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In the end, Georges St-Pierre defined greatness by putting himself through hell

MONTREAL – There weren’t any tears for Georges St-Pierre, who dutifully handled all questions of his retirement after 15 years in the UFC at Thursday’s press conference — in both French and English — with something verging on relief. No more hypothetical fights. No more superfight speculation. No more “when,” “where” and “whom,” or Conor, Dana, Spider, Khabib. No more CTE talk for that matter, PEDs, UFC, UFOs. The terror of fight night is gone, and so are the doubts and the urge to flee.

St-Pierre, the fighter, entered the past tense — and you know what? He freaking did it. He got out a winner. Somehow he navigated the most ridiculous career of any pro athlete — as Canada’s national treasure, really — and left the damn thing on top. St-Pierre was positively mirthful on Thursday at the Bell Centre’s Mythik Lounge talking about fighting as a bygone pursuit. It was of course more than that, though. He was exonerated from the prison he built specifically to make himself great, and he knew that we knew, and that was the unspoken thing being communicated. Carlos Condit tried to kick his head in, we all saw it, and St-Pierre not only took it but he got up.

He said Thursday that was the proudest moment of his career.

“Was” because there won’t be any more of that. And goddamnit, this is how it should be. There needs to be contentment at the end of such an obsessive struggle; the drive to be the best should at least sometimes go rewarded. Fighting tends so tragic, because pride has this unconscious need to destroy itself. We watched St-Pierre agonizing through his process for more than a decade. Against Nick Diaz he talked about his “dark place,” giving a rare glimpse into how consuming it all became. He was showing he could compete existentially, too, that he could disappear in self-doubt better than anyone. Did we know? How can anyone ever? If we could know there would be a million greats. It was a lie, his happiness — a face he put on. And therefore it was a joy to watch him brush off his sleeve at the end like all of it wasn’t a big deal.

It was, though. And it is.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what St-Pierre meant to a sport that needed a professional face at the moment it was emerging from its taboo origins. Was it the French-Canadian accent? The suits? The fleur-de-lis? It was all those things, but it was also the professionalism. St-Pierre brought a measure of class to MMA when there was no such thing. It was incongruous. He was a sportsman who didn’t want to harm his opponent, so much as show he could snatch their souls for a span of 15 to 25 minutes, however long it took. In some ways, his method was far more cruel than simple punishment. It was rendering somebody helpless — temporary ownership. He busted open a man’s delusions for the public to see. He made people contemplate their own mortality.

You can’t help but think of Matt Hughes at UFC 65 in Sacramento. Or Jon Fitch getting Fitched at UFC 87. Or Matt Serra in the rematch at UFC 83, catching his reward for unleashing the insecure monster at UFC 69. St-Pierre’s brand of business compelled 55,000 people to crowd into the Rogers Centre to fight Jake Shields. Jake Shields! St-Pierre was an original A-side that played with our sense of awe. Yet unlike some tyrants, there wasn’t an outcry to see him defeated. There was only the fear that one day it would happen. Along with some doubt that it was even possible.

The thing is, he wasn’t the unbeatable; he was the beatable guy that refused to be beat. His mission was to take out the invincible. And that’s the other thing that will stand out about GSP. His denial of complacency. Imagine making millions in a game predicated on hype, and doubting yourself into psychological advantage. St-Pierre actively told himself that his opponent was training harder than him, and wanted it more, and for what?…so that he could push himself to stupid limits and prove himself paranoid. He deceived himself into incredible heights. Some fighters will go through any ring of hell to show us their heart. St-Pierre just wanted to show us his depths went deeper than we imagined. He had a dark place. And a darker place. He could dig as deep as he needed to.

Let’s face it, he wasn’t a wrestler; but he became one by doggedness of sheer will and athleticism. He wasn’t a jiu-jitsu player; but he knew how to conquer those who were. If you wanted to strike with St-Pierre — or worse, if he wanted to strike with you — there would be hell to pay. Check out Josh Koscheck’s fractured orbital at UFC 124, or B.J. Penn’s face after UFC 94. His smarts got him through. His past. The bullies who tormented him. The want of having final say. There was self-preservation at the back of it all, too, even when Johny Hendricks pushed him for five rounds at UFC 167, and Michael Bisping busted him up at UFC 217.

You got the feeling that GSP was willing to die, and maybe that’s what scared him about himself — the fact that for as in control as he was throughout his career, he couldn’t avoid going there if need be in competition. All those fights — nine title defenses, two titles, and a 20-2 record over 15 years — were some grand adventure, an internal war that had nothing to do with the opposition. It was always his own private hell paying off on fight night.

He was smiling in Montreal, thinking back, because he didn’t feel the need any longer.

“I think I’m famous in Canada…I think other athletes before me would have been just as famous if not more famous than me, because now with social media and everything, the TV, you’re in touch with the world,” he said when somebody pointed out that he’d reached the level of Canada’s greatest athlete. “So it’s easier to get access to the whole world, and to be known. I think it’s just a matter of technology.”

Humble in victory, and humble in retirement. That’s GSP, the complicated figure that made it look far easier than it was, and yet could laugh at the end because he damn well knew better.

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