Like Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter, Georges St-Pierre is a master of his sport who expertly controls his message, speaking eloquently while offering only the smallest of glimpses into his mind. He communicates in sound bytes that fill space, but often provide no meaningful insight as to what he's truly thinking. Occasionally though, his words yield something unexpected in this realm.
St-Pierre's Thursday appearance at a UFC 154 press conference at the Montreal Science Centre was a perfect microcosm of his tight-guarded ways sometimes generating a fascinating peek at the welterweight champion's mental approach to his craft. For most of the 45 minutes, St-Pierre deftly handled questions in both English and French, discussing his excitement level about returning, how he'd reignited his passion for the sport while he was injured, and bathing his future opponent Carlos Condit in praise.
Most of it was fairly routine pre-fight banter. But that changed when he was asked probably the generic question he received all day, about how important the fight was to him.
"I have two challenges in one," he said. "I'm fighting the most dangerous guy that I've fought, the most well-rounded martial artist that I've ever fought, no doubt about that. And also, I come back from a long period of inactivity, a long layoff. So I have two challenges in one. But as a real martial artist, as a top competitor, I don't ask for nothing less than a title shot against the champion, Carlos."
If you were zoning out, that last sentence might have passed without a second thought. Had St-Pierre actually phrased it like that, in a way that sounded as if he was the challenger coming in to take the belt away from the champion? Yes, he did. Even though they both had belts in front of them on the stage, and even thought St-Pierre is widely still considered the best welterweight on the planet, according to him, it was Condit who rightfully deserved that billing.
And, later, when asked about it, he emphasized it further.
"For me, in my contract, I was supposed to defend my title every year, and I couldn't do it because of injury," he said. "So the real champion to me is Carlos Condit, and it's up to me to take the title so I’m going for the title shot. That’s how I see it."
St-Pierre's Nov. 17 fight will be his first in 19 months, after suffering a torn ACL that required surgery and rehabilitation. Since then, he has admitted that a loss of drive affected his most recent performances, but said that his injury reignited that lost desire.
"I don't need to lose a fight to improve my training schedule to make me a better martial artist," he said. "I need to stay on top of the game before the fight game catches up with me. That's what the long layoff allowed me to do, to think about stuff."
Most champions will tell you that it's more difficult to stay at the top than to get there, but that hasn't really been the case for St-Pierre, who has managed to reign over the division for more than four years while hardly being challenged in that time.
His shift towards a new frame of mind in this instance, accepting the role of challenger instead of champion, is indicative of a desire to reignite the fire of an underdog.
For his part, Condit didn't accept St-Pierre's shuffling of the established order
"I’m not the official champ," he said. "Georges has been such a dominant champion over the last couple of years that until somebody beats him, he’s the champion. He's the undisputed champion. That's my mind set. Until I beat him, I don't feel like I’m the true champion."
So, you have an interim champion who basically dismisses his interim title designation by suggesting that St-Pierre is the "undisputed" champ and a recognized world champ insisting that his belt was no longer valid. On top of that, there are other built-in roadblocks for each man. Condit will be trying to beat St-Pierre on his home soil at the Bell Centre. St-Pierre will be attempting to overcome a major injury. And neither man will be with his usual top cornerman, Greg Jackson, who is sitting out the fight due to his professional association with both.
The best athletes are notorious for using real or imagined obstacles as motivational tools. Jordan spent his whole career trying to show up the high school coach who cut him from the varsity as a sophomore. Jeter has had a resurgent 2012 after spending most of last year hearing suggestions he was over the hill.
Both St-Pierre and Condit have their emotional rocket fuel, now they just have to await the takeoff in a fight where their official roles as champion and challenger will hardly matter. St-Pierre perhaps summed it best when he spoke about who will or won't be in their corner in Montreal on fight night.
"On November 17, we'll be alone in the cage," he said. "It's going to be me against him, and the best man will win."