(Official book trailer via poundforpoundmma)
CagePotato contributor Brian J. D’Souza has spent years covering MMA around the world, interviewing some of the most compelling personalities in the sport. His new book Pound for Pound: The Modern Gladiators of Mixed Martial Arts focuses on five MMA legends — Georges St-Pierre, BJ Penn, Anderson Silva, Mauricio Rua, and Fedor Emelianenko — taking readers through their humble origins, rise to fame, and the daily agonies that fans never get to see. It’s a fascinating first-hand look behind the curtain, from a journalist who completely immersed himself in the sport in order to return with some never-before-told stories. We’re thrilled that our good friend Brian was able to pull this thing off, and we highly recommend that you check it out for yourself.
We’ve excerpted the intro and first two chapters of Pound for Pound after the jump, which cover Georges St. Pierre’s unlikely emergence as an MMA contender, and how Wagnney Fabiano and Victor Vargotsky became critical to his early development. Take a look, and if you want more, please buy a copy at one of the links below.
From the white belt in jiu-jitsu who wants to earn a legitimate black belt to the young boxer who thinks about becoming the undisputed champion, there is something primordial and fierce inside of every participant in combat sports. Yet that initial fiery intent often fades when time passes and other commitments divert focus to paths of lesser resistance. You see it in the people who make New Year’s resolutions to get fit—gyms without a single parking spot in January, then with a nearly vacant lot come February. Even among the most gifted prospects, there always comes a time when their eyes glaze over and they really begin to feel the mental fatigue set in. Over the course of years, the turnover whittles away the crowd until just a tiny fraction of the original dreamers is left.
To be “pound-for-pound” in professional fighting means more than to stand among the best. It denotes ability of the highest caliber, true character in the face of adversity and the will to win no matter what the circumstances.
The general public walks away from their flat-screen TVs after having a laugh at what they watch, whether a rerun of Friday Night Fights or the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter. It’s entertainment, a diversion to be consumed and forgotten. But for the fighters, there’s much more going on beyond what the audience sees. Achieving the pinnacle of winning a title, and holding that status against all challenges from top contenders, takes relentless dedication and work.
As mixed martial arts (MMA) has emerged from the fringes to become known as one of the fastest-growing sports in North America, it’s important to make some truths about the nature of MMA understood. What lies at the heart of a sport that some view as barbaric, a throwback to the ancient gladiatorial days of Rome? To answer this, and other, questions, I traveled throughout the US, Canada and Brazil to speak with the fighters who make the existence of MMA possible. The information and insight gleaned from my interviews with Georges St-Pierre, BJ Penn, Anderson Silva, Maurício Rua and Fedor Emelianenko—as well as their teammates, managers, coaches and other insiders who invested incredible amounts of time and energy into helping the fighters achieve success—are a valuable resource for anyone seeking to understand what it means to be “pound-for-pound” in mixed martial arts.
Perhaps Muhammad Ali, destined to hold a place forever in history due to both his legendary career and the explosive political and social changes that intersected with his era, understood it best when he said “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them—a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
For the fighters, stepping into the ring, the octagon, the cage—whatever the arena—is a chance to prove to the spectators, and more importantly, themselves, that they belong. In the fighter’s minds, they are providing far more than just sports entertainment—they are risking their pride to achieve something of lasting merit. The journey may be costly if measured by broken bones and bruised egos, but no matter what the price, the line-up of potential contenders continues to grow, with no end in sight.
MMA fighters often find themselves on the short end of the stick in financial matters, most often being woefully underpaid or ruthlessly exploited. Their desire to win and prove themselves works against them as they risk their health and ease of body for executives and an audience that is all too eager to move on to the next big name. Not every fighter reaches pound-for-pound status, but whether limited by internal or external factors, there’s something unique about each story.
What keeps us watching beyond the entertainment value? There is something redeeming at the core of all combat sports. The qualities that draw us in are what we believe the fighters represent: that unconquerable place inside, the spirit that tells us to continue when we can’t.
A fighter’s win/loss record tells but a sliver of the true story. It’s what the public can’t experience firsthand that makes the sport of MMA and its participants so remarkable. There is more at stake than whether they won or lost—but how it went down. What were the circumstances? What really happened? And even if I try to explain, will you ever understand without stepping in there and doing it yourself? You’ll never know the complete truth—but that’s part of the appeal.
