA is the greatest for champions. Non-champions earn pedestrian amounts compared to what title-holders make.
The result, St-Pierre pointed out, is an intense desire to win a belt to get a bigger slice of the pie.
“Some guys, they come from an environment where they don’t make good money, and taking this will make them a million dollars or more than if they took nothing,” St-Pierre said.
He was angry that he didn’t receive support from the UFC when he was calling for drug testing. He had a hard time dealing with the lack of action.
By the time he faced Hendricks, it all reached a boiling point.
“I don’t want to say who, but I fought several times, not one time, several times when I knew my opponent was cheating,” St-Pierre said. “I was saying it perfectly and I didn’t like the fact that at the time, the UFC didn’t support me. I felt at the time that’s why I quit. I was feeling claustrophobic and like, man, that’s not a good feeling.
“I was like, ‘I’m champion and I’m clean and you want the guy who’s not clean to be champion?’ … It pissed me off. It was making me nervous. I was getting almost psycho … not psychological, but the syndrome thinking everyone is against you. It makes you cuckoo a little bit. That’s the way I was toward the end.”
It wasn’t just his deep-seated belief that his opponents were chemically enhanced that caused him to walk away at the peak of his powers.
In addition to issues in his private life, he felt he was always in a fishbowl. He’s a man who values his privacy and he didn’t have much of it by the time he decided to leave.
Being a famous athlete means living much of your life in public, and what you hope will be quiet, private moments with your loved ones are on camera for all the world to see.
He said he wanted “to get off the grid for a little bit,” because of it.
“When I’m fighting, I’m very focused on one thing,” he said. “When I finish a fight, there’s another guy coming at me because when you’re the champion, you’re the target. I wanted to take a damn break. You feel like the whole world is watching you all the time when you’re the champion.
“The truth is, what I like to do before a fight because I feel a lot of pressure, I like to take my car and drive on the road and look at normal people and what they do. I see an old lady coming out of the grocery store with her bag. She doesn’t care about my fight Saturday night. She doesn’t know who I am. She doesn’t even know what I do. She doesn’t care. The people who care are a small percentage of the world. It’s miniscule, who really cares. And when I see it that way, it makes me feel good. It relieves the pressure. It’s hard to be the champion for a long time. You feel the whole world is going around you.”
He’s stepping back into the fishbowl, but insists he’ll only compete as long as he’s successful. When he loses – if he loses – he’ll head back into retirement, and then it will be for good.
He understands what he’s up against, but says the nearly four years away have reinvigorated him.
“[The time away from MMA] helped me to sleep better, eat better, breathe better,” he said. “I had the time to restructure my life and make a better structure for myself. I have a better lifestyle and I’m very happy.
“I was too busy and I couldn’t focus on [my personal life] before. It’s been good.”