Not on Deaf Ears

By Brian Knapp Apr 24, 2011
Georges St. Pierre and his team hear his critics loud and clear. | Dave Mandel/

They have crawled out of the woodwork to shine light on his supposed flaws, pointing to his inability to finish as they bypass an unthinkable streak of 30 consecutive rounds won. Georges St. Pierre hears the critics, those who aim to tear down what he has worked so tirelessly to build -- an incomparable resume as the mixed martial arts world’s alpha welterweight. They have tagged him as boring, passive and safe.

Firas Zahabi hears the detractors, too, their disapproval having grown from a whisper to a chorus. The man who oversees St. Pierre’s training would like nothing more than to silence them.

“It’s not easy to finish guys,” Zahabi says. “Everybody wants to put the other guy away, and we’re always trying to figure out new ways. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it doesn’t work out. It’s not like we’re not trying. Finishing fights has been our focus.”

Even so, St. Pierre’s past three bouts have reached the judges, leaving him open to doubts regarding his killer instinct. Forgotten was the savage shower of elbows he unleashed on Matt Hughes at UFC 65, the rib-rattling knees to the body of a defenseless Matt Serra at UFC 83 and the hellish ground-and-pound that mangled the face of Sean Sherk at UFC 56. A what-have-you-done-for-me-lately public has caught up to the 170-pound king.

“You want to finish. You want to take him out,” St. Pierre says. “I want to use my technique [and] my skills that way. It’s something I’ve been working on in training.”

Zahabi has learned to take the criticism in stride.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he says. “When you’re the champion, all of your opponents are the best they’ve ever been. They know it’s a title fight. You can change your life in one evening. You have that hunger in the challenger.”

As some outside the cage work to discredit his place among the sport’s all-time greats, St. Pierre will find himself under the microscope again this Saturday, when he defends his welterweight crown against Jake Shields in the UFC 129 headliner at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. A record crowd of some 55,000 fans will greet St. Pierre when he enters the cage, eager for the spectacular and perhaps indifferent to anything less. The pressures on him figure to be extraordinary.

“It’s the same Octagon. It’s the same rules. It’s just a different opponent,” St. Pierre says. “Pressure is always there. Every fight, the pressure is always bigger. I perform better when I’m under pressure.”

For St. Pierre, who turns 30 next month, it represents another chance to strengthen his body of work. A 4-to-1 underdog according to some oddsmakers, Shields will carry a 15-fight winning streak into the five-round bout. The San Francisco-based Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has not lost in more than six years, and, unlike St. Pierre, he has held major titles in multiple weight classes.

“This time, the bar is raised much higher,” St. Pierre says. “I’m fighting a much better guy, but I welcome the challenge. I want to fight the best. I want to be the best. I don’t want to be a paper champion. I want to be a real champion, and to be a real champion, I need to fight the best contenders, the best guys. I consider Jake like a champion, too. He’s been a champion in many different organizations and different weight classes -- something I’ve never done.”

Shields will not be an easy bridge to cross. A Cesar Gracie protégé, he was spawned by one of the sport’s most decorated fight teams, training for years alongside Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz and Strikeforce lightweight titleholder Gilbert Melendez. He, too, sports a gaudy resume, with high-profile victories over Dan Henderson, Robbie Lawler and Paul Daley. Shields once defeated Carlos Condit and Yushin Okami in the same night, and, perhaps more importantly, he has been finished only once in 31 professional appearances.

“Nobody’s figured him out,” Zahabi says. “So many times he’s won fights he was supposed to lose. Nobody’s been able to break him. Nobody’s been able to stop him. I think he’s underestimated by the masses, for sure.”

St. Pierre respects Shields, what the 32-year-old Californian has accomplished and the manner with which he carries himself.

“When everyone thought he was going to lose to Robbie Lawler, I knew he was going to win. When everyone thought he was going to lose to Dan Henderson, I knew -- I told all my friends watching the fight -- he was going to win. Every single time that Jake Shields was an underdog, I had the strong belief that he was going to win,” St. Pierre says. “People forget that a guy who has good submission holds … it’s just as dangerous as a knockout punch. That’s why this fight is the most dangerous for me. I strongly believe that if I put Jake against any of the contenders I fought before, Jake would win the fight.”

Despite Shields’ considerable credentials, much of the pre-fight talk has centered on a long-discussed showdown between St. Pierre and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. The calls for the super fight, which may or may not ever come to fruition, have grown louder in light of their extended dominance in their respective weight classes. St. Pierre views it as a slight to Shields.

“People don’t even acknowledge [his] great skills, and that’s something that really pisses me off,” he says. “I know how dangerous this can be. People keep asking me what I’m going to do next. It’s not what I’m going to do next. It’s [that] what’s happening right now is the most dangerous part of my career, and people don’t even acknowledge that.

“Right now, I don’t even consider moving weight,” St. Pierre adds. “I need to fight Jake Shields. That’s my main priority right now. After that, we’ll see. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

St. Pierre understands the pitfalls of being a heavy favorite better than most. A little more than four years ago, he succumbed to first-round punches from the determined 5-foot-6 Serra -- he, like Shields, was a heavy underdog -- at the Toyota Center in Houston. It remains one of the biggest upsets in MMA history. St. Pierre does not want history to repeat itself, especially on Canadian soil.

“You train to win,” he says. “I make too much [of a] sacrifice; I put too much into this to lose. If I fail, even though I’ve done everything, I would be heartbroken. I’m the most well-prepared I’ve ever been. If Jake Shields is a better fighter than me, I don’t control that.”

No matter the outcome, Zahabi feels comfortable with St. Pierre’s direction.

“I’ve seen all the hard work, all the dedication,” he says. “I could never be disappointed.”
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