The mystique of watching a spectacle where either participant can be severely damaged makes it compelling right up to the end. Yet the audience can get up and walk away when the fight is over, while the people who performed as the main attraction are entrenched in an all-consuming lifestyle that they have sacrificed nearly everything for.
Most MMA fighters wouldn’t have it any other way.
SECTION I: CANADA
Chapter 1: Fallen Angel
When young Georges St-Pierre first talked about his dream of becoming a great mixed martial arts champion, people around him ridiculed the idea. He was too small, came from the wrong environment and was otherwise unsuited to challenge for supremacy in the octagon. From the way he carried himself, shy and insecure, it was painfully obvious that he was talking nonsense.
The criticism cut straight to the bone, and instead of bowing out in agreement with the naysayers, St-Pierre worked his way into contention as an MMA fighter and won the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title on his second attempt, in 2006. What was the turning point? Where were the critical nodes where St-Pierre made decisions that would shape his life forever?
Said Georges on encountering the UFC on rented video cassette tapes as a teenager, “I knew right away it was going to be a very popular sport some day.”
MMA was a cult sport back in the ’90s, gained mainstream popularity in Japan in the millennium and then exploded in North America around 2005. The waves powering careers were awe-inspiring and treacherous, as business forces and politics shaped achievement almost as much as skill and talent. Throughout the boom in North America, St-Pierre had ridden those waves, surging past opponents and cementing his claim among the pound-for-pound best fighters of all time in MMA.
There were many others who had worked hard, sacrificed and had martial arts credentials that far surpassed those of St-Pierre. Yet as 2008 came around, it was St-Pierre at the center of attention, both a recognized dominant champion and a commercially successful fighter.
Two UFC records were broken for the Georges St-Pierre vs. Matt Serra rematch scheduled for April 19, 2008, at UFC 83 in Montreal: fastest sell-out, with all tickets gone within a minute of sale to the public and a new UFC live attendance record of 21,390 people at Montreal’s Bell Center. St-Pierre, the main attraction of the event, was swarmed by fans on the streets, eventually comparing his plight to that of heroes being chased in a zombie film. Meanwhile, outside the public eye, St-Pierre waged his private battle over the doubt and fear that had clouded his psyche since Serra first smashed him to pieces in 2007.
In the weeks preceding the Serra contest, there were two promotional UFC posters, one of St-Pierre and the other of Serra, hanging side-by-side on a wall at Tristar, the Montreal gym that St-Pierre called home. Over his poster, Georges had inscribed a promise, ‘19 avril au Centre Bell à Montréal, je vais battre Matt Serra et redevenir Champion du monde.’ In English, “On April 19 at the Bell Centre in Montreal, I will beat Matt Serra and once again be World Champion.”
St-Pierre’s injuries and physical wounds could be salved with sports medicine, but the mental scars from Serra’s fists, as well as other bad memories, were not so easily treated.
Taking back the welterweight title and everything that the belt symbolized to him was the action St-Pierre believed would make him whole again. Becoming champion and staying at the top was about sustaining the high of victory—the thrill of being the number one welterweight—and all of the rewards that he could accrue with such status.
Ready as he was to roll the dice of his life, fear and anxiety pervaded his mind as the fight drew closer. Was this going to be it? The turning point where his rightful place as champion was restored to him?
Every fight is a challenge, a maelstrom of danger that has to be navigated on conditioned instinct. The question going forward was not just whether St-Pierre would go in balls out and give it his all, but also whether he would survive the dark forces that existed outside the UFC octagon.
Georges was a small-town kid with no previous experience that could have prepared him to deal with stardom. When he was growing up, he worked as a garbage man for eight months to help pay for his post-secondary schooling and did other jobs—flooring, bouncing, working with delinquent youth. St-Pierre even claimed to have earned a diploma in kinesiology at Edouard-Montpetit College.
Underneath his muscle-bound exterior, he was naïve and placed his trust in the wrong people repeatedly throughout his career.
“I got screwed,” said Georges in a 2008 interview. Speaking of his management at the time of the first Matt Serra fight, St-Pierre was upset because, as he put it, “A lot of people were stealing money” from him.
