When Georges St-Pierre walked away from mixed martial arts four years ago, it wasn't because his body was broken and he needed to heal. He had his health issues, but it was the black cloud hanging over his head that drove him away.
Now, as he prepares to step back in the Octagon at would should be the UFC's biggest event of the year, St-Pierre is prepared to let all of the anxiety melt away and enjoy the moment, something he was unable to do earlier in his career.
“When I left, it wasn’t because of damage,” St-Pierre told Newsday. “It was more mental. More anxiety, nervousness. I couldn’t sleep well. I felt like I was claustrophobic. Too much pressure.”
St-Pierre was just 23 years of age when he first fought Matt Hughes for the UFC welterweight championship. He was unsuccessful, losing to an armbar with just 1 tick left on the clock in the first round of their fight, but he built upon the disappointment, reeling off five consecutive victories before challenging Hughes again and taking the belt.
He then lost the strap just one fight later, being upset by Matt Serra. But he learned from that loss as well. Though the pressure constantly swirled around him, St-Pierre was always a technical, thinking fighter. He was constantly learning, evolving, and improving.
After the loss to Serra, St-Pierre would not lose again.
In a 12-fight run, the Canadian chalked up wins over the likes of Hughes and Serra, BJ Penn, Jon Fitch, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, Johny Hendricks, and others. He sits behind only Anderson Silva and Demetrious Johnson in the record books with nine consecutive title defenses.
But the pressure he felt, coupled with some outside-of-the-cage issues drove him into a self-proclaimed sabbatical that is on the cusp of four years.
“I had a problem at that time, too, a personal problem (when I walked away),” he continued. “It’s like a bag of bricks that you carry that you don’t have time to empty your bag. It piled up on each other. Now I had time off, I had time to empty my bag. Now I come back light.”
Lighter in spirit perhaps; heavier in body.
After ruling the roost at welterweight for years, St-Pierre will return at middleweight to challenge champion Michael Bisping at UFC 217 on Nov. 4 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
You'd think with the magnitude of the event and the challenge of moving up in weight, the mental pressure would be back, but St-Pierre hasn't put any of it on display in his recent interviews. In fact, he has indicated that he's feeling better than ever and has made the necessary preparations to handle the weighty demands on his body, as well as his mind.
“I've been preparing for this for a long time. It's perfect timing,” he said in a UFC interview on Facebook Live, explaining that he has spent several months building his body up to handle the heavier weight class.
It's something he's long wanted to do; to step back in the Octagon for another marquee moment. But he's not sure how long it will last. St-Pierre could be one-and-done or he could have a couple more fights left in him, but don't get too used to having him around. Win or lose, he doesn't want to overstay his welcome.
“It's always depending on how it's going to happen. How I will feel. I have no desire to hang out in the sport too long like a lot of guys did in the past,” he explained.
“A lot of great boxer, some of the greatest fighter as well, they hang out too long. I have no desire to do the same thing. If I come back, it's because I believe you guys haven't seen the best out of me yet.”