Last Friday, Georges St-Pierre confirmed what has been suspected since his emotional post-fight speech at UFC 167 — that he is vacating the UFC welterweight title. Some are calling it a temporary hiatus, others see GSP as being permanently retired. Either way, the manner in which these events have transpired is a worthy story in itself.
The key to understanding the way St-Pierre has conducted himself, both inside and outside the Octagon, goes back to his earliest origins growing up in the rural area of St. Isidore, Quebec, Canada:
“I went to a school where it was pretty rough — I’d get my clothes stolen, my cash. And at home life was pretty hard too. I had a difficult childhood,” said St-Pierre to an interviewer in 2006.
The upshot of these challenges translated into the single quality that defines GSP to this day — his relentless desire to please everybody around him. Not only was St-Pierre an absolute perfectionist with respect to his performance as a fighter, but he actively sought to cultivate positive relationships with all of the people he crossed paths with in life.
In a non-corporate environment, that character trait might have gone over better. In the shark tank of pimps, hustlers and thieves who infest the fight game, it made St-Pierre an easy mark for managers who felt entitled to take his money.
“People try to make money off of me all the time,” St-Pierre told me in a 2011 interview.
TMZ.com broke the story of St-Pierre being forced to pay out $737,066.35 — and counting — to his former manager Shari Spencer. In a similar vein, GSP’s first manager, Stephane Patry, earned some hard cash after St-Pierre settled over Patry’s lawsuit with him.
“Georges St-Pierre has a lot of money, and he could walk away forever if that’s what he chose to do,” said UFC president Dana White during Friday’s conference call where GSP’s departure was announced to the media.
This statement begs the question — while GSP certainly never banked Mayweather money, how much of a hit did St-Pierre take from paying out 20 percent commissions to Patry and Spencer simultaneously? Will the courts mandate that Spencer gets to swallow up another 20 percent of his revenue for a portion of the time period since St-Pierre’s new co-managers, Rodolphe Beaulie and Philippe Lepage, took over in 2011?
There’s always the possibility of the bottom dropping out due to unpaid taxes, an issue that has affected prizefighters throughout different eras from Joe Louis to Nick Diaz. Manny Pacquiao owes the IRS $18 million dollars according to another recently published report by TMZ — this on top of having his accounts frozen in the Philippines. GSP admitted to having tax problems to an interviewer back in 2008, but he’s likely corrected any past oversights.
Like Shakespeare’s King Lear, the UFC welterweight kingpin only seemed to discover just who he was dealing with by the time it was too late to do anything about it. Besides the transgressions from his managers, the UFC was happy to control many aspects of St-Pierre’s commercial deals from owning his video game likeness rights in perpetuity to refusing to allow St-Pierre to use UFC footage in the GSP documentary The Striking Truth. These were raw deals that will cost St-Pierre both in terms of his post-retirement earning potential and his reputation for decades to come.
It’s incredibly suspect that two days before GSP’s retirement announcement, Dana White told MMAFighting.com that St-Pierre was signing autographs at a mall. Was the financial hit the UFC would take from loss of pay-per-view, sponsors, and diminishment of the UFC brand in the eyes of television partners like Fox Sports incentive for the UFC to do everything in the organization’s power to retain GSP as champion? With Cain Velasquez out for a year, Chris Weidman as a new champion needing more build-up and lighter-weight champions not drawing big PPV numbers, St-Pierre’s exit couldn’t come at a worse time for the organization.
The most overlooked aspect of St-Pierre’s decision to retire comes down to risk of further traumatic brain injury (TBI). Tim Marchman of DeadSpin.com provided solid analysis that of the 875 strikes GSP has taken in his career, 412 have come in his last three fights. An athlete doesn’t need to be slurring their words or have a poor memory to be suffering the effects of repeated head trauma; depression, bouts of anger, and mood swings can be among the symptoms of TBI.
Georges St-Pierre’s tremendous desire for public validation of his talents was both his greatest strength as a fighter and his greatest weakness in terms of his personal health. He put it on the line for fans, media, and a promoter who were all just as likely to offer scathing criticism as they were to give him praise.
It’s possible that St-Pierre returns to MMA, just as so many other fighters have returned from retirement. In fact, it’s likely that GSP will go stir-crazy on the sidelines and want to restore his past status. St-Pierre will need a strong network of friends and family to pull him back from the brink — but no amount of external validation will overcome any internal dissonance within his soul.
A final note: Kenny Florian wrote a terrific piece for FoxSports.com praising GSP in the wake of his potential retirement. Florian is no stranger to the issues at play as chronic back problems forced him to announce his retirement in 2012. St-Pierre didn’t just inspire Florian to be his best — GSP was my primary motivation to write Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts, a book where a behind-the-scenes look at his career was one of the main subjects.
We owe it to Georges St-Pierre to remember his life, career, and legacy as it happened, and not the revisionist or politically correct history that certain stakeholders in MMA might be selling. GSP needs to be remembered exactly as he the person he was: one of the greatest — if not the greatest — MMA fighter of all time.