St-Pierre had also dealt with problems due to taxes he owed the government, a typical problem among athletes and entertainers who transition to a dream world of wealth that they barely understand how to manage. Even though St-Pierre knew how to deal with the deadliest forces inside the octagon, he was as vulnerable as a babe in the woods outside of it.
Georges St-Pierre was a special piece of the puzzle when it came to the mainstream acceptance and popularity of mixed martial arts in North America. To industry insiders and educated fans, St-Pierre was a quantum leap forward from the one-dimensional brawlers, wrestlers and submission experts who had often previously defined the UFC in the public image.
His fighting style itself was akin to a smash-and-grab robbery where opponents were shown no quarter. Even though the rules permitted a wide number of techniques and styles of fighting, St-Pierre’s opponents almost never had the opportunity to mount sustained offense. Georges was simply a dominant, all-conquering force of nature who didn’t allow his opponent the chance to fight back. Early in his career, Georges had earned the nickname “Rush” because of the speed in which he trounced his opponents.
When St-Pierre made it to the top of the heap, the lights of the big stage just weren’t as bright as they’d seemed when it was his martial arts heroes, be they Jean-Claude Van Damme or Brazilian Royce Gracie, kicking ass on the television screen. Now there was pressure from all sides—top-down from the UFC management that viewed St-Pierre as a tool to collect revenue; across the octagon from opponent Matt Serra, who taunted St-Pierre at every opportunity; inside George’s camp, due to lawsuits related to his management; and within St-Pierre’s own family that endured its own tumultuous cycles of dysfunction.
Despite all the pitfalls that tarnished the golden opportunity of being champion, St-Pierre realized that his path was worth taking. It wasn’t hard to understand why the risks were worth the reward: our era is one in which individualism has been submerged by the herd-like mentality of a society where conformity, mediocrity and lowered expectations are the norm. The film Fight Club captured the growing sense of meaninglessness and powerlessness that pervades modern life—but the real-life sport of MMA provides an organized model that allows its fighters to act as an enduring symbol for the freedom, pride, honor and respect that society seems to have lost touch with today.
All the same, St-Pierre was aware of the medical facts regarding the brain damage caused by mixed martial arts, accounting figures on the revenue he was losing to the leeches around him and the direct correlation between his growing anxiety and his involvement in the fight game. But all this information was repurposed and filtered by those around him and his own cognitive dissonance, keeping him in the fight game. There was also that intangible thought process—the idea that there was something noble and virtuous at the heart of the fight that trumped other concerns. St-Pierre was driven to compete because he could make it happen in the moment where it counted—and he was more than willing to stick his hand into the fire over and over to get to the prize.
Chapter 2: Tristar
“Boxers don’t know ground games and MMA guys don’t know how to box.”
New York Times, January 7, 2012
Early in his career, Georges St-Pierre was as unknown as an MMA fighter to Canadians as the UFC itself was to the mainstream. As his career in the UFC progressed, the UFC itself had breakout success thanks to The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) reality series, on which St-Pierre would do a guest coaching spot in 2006. Launching in January 2005, TUF had been the same vehicle that had showcased some of the best emerging talent in the sport to a voracious audience that ate up the mix of semi-staged reality drama and fighting.
While many people have tried some form of martial arts as a child or in their teens, the difference between such recreational training for a hobbyist and what St-Pierre—and other lesser-known but equally hard MMA fighters—endured was the difference between driving on a busy highway and racing in the Indianapolis 500.
The main facility where St-Pierre practices his trade as a professional is the Tristar Gym, founded in 1991 by Conrad Pla, Michel Lavallee and Ron Di Ciecco, who were the three “stars” the gym takes its name from. Situated just off the Decarie Highway at 5275 Ferrier Street, the building housing the gym is surrounded by unattractive strip malls, such as are common to the outskirts of cities across North America. As much as the Quebecois have character and spirit, this area represents the cheap suburban sprawl and bargain-basement ambience that defines portions of Montreal.
