On the turning away -- Georges St-Pierre sacrificed belt to breathe easy again

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Georges St-Pierre is at least temporarily walking away from the fight game, and just exactly where he’s going nobody truly knows. St-Pierre came to the idea well before his narrow victory over Johny Hendricks at UFC 167, and it felt like a foregone conclusion several weeks later in Quebec City, where he shrugged the world off his shoulders by vacating his belt just before a sponsorship appearance at an area mall.

These things are never as poetic as they should be. One of the game’s greatest disappeared, for the moment anyway, in the ether of commerce.

And "rest," of course, is the operative word here. Rest being the catalyst for most "not quite goodbyes" that come in the more easily digested form of "a leave of absence." Rest being an "R" word that carries better possibilities than "retire," which has a finality to it that St-Pierre himself won’t yet stray towards.

"What a lot of people don’t understand is, the situation that I am at, it’s a lot of pressure," St-Pierre said during the UFC-hosted media conference call on Friday to announce the relinquishing of the welterweight belt. "Every fight it’s like you add weight on your shoulders. Every fight you add weight, you add weight, you add weight. At some point it becomes so heavy that I have a hard time carrying it myself. So for me, right now, in order to keep my mental equilibrium…I just feel like I can’t go through another training camp right now, and I don’t know when I will be able to."

St-Pierre is tired, and needs to figure things out. He made that ambiguously clear after the Hendricks fight, which left Dana White in a foul enough mood to trounce him publicly for playing so loose with everyone’s concept of time. That bickering has now simmered; White asked for a mulligan for his "meltdown" after years of singing his praises, and he got it Friday as he bid a temporary adieu to his pay-per-view king.

And St-Pierre, internal as ever, floated away as light as a feather. He promised to come back, definitely, maybe, it sort of depends. But go ahead and plant it in history: On a Friday the 13th, on a cold December day, the 32-year old champion stepped out of the pressure cooker and into a thing he knew from a bygone day called "normal life." He bequeathed that pressure cooker to Johny Hendricks and Robbie Lawler, who will fight at UFC 171 on March 15 in Dallas for the vacated 170-pound belt.

And for as difficult as that was to do -- to give away something he once begged on his knees for the chance to get -- St-Pierre could barely contain his mirth.

"I don’t want to make people wait out of respect for the UFC, so I vacate my title right now," he said. "So it’s important for me. The UFC made me what I am right now in the sport, so I vacate my title and one day if I feel ready, I’m going to come back and instead of having a red sticker on my glove, I’ll have a blue sticker and be the challenger."

The sacrificing of the title was the hard part, but he sacrificed a million onuses along with it. Untold obligations, scrutiny, opinions, gym sessions, media requests, management scuffles, anguishes, criticisms, expectations, fears, photo shoots, paranoias, time tables, decisions, ticking time bombs, ticking clocks, accolades, game faces, rumors, compromises and long drawn out soul searches. He cut off his "obsessions" at the pass, obsessions he says consumed him whenever he signed the dotted line for a fight.

"You know, the problem with me, and the reason that made me champion and the reason I am where I am, it’s the biggest quality and also the biggest issue for me -- I’m completely obsessed about something," he said. "When they say you’re going to fight that guy, on that date, I start right away thinking about it. And not only thinking, but getting completely obsessed about it. I think about it constantly. When I get ready for bed, when I eat, when I got in my car, when I train. It’s completely crazy."

Those parts, if you’ve listened to St-Pierre over the last year or so, were easy to give up.

St-Pierre boiled the entirety of his problems down to "pressure." And very few people in the fight game know the full burden of what six years atop the sport amounts to, as a measure of excellence against gunslingers drawing a bead. St-Pierre needs a break after 22 UFC fights, in which 15 were for the title, and one in front of 55,000 people. That’s over 2,000 days of toll. So he gave it up for now.

And for that, good for St-Pierre, the crowned jewel of Montreal. Good for him if he never comes back. He excuses himself from the game as he entered it -- as a mystery man with complicated layers. Layers that never truly jibed with public understanding, but always felt wholesome enough to protect when he barked platitudes before each of his fights – I just want to be the best Georges St-Pierre I can be.

It wasn’t his words but his motivations that became the thing of idol worship. By not openly airing his problems, he’s doubled as the consummate professional, which in this sport is rare. He has always carried himself with class and dignity, to the point that it seemed comical when he warned Nick Diaz of his "dark place." It felt out of character, even if we suspected that dark place had been there all along.

And yet for all of that, his actions in the cage were always the true narrative. They said everything you needed to know. He exploited weaknesses better than anybody. He wrestled superbly without a formal wrestling background. He calculated the blood out of BJ Penn’s shoulders, so that he would bring his arms down and all defensive walls therein. GSP thinks and thinks to the point of over thinking. It goes into his greatness.

So, can he come back after a restoration period...or will he?

If he does, it’s open season for paradoxes. Should he rediscover a fire in him to return, his pursuit as a competitor will lead him to be the best. To be the best opens up the whole galaxy of pressure points that he is right now getting away from. To become champion again, which would be the ultimate goal, returns him to his own ninth circle of Hell, that right now he wants no part of. The journey is less fun when the destination is the problem.

But all of that is for another time. For now, it’s enough to say best of luck to Georges St-Pierre as he takes all the time he needs to figure things out.

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