After more than 15 years fighting in the UFC, Georges St-Pierre—easily the greatest welterweight of all time and arguably the greatest mixed martial artist—decided to call it a career. He held a press conference in his native Montreal on Thursday to offer his many thank-yous and goodbyes, even going so far as to include his childhood idol Wayne Gretzky. St-Pierre has been toying with the idea of retirement—and existing in a semiretired state—since 2013, when he vacated the 170-pound title after a brutal, five-round bout with Johny Hendricks. That UFC 167 moment signaled an end to his 2,000-day reign as king of the welters, in which he defended the title on nine occasions.
Though he returned from his hiatus 50 pay-per-views later—at UFC 217 in 2017—to win the middleweight title against Michael Bisping, that belt was just legacy-stuffing. Like his previous title, it weighed on him. Thirty-four days after that win—after solidifying himself as the GOAT—St-Pierre became the first UFC champion ever to relinquish two titles. That’s an important distinction: GSP didn’t lose his belts. He gave them back. In that way, St-Pierre transcended the fight game by rebuking its grand gestures of relevance and validity.
St-Pierre has always had a love-hate relationship with fighting. In fact, he was the first to communicate the beauty and ugliness of the sport impartially, and to occasionally blur those lines. As a suit-wearing super-athlete, he classed up the joint in the age of skull T-shirts, energy drinks, and rampant broism. For every “just bleed” guy, there was the dapper St-Pierre, showing up in his karate gi and headband, preaching discipline and honor. He was a reminder that cage fighters tend to be more human than gladiator. That made him even more of a marvel: Here was a rational person doing an extreme thing exquisitely while extolling the virtues of a sport that began as a solicitous taboo.
He did it for a decade and a half at the highest level possible. In the octagon, St-Pierre was a master game-planner—an autodidact when it came to wrestling and a perfectionist when it came to readiness. He could pick out his opponent’s weakness, exploit it, and remove any doubt about the outcome by midway through the first round. If ever there was a predictable fighter, it was St-Pierre, who protected himself against complacency like he was protecting life’s secret. He got caught once, by Matt Serra at UFC 69, and suffered his last loss in 15 years. After that, he never let his guard down.
If there’s a pang of sadness in seeing St-Pierre leave the game, it’s because for so long he acted as MMA’s conscience. He pointed out cheating when he saw it (and cited unchecked PED use as one of the reasons he walked away in 2013) and was never caught cheating himself. He became one of the sport’s first multimillionaires and MMA’s first “pro athlete,” and he showed the next generation what it means to create leverage. And he wasn’t afraid to push back against the UFC either. In 2016, he helped spearhead the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association (MMAAA), an effort to unionize fighters. Like all unionizing efforts in MMA, it failed. But he wasn’t afraid to attach his name to the good fight.
As for good fights, there were plenty of them. GSP always showed up ready. Here’s a look back at St-Pierre’s greatest moments.
GSP Begs for a Title Shot After Beating Sean Sherk
Toward the end St-Pierre’s titles came to be a burden, but back in 2005 he was dying for the chance to fight for one. After starting his career 2-0 in the UFC, St-Pierre lost to Matt Hughes for the vacant title at UFC 50, getting submitted with just one second remaining in the first round. He rebounded by winning three straight fights, which set up a bout against the surging Sherk—a highly efficient wrestler who had won a dozen fights in a row and was built like a circus strongman.
St-Pierre more than handled his business, finishing the fight in the second round (TKO). He then did the familiar Discount Double Check gesture, insinuating a belt around his waist, before cutting one of the greatest promos in UFC history.
“And now, I want everybody to listen to me,” he told Joe Rogan as took the mic and dropped to the canvas. “I’m going to go on my knees like that and ask the UFC management to give me a world title shot. Please, I want the belt so bad. Give it to me. I’m not going to do a mistake this time. Give me a chance for the belt. Thank you very much.”
It’s said that begging is unbecoming, but not when you have a French Canadian accent and look good in a beanie. The fans fell in love with St-Pierre that night, and—whether or not he realized it—he provided a lesson for the next generation of fighters. Always ask for what you want. He fought B.J. Penn next in a title eliminator, when Penn famously boasted afterward, “Georges went to the hospital, and I went to the bar.” St-Pierre won the split decision, though, which set up his next great moment: the second fight with Hughes.
UFC 65: The Rematch, the Revenge, and the Wake-up Call
Hughes was a no-nonsense, camouflage-loving wrestler fighting out of Bettendorf, Iowa, who walked out to “A Country Boy Can Survive” and treated UFC antiques (such as Royce Gracie) like a Doberman treats a chew toy. Beginning with his submission of St-Pierre at UFC 50, Hughes had finished his five previous fights and was fast becoming known as the most dominant welterweight of all time. He was mean, he was cocky, and he could chew wheat stalks with the best of them.
UFC 65 was the first time the company had visited Northern California, and the crowd in Sacramento was treated to one of the most memorable welterweight fights to that point. St-Pierre chopped down Hughes. GSP brutalized Hughes’s lead leg with kicks and picked him apart. In the second round, St-Pierre finished the fight with a head kick and subsequent punches. Nobody had ever done anything like that to Hughes. At the end of the fight, St-Pierre was the new welterweight champion, and—given how easy he made it look—his reign was expected to go on a long, long time.
Turned out it lasted only about four months and change. The Ultimate Fighter 4 winner, Serra—a UFC retread who came in as a 7-to-1 underdog—knocked out St-Pierre at UFC 69. It was utterly shocking in the moment and it stood as the greatest upset in UFC history for the next decade. It was also important because St-Pierre would never lose again. The humiliation he experienced turned him into a machine of preparation and execution.
