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Firas Zihabi reflects on Georges St-Pierre’s career, calls it a ‘storybook ending’

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

MONTREAL — One of the things Georges St-Pierre emphasized during his retirement speech on Thursday was how many people were instrumental in his career, and how many of those same people were happy he was finally calling it a day. Couched between two title belts, St-Pierre ran down a list of names that helped him over the last 15 years of competition, ranging from the Fertitta brothers to Wayne Gretzky.

And he gave special thanks to a man who was standing in his corner one last time, stage left. That was Firas Zahabi, his long time coach and trainer, and the owner of Montreal’s famed Tristar Gym. As St-Pierre spent the hour answering questions about his legacy, Zahabi hung back in the shadows and took it all in.

Afterwards, he called St-Pierre’s career “blessed,” like a man who was still processing one of the most dominant runs in UFC history. There were times in the last five years when it seemed like the day would never come, that there would always be a fight on the horizon that would pique St-Pierre’s interest. But Zahabi didn’t have any reservations in seeing the 37-year-old St-Pierre leave the game now.

“This is a storybook ending, a perfect career,” he said.

“[I’ve known for] a long time. I think Georges has been on the fence a long time also. I think he’s had mixed feelings. But it’s time. Going back right now it would just be crazy at this point. He is in great shape, he is in incredible health, and his skills are better than before. But it’s time. When you’re fighting, you’re playing with fire. Fighting is a different animal than other sports. Health above all, and now is the time to make sure he stays healthy.”

After defending the welterweight title nine times, St-Pierre came back from a four-year hiatus in 2017 to defeat Michael Bisping and earn a second time. Thirty-four days later he vacated the belt due to a bout with ulcerative colitis, a condition that affected his weight.

Since that time, St-Pierre has been linked into fights with current welterweight champion Tyron Woodley and Conor McGregor, the latter of which would have earned him millions of dollars in his twilight. A possible match-up with Khabib Nurmagomedov kept St-Pierre’s interest up until recently, though, according to St-Pierre, the UFC wasn’t on the same page for that particular superfight.

Shortly thereafter, St-Pierre decided to hang up the gloves, leaving it to history to define his place in the canon of all-time greats. Having gone 13-0 since the 2007 upset loss against Matt Serra, with a 20-2 overall record and nine title defenses, it’s easy to make the claim that St-Pierre is MMA’s GOAT — especially when you factor in that he never missed weight, he never got busted for banned substances, and he never ducked a contender.

“Georges St-Pierre is the greatest mixed martial artist of all time,” Zahabi said. “All the other candidates up there have either lost or had problems passing the USADA test. For me, you fail the USADA test you are eliminated from the rankings. Georges has been on the cleanest, most successful win streak than anybody in MMA history. I couldn’t be more satisfied.”

Still, if history has shown us anything, it’s that in fighting there are very few graceful exits. The more fanfare a champion gets in his heyday, the harder it is for them to not try and recreate it later on. During St-Pierre’s run, other champions looked similarly infallible — names like B.J. Penn, Chuck Liddell, Anderson Silva, Rich Franklin. Yet time caught up to them all.

Like he meticulously game-planned for fights, St-Pierre had a plan to get out while he was still on top. It wasn’t easy, as his coach pointed out — but very few people put themselves in a position to walk away while riding a win streak that stretches back a dozen years.

“I’ve asked Georges to retire many times, and I know many times he didn’t want to hear me say that,” Zahabi said. “I know he still has a fire in his belly to this day. It’s just time. It’s a good exit.”

The deciding factor? It was when the hovering megafight with Nurmagomedov became less and less likely to materialize.

“I was in support of that fight, and I think that fight should have happened,” Zahabi said. “It should have been Georges’ last fight. Unfortunately things got complicated. I’m not on that side of the business, but I understand it’s hard to get two very big megastars in the same place at the same time to compete against one another. That’s just the nature of the deal. I guess on that end it fell through, but if that fight isn’t happening, there’s nothing else really.”

St-Pierre pointed to UFC 154 as the moment he was most proud of in his long career, the night he overcame a Carlos Condit head kick and took over the fight. For Zahabi it was St-Pierre’s UFC 94 superclash with Penn, when St-Pierre wore the great lightweight champion down over the course of four rounds en-route to a corner stoppage. It was that fight that turned Tristar from a darling outlier gym in the North to a haven for coaches and fighters travel to.

“It was an explosion of martial arts,” Zahabi said.

Yet neither the Penn nor the Condit fight was more important than the first fight with Matt Serra at UFC 69. That was the last time St-Pierre lost, and the most shocking upset loss (at the time, anyway) in UFC history. It was that fight that turned it all around for St-Pierre, and gave him a permanent feeling that he had everything to lose.

“I think Georges, when he became champion the first time he learned a lesson not to believe your entourage, people on the outside telling you how great you are,” Zahabi said. “I think he learned a lesson. The loss to Matt Serra really changed his personality. I think from then on he saw himself as always the challenger. I think that gave him a mind shift, and he talks about it to this day. I think that was the most psychological fight he ever had, and he became wise from it. I think the day after that fight, Georges became very wise.”

In the end, the coach couldn’t have asked for more from his star pupil. It’s rare to see a gambler get up from a hot table, just as it is to see a fighter walk away from competition while still on top. St-Pierre mentioned that he was happy to finally put it all behind him, and to be rid of the stress of fighting for good. At one point, he even said he hated fighting.

Perhaps Zahabi knew what he meant more than anybody. It wasn’t that St-Pierre literally hated fighting, it was that he just couldn’t stand the suspense. Somewhere in these love/hate feelings is what distinguished St-Pierre as a titan in MMA. It was that he wanted everybody’s hard work to pay off, and the fear that it might not plagued his mind.

“He says he doesn’t like fighting, that’s true, but it’s really not knowing what’s going to happen that bothers everybody,” Zahabi said. “That’s the fear. It’s the fear of being embarrassed or losing or letting down the people who supported you, letting down the people who put all the time and energy into you. I know Georges takes that to heart. At the end of the day, he knows how much time and energy we spend on him.”

The coach could smile, because it all paid off. St-Pierre didn’t let anybody down.

“I’m in it for better or worse, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “We do our best and that’s all that matters to me. It worked out for us. The ball bounced our way, thankfully. That’s what fighting is. Fighting can go in so many ways. Yes you’re prepared, yes you’ve done it all, you’ve done your homework — I’ve seen guys so prepared, and sometimes the ball just doesn’t bounce your way.”