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From ‘cursed’ locker rooms to switching strategies on the fly, Georges St-Pierre reflects back on UFC 217

Georges St-Pierre wanted to make history with his MMA comeback, and ultimately he did just that, joining the exclusive ranks of two-division UFC champions with his third-round submission over middleweight titleholder Michael Bisping at UFC 217.

Altogether, the performance was an impressive one from St-Pierre, considering his four-year absence from the sport and move up from welterweight to 185 pounds. But all of his time away from fighting didn’t dull one of St-Pierre’s best traits: His mind. Reflecting back on his victory Thursday, St-Pierre said that he was forced to change his strategy on the fly after it became quickly apparent that Bisping’s gameplan was not what “GSP” had prepared to encounter at UFC 217.

“We were expecting Michael Bisping to try to bully me, to come hard straight from the beginning and use a sprawl-and-brawl tactic, so to speak. And he didn’t do that,” St-Pierre explained Thursday on a special edition of The MMA Hour.

“He used a lot of movement, which caught me off-guard. The first round, I was feeling very good because he was holding more of his ground. Like, he was moving, but he was more holding his ground, so I was able to exchange with him going in and out. But he made a very good adjustment in the second round, that’s when people started saying I was getting tired and stuff. It’s not because I was getting tired that much; it’s because he was making me miss a lot, and he was countering me.

“I was not prepared for that kind of fighting style. We didn’t train for that. All of sparring partners, they were guys who were trying to take me out and they were coming straight at me, and [Bisping] caught me a little off-guard. So going back and losing the second round, I came back in the corner and had to readjust myself for the third round. So Freddie Roach told me, he said, ‘Now he’s countering your overhand because he knows you’re going over his jab. He’s countering your overhand by going with a straight right hand.’ And I got clipped a couple of times, so he said, ‘Now what you’re going to do is throw your right hand and come over the top with the left hook.’ And that’s how I knocked him down.”

After splitting the opening two rounds with Bisping, St-Pierre downed the Brit with a picture-perfect left hook late in the third frame. St-Pierre immediately pounced on Bisping with a flurry of strikes, but quickly reversed course after realizing he would “empty my gas tank” by trying to finish Bisping in that manner.

Instead, St-Pierre said he referred to his tape study and remembered a particular way Bisping liked to stand to his feet. So, St-Pierre said, he baited Bisping into going down that exact road before lunging onto the fight-ending choke during the split second that Bisping exposed his back. With a quickness, St-Pierre choked Bisping unconscious and halted a seven-fight streak of decisions for him that dated back to 2009. And afterward, “GSP” admitted that he took special pride in using his fight IQ to overcome the odds and end his decision streak against a bigger foe like Bisping.

“When you fight a bigger man, you can’t [use strength],” St-Pierre said. “You have to use a different tactic. And in the past, I had a lot of critics for not finishing the fight, and I wanted to finish so much that sometimes I was trying to force things. And I truly believe in mixed martial arts, if you try to force things, it just doesn’t work. There’s an old saying that goes like this: If you try to knock the guy out, it’s not going to happen; you have to let it come. And I was not trying to knock him out. I was just trying to hit him and be accurate and fast, and when the left hook came, boom, I knocked him down — I was surprised.

“It’s always like that. When I knocked out Matt Hughes with a head kick, same thing. And Jay Hieron. It happens just suddenly without any warning. That’s how it should be. Towards the end of my previous run, I was trying too much, and when you try too much to force things, it doesn’t happen as much. It’s not as good.”

St-Pierre did not escape UFC 217 unscathed, though.

“GSP” was transported to the hospital immediately after UFC 217, forcing him to miss the event’s post-fight press conference. And according to St-Pierre, a neck injury potentially suffered early in the contest was the reason for that hospitalization.

“When I re-watched the fight, I’m not sure 100 percent, but I think it happened in the first round when I had my first takedown, and I was holding Michael Bisping’s legs,” St-Pierre said. “He elbowed me, but the elbow hit me right in a particular spot ... in the back of the head. That’s where there is a little bone that’s attached to the spinal cord, and that’s why after the fight, I couldn’t even tie up my shoes. My neck couldn’t even move. I had incredible swelling in the muscle in the back of my neck. And during the fight, when I was on the ground, it was very hard for me to posture up, to strike. I couldn’t even do that. Even now, if you look at me, my head [turns to the left], but [to the right] I’m restricted a little bit. It’s a lot better than it was, but it was very painful.”

Despite dealing with a four-year layoff, St-Pierre noted that only place he felt any ring rust during the fight was on the mat. St-Pierre was able to repeatedly take Bisping down, but often once he did, he ate a slew of short punches and elbows from top position, which opened several cuts across St-Pierre’s face and badly bloodied the Canadian legend. St-Pierre attributed his rustiness in that facet of the game to an inability to “practice yourself getting elbowed in the face” while wrestling someone.

But that notwithstanding, St-Pierre said he was “happy” with his performance — even if his fight day experience ended up being a bit of a roller-coaster.

Laughing, St-Pierre admitted that he became a little frantic in the locker room after messing up the timing of his pre-fight warm-up. With two lighter-weight title fights slotted ahead of UFC 217’s main event, St-Pierre assumed he would have plenty of time to get ready while Rose Namajunas vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk and T.J. Dillashaw vs. Cody Garbrandt unfolded. But once both fights unexpectedly ended with quick knockouts, St-Pierre was forced push his warm-up into overdrive. In the process, St-Pierre admitted he went a little “crazy,” aided the slight weirdness he felt by not being able to walk out wearing his trademark gi.

But even before that, St-Pierre had already put himself on tilt in a different way.

“Before I left for Madison Square Garden, I had my last meal,” St-Pierre explained. “I’m eating and I hear the guys speaking, ... ‘Don’t tell Georges about that.’ I go to their table and I’m eating, I’m like, ‘Did Aiemann win?’ Aiemann (Zahabi) is a training partner of mine. And everybody is looking, like, ‘No, he got knocked out.’ I’m like, shoot, is he okay? They’re like, ‘I don’t know. I think so.’ Man, that must be very bad. So I finished eating and I’m like, damn, one of my training partners lost unfortunately. I feel very sad for him. So then I go in my locker room, and my other training partner who’s in my locker room, Joseph Duffy, fights and he’s doing well, but he gets clipped with an uppercut. He got knocked out again. I’m like, oh my God.

“Then there’s another guy in my locker room, Mickey Gall, he loses too.

“So now I start thinking, is there a freaking curse in my locker room? Because before a fight, you become a little bit superstitious, like, ‘Man, I’m in a bad locker room. I have a cursed locker room. Everybody’s losing.’ So I’m thinking, no way, not me. I’m going to put everything back on track, I’m not losing this.”

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