UFC 94: St-Pierre Wins a Superfight Rematch With B.J. Penn
If Penn, the lightweight champion, felt good about himself heading into the rematch in Las Vegas, he was singing a different tune by the end of the first round. In what was dubbed a champion-versus-champion superfight, St-Pierre came in with a game plan to wear down “The Prodigy” by making Penn keep his arms up. It was in this first fight that people understood what an obsessed tactician St-Pierre was, that he was paying attention to details on a higher level than anyone else.
Here’s what GSP said after working Penn over for four rounds—at first in the clinch and from a sniper’s range—before Penn’s corner called the fight:
“Well, B.J. Penn is a very fast starter and he has very fast hands,” St-Pierre said. “He’s got small shoulders if you look at him, like boxing shoulders. So, I wanted to make the first couple rounds a wrestling match. A lot of clinching. A lot of moving around for him to carry my weight so the blood goes to his shoulders. His shoulders would have been heavy. His hands would not come out as fast as usual. Then, after that, pick him apart standing later in the fight.”
St-Pierre skyrocketed after this fight. His gym, Tristar in Montreal, suddenly became the en-vogue destination for fighters on the rise, coaches, manager, everybody. Firas Zahabi, GSP’s coach, suddenly became a genius fight schemer. St-Pierre’s mythos got even bigger after he beat Thiago Alves at UFC 100 seven months later, in front of a record-breaking pay-per-view audience of 1.6 million households.
GSP Sells Out Rogers Centre in Toronto
This might be St-Pierre’s most miraculous feat, in retrospect. At UFC 129, the company did its biggest show to date at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, the home of MLB’s Blue Jays. The card was good for the time, but not great. Lyoto Machida was fighting 48-year-old Randy Couture, which had a certain nostalgic appeal, and featherweight champion Jose Aldo was taking on Ontario’s own Mark Hominick, which was a bang-for-the-buck co-main.
Yet the real attraction was St-Pierre, who was fighting Jake Shields. Jake Freaking Shields. Some 55,000 Canadians paid to watch its native son St-Pierre defend his title against a nondescript jiu-jitsu practitioner who could walk through Time Square anonymously. The building that night was electric, swelling with national pride. It seemed like the UFC had truly arrived. There was talk of Dallas’s Cowboys Stadium after that, bigger and wilder venues for a sport that had been doing shows in Dotham, Alabama, a decade earlier.
St-Pierre made good, scoring a unanimous decision over Shields. The $12 million gate shattered the previous attendance record, and speculation kicked up about a superfight between middleweight champion Anderson Silva and GSP. That never happened, but UFC president Dana White was enamored with the Canadian market after that. He said that he’d go back to Canada every week, if he could, knowing that he had a national icon on roster who happened to be a rockstar. In fact, the UFC smartly booked St-Pierre in Montreal for his next two fights—defenses against Carlos Condit at UFC 154 and Nick Diaz at UFC 158—which meant thousands of people were walking around wearing karate headbands.
The Carlos Condit Head Kick
At Thursday’s retirement press conference, St-Pierre said that the moment he was most proud of in his UFC career was the night in Montreal when Carlos Condit tried to boot his head into Section 124. It came in the second round, right after a Superman punch from Condit missed. As he corrected himself and rolled through a never-thrown counter, he unloaded with a clean head kick right off St-Pierre’s temple. I’ll never forget the cathedral hush that came over the Bell Centre as St-Pierre tumbled. The air left the building for a moment in a prolonged sigh, like everyone was bracing for a new reality they’d never imagined possible.
But as St-Pierre recovered and began taking the fight back into his realm—dictating the space, taking down Condit, taking him apart with ground and pound—the crowd regained its courage. A major bullet had been dodged in St-Pierre’s seventh title defense. That fight was the first beating St-Pierre had taken to get the job done in years.
St-Pierre’s next couple of fights—against Diaz and then against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167—took a toll on him. Hendricks particularly put GSP through war, leaving him wheezing and purpled with blood. After that, St-Pierre took his four-year hiatus from fighting.
GSP’s Triumphant Return Against Bisping for the Middleweight Title
Not everyone was a fan of St-Pierre’s showing back up in November 2017 in UFC 217 and getting a crack at Bisping’s middleweight title, but most of the hate was directed at Bisping for fighting a smaller, undeserving man, rather than facing the top, rightful contenders. That left St-Pierre free to be the babyface. The guy was coming back trying to make history by claiming a title in a second weight class. Who could blame him?
As the fight got closer, the magnitude of St-Pierre’s long-coveted return grew. By fight night at Madison Square Garden, there was a familiar exhilaration accompanying St-Pierre to the cage. All the retrospectives had hyped him as the GOAT, and the Bisping fight only doubled justification to use such barnyard terms.
St-Pierre took a beating from Bisping. GSP’s face was a mess. It was a little uncomfortable, and people were wondering aloud about whether his time was up. But he did what he always does; he choked Bisping out in the third round to win the middleweight title. He held that title for 34 days before vacating it. Dana White was fuming that St-Pierre came in, snatched the title, and then got the hell out of there.
There were talks between St-Pierre and current lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov to have a fight, but—as alluring as that was to both camps—the UFC had other plans. So after a 15-year career, the Bisping fight ended up being St-Pierre’s last. In fighting, there are so few graceful exits, but St-Pierre found his. He got out. And in a sport that goes barefoot, his footprint is everywhere.