Gym members walk up a flight of stairs that is well lit by wide windows; enter through doors on the third floor, where a sign politely notifies people to remove their shoes (status quo at every MMA gym in the world); and step into the entrance lounge of Tristar. The lounge consists of a counter, juice/protein bar, merchandise area and walls covered with laminated articles from all the gym’s stars—boxers, kickboxers, Muay Thai champions and, of course, MMA fighters. On the right entrance corridor are the words “TRI” and just below, “STAR” graffiti-sprayed in blue on a brown background with purple fringes. Beyond that are the cardio machines, with a beautiful mural on the far wall of Muhammad Ali standing defiant over an emasculated Sonny Liston, blue aura surrounding “The Greatest.” In the left corner of the 15,000-square-foot facility is a boxing ring. Further down are yet another boxing ring, an octagon and a large matted area. In the far right corner of the gym is a dojo with a hardwood floor, a Japanese flag (to honor the roots of karate) and various trophies.
Teammate and training partner David “The Crow” Loiseau dates Georges St-Pierre (GSP)’s involvement with the Tristar Gym back to 2001, when he saw him compete in an amateur event.
“I went to see him to congratulate him. I told him he should come train at Tristar gym,” recalls Loiseau.
Georges remembers his roots at the gym starting later: “I started very late to train [at Tristar]—it was just after my fight against Justin Bruckmann, where I became World Champion—eh, Canadian Champion.”
The fight with Bruckmann was in June 2002, with St-Pierre winning via first-round armbar.
“I always come from South Shore,” said St-Pierre of his commute from the suburbs of Montreal, so-called because they were located on the southern shore of the Saint Lawrence River opposite the Island of Montreal. “At the time, I was trained by myself.”
The introduction between St-Pierre, by this time in his late teens, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt Wagnney Fabiano was critical. Without Wagnney’s instruction at GAMMA, a facility in competition with Tristar, St-Pierre might have become a mediocre fighter due to lack of ground training. Many other fighters would succumb to geographical hurdles, unwilling or unable to move to where they could get better instruction, then finding themselves repeatedly out-positioned or submitted in fights.
“He never trained with people like our level,” said Fabiano of St-Pierre’s inexperience.
The typical initiation into a BJJ class involves a short period of “rolling,” or grappling while looking for a submission. It was a humbling experience for St-Pierre when the 145-pound Brazilian submitted him several times over the course of just a few minutes. The humiliation and loss that come with such an experience usually convince most initiates to quit BJJ—but the dragon within a true competitor like GSP simply roared to a fully-aroused state.
“Soon, he trained with me, he fell in love,” says Fabiano of their first meeting. “I knew, I knew, I knew he [was] going to be a big star, because I saw his style shine.”
Fellow GAMMA student Ahmad Zahabi, brother of Firas Zahabi, concurred with Wagnney’s assessment, saying, “You could tell that he was a very talented guy—and a very humble guy, as well.”
Georges earned his blue belt—the first rank in BJJ—within six months.
“Back then, getting your blue belt was a big deal,” says Ahmad. “To do it in six months from Wagnney—was a really big deal.”
“The first time I met Georges, Wagnney told me something which never normally happens—‘Go check out this new guy,’ ” says Ahmad.
Most Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu beginners are unremarkable and forgettable, but Fabiano—who was hard to impress—knew there was something special about St-Pierre from day one.
This was also the early era when neither BJJ nor other comparable grappling arts were disseminated widely, even in martial arts circles. The expectation that St-Pierre would be easy meat for other, more experienced students to handle proved incorrect.
Said Ahmad, “You could tell he was really exceptional on his first day, he was really difficult to roll with: smart, technical, athletic—just incredible on day one.”
It was this willingness to learn from different sources from the early times of the sport that helped GSP become a well-rounded athlete. Many fighters are content to specialize in one area of strength. Examples are UFC light-heavyweight Chuck Liddell falling in love with his knockout power, and utilizing excellent takedown defense and scrambling ability to keep the fight standing; or submission specialist Demian Maia, who often appeared helpless on the feet (at least before meeting Nate Marquardt and becoming more motivated), but took his fights to the ground like Ben Stiller took to making unfunny comedies.
When Fabiano moved on from the Brazil Top Team-affiliate school, Fabio Hollanda took his position. Hollanda instructed Georges until money became an issue sometime around 2008—some sources suggest Fabio wanted a percentage of GSP’s purses. St-Pierre was only too happy to move on to other top class trainers such as Bruno Fernandes, who presented St-Pierre with his black belt in October 2008.
There are many trainers who, at one time or another, were assigned credit for GSP’s success as a fighter—Firas Zahabi, Greg Jackson, John Danaher, Phil Nurse, Howard Grant, even boxing legend Freddie Roach. There was one man who came along at a critical point early in St-Pierre’s career and truly helped guide him toward his first championship: Victor Vargotsky.
The Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan created one of the bloodiest and most dangerous combat zones in the history of modern warfare. Initial success by the Soviets in capturing major centers was eventually met with guerilla warfare waged by the US-backed mujahideen.
Ukrainian Vargotsky served in Afghanistan during the ’80s in the special forces—a difficult job due to insurgents, the lack of support and conditions that resembled hell on earth. It was Vargotsky, a former kickboxing champion, who taught St-Pierre the most critical skills in his development as a fighter.
“I did a lot of full-contact stuff, kickboxing, in the military,” said Vargotsky of his history.
Victor had done his mandatory service in the military at the age of 18, serving for two years, and then re-enlisting with a five-year contract for the special forces. He was in a sniper unit used for special operations that made short sorties into Afghanistan.
“We were never stationed there—just in and out, let’s say five days to two weeks. I was down there [in Afghanistan] altogether roughly 20-25 weeks.”
Vargotsky’s viewpoint from the ground differs from the anti-Soviet viewpoints disseminated through Western media during the Cold War. He points out that Afghanistan wasn’t occupied, since a pact existed between the Soviets and the ruling government of Afghanistan. The Soviet forces could not run rampant—they would be court-martialed for any illegal acts against civilians.
“Guys stuck in the middle of that stuff don’t know who to shoot, what to shoot—it was terrible, and mostly young guys down there,” says Vargotsky of the conditions in Afghanistan.
“You’re stuck in the middle of that conflict between different tribes. You just have to make decision[s] as it goes. If they shooting at you, you shoot back. If they not shooting at you, you just stay like a friend. And that’s it,” Vargotsky says of the lack of true ideology or other tags applied by observers or media present among the warring factions.
After his service, Vargotsky was involved in amateur boxing; if you couldn’t make the cut for the Olympic trials, you had “no future,” according to the cut-and-dried trainer. He began operating a boxing and kickboxing school in Kiev. Years later, as his kickboxing career faded, he immigrated to Montreal, Quebec. In the local scene, he recalls sparring more than 100 rounds with the Hilton brothers, Alex and Davey Jr.
“They were beating [the] crap out of me,” said Vargotsky. “That’s how I learned real professional boxing.”
Vargotsky also dropped a unanimous decision to future World Boxing Council (WBC) super-middleweight champion Eric Lucas when Vargotsky was called up on one day’s notice in 1992.
Then-Tristar gym owner Alexandre Choko remembers planting the seed for Georges to link up with Vargotsky after St-Pierre had challenged UFC welterweight champion Matt Hughes at UFC 50 in October 2004.
St-Pierre had been 7-0 in MMA before the Matt Hughes bout; outside the octagon, he claimed to have begun a degree in kinesiology from l’Université du Québec à Montreal. With the match occurring on October 22, 2004, St-Pierre likely only attended university for several weeks maximum before dropping out, although this is impossible to verify without St-Pierre authorizing the release of his information, which is protected under privacy laws in Canada.
At UFC 50, Georges entered the ring in awe of champion Matt Hughes. He put on an excellent effort, but was not ready to surpass his idol. After out-striking Hughes on the feet and managing a takedown, Georges made a mistake and got caught by an armbar with just one second left in the first round. It was a bitter loss that opened the door to two realities—first, that St-Pierre was on par with the best welterweight in the UFC; and second, all Georges needed to take the championship from Hughes now was a mental edge.
Victor Vargotsky became the natural choice, with St-Pierre linking up with him and reaping tremendous rewards. All fighters experience breaking points where they step away from victory because they allow themselves to relax or relent in their efforts. Vargotsky never allowed this—he would bite his trainees in the ass and refuse to let go until he got the result that he wanted from them.
Allison Lampert, of the Montreal Gazette, recorded a snapshot of the visceral coaching methods of Vargotsky. “Georges, stab it in! Punch up like you’re stabbing someone in the intestines!” Lampert wrote in a 2006 profile of St-Pierre.
Gradually, the idea that he had to step forward and take the title became more and more entrenched in St-Pierre’s mindset. Georges would become successful because he began to believe in himself in a new way.
