UFC

Unlikely path to stardom for GSP

Georges St-Pierre looks on during an open workout
TORONTO, CANADA - APRIL 28: Georges St-Pierre looks on during an open workout prior to UFC...
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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MONTREAL, Quebec

The path of every life can be traced to one moment of happenstance. You turn left, you meet your future wife, you call it serendipity; you turn right, you get hit by a bus, you call it fate.

For Georges St-Pierre, the Canadian mixed martial arts superstar who is making his long-awaited return to the Octagon in this weekend’s UFC 154, the moment of fate that set his career in motion came in January 2000 in downtown Montreal. The 19-year-old St-Pierre, who’d fiddled around with karate but feared chasing his dream of mixed martial arts, was jammed in a car with three friends. He saw his idol walking down the street: Kristof Midoux, a hulking French heavyweight in town for a fight near St-Pierre’s tiny hometown outside Montreal.

Maybe it was because Midoux shared the same love of karate as young Georges. Maybe it was because Midoux wouldn’t be hanging around Montreal for long, so this was Georges’ only chance. Maybe it was because St-Pierre knew this moment of serendipity would happen only once.

Maybe it was just fate.

“It’s one of those things that happened and you can’t explain,” Midoux told FOXSports.com through a translator.

What Georges St-Pierre did was this: He forgot he was shy. He stopped the car in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. He ran up to Midoux and told Midoux how much he admired him as a fighter. He asked Midoux if they could train together.

More than a decade later, Midoux stood in an elegant Montreal hotel earlier this week, talking about how he came to be the first trainer for the mixed martial arts legend now simply known as GSP. It can be easy to forget that he hasn’t always been a legend, given St-Pierre’s six welterweight title defenses in a row, the top-shelf endorsement deals with companies like Under Armour, the fame and celebrity and riches that surround today’s GSP. Maybe he always was fated to become the famous GSP. Maybe it was through sheer force of will that St-Pierre clawed his way to the top.

But remember this: It wasn’t that long ago when St-Pierre was just an acne-scarred teenager who got bullied in his farm town of Saint-Isidore on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River. He wasn’t popular. He wasn’t confident. He didn’t dress like the cool kids. He idolized Jean Claude Van Damme, but he knew he could never be like Van Damme.

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Until one day, when a high school friend rented a DVD of the first UFC event from 1993. A little Brazilian dude named Royce Gracie beat up guys twice his size with jiu-jitsu — literally, “the art of softness,” using an opponent’s strength against him.

“I was a smaller, weaker guy, and I saw this small guy beating up all those big guys,” St-Pierre told FOXSports.com. “When I first saw Royce Gracie win the first UFC, I knew that was the sport for me. I knew right away. I don’t know why. I just believed. Something happened in my head.”

It’s part of the creation myth of the fastest-growing sport in the world. So many fighters point to seeing Royce Gracie as the moment a light bulb went off: I may not have the size, but I can train and have the smarts. It is the perfect sport for the underdog.

After St-Pierre met Midoux on the Montreal street, one of the greatest careers in UFC history was set in motion. Their bond formed around training. Midoux stayed in Canada and moved into St-Pierre’s parents’ house. The seasoned fighter and his young understudy lived in the basement, like brothers.

It was crazy training routines at first. They’d throw on some heavy pajamas and jump from the cold winter air and into the even colder swimming pool in the St-Pierres’ backyard. They’d work out in the water. They’d nearly freeze, a lesson in fighting through pain. “I’m not getting out until you get out,” the competitive St-Pierre would tell Midoux.

“Georges’ dad would be standing at the window, thinking, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to (frigging) kill my son,” Midoux said.

The hardest step in changing Georges St-Pierre into GSP was instilling confidence. St-Pierre would gawk at bigger, stronger fighters. He’d say he could never compete with them. One day, before St-Pierre’s first professional fight, St-Pierre was raving to Midoux about how tough a certain Canadian fighter was. Days later, St-Pierre showed up at his gym and there that fighter stood.

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“You have to go in there and destroy him,” Midoux told St-Pierre. “You don’t do your best to beat this guy and our journey here is done.”

“And that,” Midoux said, “was the first time he realized it: He could beat those guys. I don’t think Georges could have stepped into the UFC if he didn’t beat that guy that day.”

Eventually, he became more than just Georges St-Pierre. He became GSP, the soft-spoken Quebecois with the body of a Greek god, the unbeatable UFC champion who won over fans not with trash talk but with politesse and a quiet confidence. He became a role model, not for being named the Sportsnet Canadian athlete of the year three years in a row, but for things like his anti-bullying campaign.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that when he steps into the Octagon on Saturday night to face interim welterweight champ Carlos Condit, it’ll be at the Centre Bell in downtown Montreal, only a few blocks from where he jumped out of his car more than a decade ago and started to chase down a dream. He’s ascended to the top while remembering his roots.

“He hasn’t changed,” said St-Pierre’s current trainer, Firas Zahabi. “He’s still that good, ol’ small-town boy. He was very innocent when he came down to the city. He was too shy to speak to girls. He was more just tagging along and watching the show. You get a lot of weirdos in a city, a lot of eccentric characters, and he was intrigued by it all.”

In the downtown Montreal hotel earlier this week, St-Pierre bounced around, full of energy. He posed for pictures with the other nine Canadian fighters on the UFC 154 card. He cracked jokes in French. He interrupted Midoux’s interview, suggesting he should translate for him. Then he walked back for another photo session, and Midoux brightened as he thought of the perfect story to illustrate how Georges St-Pierre became GSP.

“We’d be done with a practice session at 5 p.m., and our next session would be due to start at 6:30 p.m. We would drive back home, and Georges would say, ‘OK, we got 28 minutes to relax.’ He’d shut his eyes and fall asleep immediately. Exactly 28 minutes later he’d wake up and say, ‘You guys sleep? You ready to go?’ And, of course, Georges was the only one ready to go.”

Midoux laughed, thinking about how far his pupil had come. St-Pierre walked past again, poked his head in, said something to Midoux in French, then scurried off for another photo session, the kid who used to get bullied who is now one of the baddest dudes on Earth.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

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