“If it wasn’t for the way Victor broke Georges down after the [first] Matt Hughes fight, and built him back the way that he did, he would never have become Georges St-Pierre the way people know him today,” said Choko of the GSP who soon autopiloted to dominance. “Georges is still surfing the wave that Victor created for him.”
The reasons Georges needed to be broken down and remade were twofold. First was the obvious gap in confidence between Matt Hughes and himself. American Hughes was a cocky farm boy and former collegiate wrestler. Georges initially viewed Matt with hero worship, not quite understanding that he meant nothing in the eyes of Hughes. Georges had to overcome his own sense of humility to win. The second reason St-Pierre had to be broken down was to give him a chance to learn about his physical tools in a new way that would give him the edge. Instilling near-perfect muscle memory while maintaining conditioning, power, strength and weight control is a perpetual work in progress, one made all the harder by the ego of athletes. That St-Pierre was coming off a loss helped him change (fixing something that was broken) for the better.
The darker question of whether Vargotsky used too much force to get results from his charges remained. Were Victor’s methods ever mean or abusive?
Alexandre Choko gave the example of working on push-kicks with Victor. “At some point, he doesn’t like the way I’m doing them, he gets pissed off, so he starts showing me—but he forgets that he has his running shoes on. In literally a minute, my arms are bleeding, because you either block them with your arms, or you get the kicks in the stomach.”
As excessive as they seemed, Victor’s methods and psychological approach were designed to prepare his fighters for when the real test came. A fight is an all-out war—not a simple contest for points or positioning. You perform or you die, without any gray area in between.
When St-Pierre was considering quitting after the first round after an accidental eye poke in his first fight against BJ Penn, Victor Vargotsky was instrumental in not only getting St-Pierre back into the fight, but in lighting a fire under his ass to actually fight BJ Penn back.
“He fights BJ Penn, Georges has Victor in his corner, goes back to his corner, he was just poked in the eye and probably had a broken nose—and, he’s almost limping,” said Choko of the UFC 58 bout. “Victor tells him the magic that he tells him, he goes back in there, fucking slams BJ Penn left and right, wins the fight.”
The typical measure of a coach comes down to how many champions they build from the ground up. It’s an unreliable way to gauge ability, partly because great athletes who can be molded into championship material are incredibly rare. Enzo Calzaghe, father and trainer of undefeated boxer Joe Calzaghe, also produced WBO cruiserweight titlist Enzo Maccarinelli and WBA light-welterweight titlist Gavin Rees at the Newbridge boxing club in Wales. Given the drinking culture of lads in Britain, neither Maccarinelli nor Rees was destined for much acclaim or greatness, and both fighters were identified as being of mediocre talent. It’s the mark of a great trainer that Enzo Calzaghe was able to get the most out of Maccarinelli and Rees, along with the legendary achievements of Enzo’s son, Joe Calzaghe.
There are very few stars in kickboxing and a myriad of made-up titles, making true top talent hard to identify. So how would a guy like Victor Vargotsky amass any respect? It’s pretty easy when you consider that one of his other major protégés was former kickboxer-turned-boxing-superstar WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, who joined Vargotsky’s gym as a teenager in 1986.
“[Victor Vargotsky] used to call me ‘Big Baby,’ ” Vitali said to Alexandre Choko on the subject of his former kickboxing trainer. “[Vargotsky] was right. I was a big baby then. I was very gifted, and I was always behaving like a big baby.”
Vargotsky recalled the 15-year-old Vitali Klitschko panicking and fretting over small details during the young kickboxer’s early days in the game. The mental side is crucial to success, so Vargotsky always reminded Vitali and his other fighters that they fought with their hearts, but that they could win by using their minds.
The physical techniques employed by Vargotsky are standard for boxing, kickboxing and MMA: roadwork, running, hills, cross-country. But Victor was always there adding motivation by challenging his fighters while they trained, ensuring that the work got done with the proper intensity.
Vargotsky also drew on his combat experience to alleviate mental tension in his fighters.
Said Vargotsky, “I used to say, ‘If I get in trouble somewhere in the field, what’s going to happen?’ They say, ‘You may get killed.’ I say, ‘If I get killed, I may get lucky. I will like that, but if they catch me, that’s a different story.’ ”
The ring is a competition fought with rules, officials, doctors on standby and known quantities. The fighters under Vargotsky’s tutelage understand the dialogue with their trainer: there’s a big difference between a situation that could deteriorate into torture and limitless suffering, and a sporting contest.
With Vargotsky, Vitali Klitschko won the International Sport Karate Association super-heavyweight kickboxing title, but had to move on from Vargotsky’s gym when he turned 18 and had to perform mandatory military service. There was no kickboxing in the military—just boxing—so that’s where Vitali transferred his skills.
Vitali has made his mark as the premier heavyweight boxer in the world. His current trainer, German Fritz Sdunek, gets full credit for sharpening Vitali’s game—Sdunek certainly deserves it. However, Victor Vargotsky’s role should not be relegated to a little-known footnote in history.
Other developments ensured that St-Pierre would have an edge in his MMA fights. For instance, Georges was such a proficient boxer that he had six amateur bouts (five in 2003; the last one occurring on April 22, 2004). Georges won five of his bouts, with the sixth being an exhibition that had no decision rendered. He endured life-and-death sparring sessions at Club De Boxe Champions in Montreal with professionals like Paul Clavette (currently 15-3-1 as a professional boxer).
Alexandre Choko related the story of a boxing sparring session from late 2006 between St-Pierre and a decorated amateur and professional boxer that illustrated how Georges’s perseverance could overcome superior skill—even across disciplines:
“Victor Vargotsky is more coaching his boxer, because he can’t believe he’s doing so bad. And I’m coaching Georges, and I’m encouraging him to continue to do well because he’s getting the better of the guy. And [Georges] is in shock—he’s in total shock, because after every round, he goes in the corner of the ring (the conversation took place in French), ‘Alex, am I doing ok?’ ”
Choko was clear in his praise, telling St-Pierre, “Keep on going man, this is perfect. If you can get the better of this guy, you’ll beat anybody in MMA.”
The opposing boxer was Nicholson Poulard (currently 19-3 as a pro), brother of former WBC light-heavyweight champion Jean Pascal. After the session, Poulard needed consolation from Choko over his dismal result. Choko told it like it was—St-Pierre got the better of Poulard because St-Pierre was the one who wanted to be a true champion.
Of course, the Tristar sessions were tame compared to the philosophy at another boxing club GSP cross-trained at—Club De Boxe Champions, under the tutelage of trainer Jean-Pierre Deneault—where the goal of fighters was to beat the brakes off their sparring partners. If you survived, you were a better boxer (or so they rationalized). Some made it through, but as with any sink-or-swim approach, many more quit.
An interesting character feature that surfaced during St-Pierre’s amateur boxing career was his unwillingness to challenge strong (but beatable) opposition.
“Georges wouldn’t take fights he knew he was going to lose,” said Choko, who once tried to set St-Pierre up on a boxing card he was promoting against a local banger named Yan Stafford.
Stafford was afraid of Georges, but on the other hand, Georges was not overly eager to chase Stafford down. St-Pierre and his boxing coach Jean-Pierre Deneault made the decision not to face Stafford.
Incentive was lacking for St-Pierre to challenge himself. At an amateur bout, there were no financial rewards that St-Pierre could be offered to entice him into the match; nor was Georges attempting to qualify for the Olympics.
“They have no hook,” said Choko. “When you fight amateur [boxing], you fight for your own glory—you don’t make money, you don’t have a contract, but it’s really just for you.”
It was smart for Georges not to risk his livelihood as an MMA fighter for the sake of tougher boxing matches. His momentum could have suffered from lingering injuries or declining confidence were he to have the misfortune of losing or getting hurt. At the same time, there was the feeling that there was something more that Georges could have accomplished as a fighter—beating high-level amateurs could have brought even more confidence to his MMA career.
As it was, St-Pierre had a highly sophisticated foundation in all the related disciplines of MMA, thanks to his jiu-jitsu instruction, boxing training with professionals and wrestling with high-level wrestlers at the Montreal Wrestling Club. Vargotsky was the glue that held all the easily-frayed threads together, allowing St-Pierre to focus on the job of taking the UFC title.
As highly as St-Pierre was to rise, he was just a misstep or two away from falling, to become an object of scorn and humiliation again. Bigger wins would mean bigger money, opportunities and parties—dulling the razor-sharp edge, the hungry lion becoming an inattentive gazelle. Georges would lose his hunger and forget about the danger lurking around him…