St. Pierre looks to topple Matt Hughes

St. Pierre looks to topple Matt Hughes

Montreal — At 25, handsome and polite, Georges St. Pierre could break your heart.

And your arm. And your leg.

St. Pierre is the Canadian poster boy of mixed martial arts, a hybrid sport that requires expertise in boxing, wrestling and jiu-jitsu. The Montreal welterweight is smart, sleek and athletic — and Saturday night he can become UFC world champion with a win over veteran Matt Hughes.

St. Pierre, 12-1 as an MMA fighter, says it's his time.

"No doubt, no doubt," St. Pierre said confidently after battering a sparring partner in the boxing ring at an east Montreal gym.

"I have never been so focused, so mentally and physically well-prepared."

A win and St. Pierre will join Carlos Newton of Newmarket, Ont., as the only Canadian ever to hold a UFC title.

Standing in his way is Hughes, a fighting farmer from Hillsboro, Ill., who has won 19 of his last 20 fights — including a 2004 victory over St. Pierre — while raising his record to 42-4. Hughes knows all about Canadians, having defeated Newton twice in title fights.

Hughes and St. Pierre are headlining UFC 65: Bad Intentions (available on pay-per-view) at Arco Arena in Sacramento, Calif. The two 170-pounders were slated to meet last month, but St. Pierre was sidelined with a pulled groin tendon.

The 33-year-old Hughes is a God-fearing, Stars-and-Stripes-loving, savvy competitor who at this stage of his career is actually looking for opponents to challenge him.

Hughes is very good at what he does and knows it.

He began as a wrestler but has since improved all aspects of his game. Today, he is a one-man wrecking crew who deals in pain and submission. While the odd crack has shown in his hitherto aura of invincibility, he always survives and seems to be getting better as he gets older.

"He's getting better, but I got better too," said St. Pierre. "And I think I have improved more since then than him. We will find out."

St. Pierre's training partners talk of his athleticism, all-round talents and what a class act he is.

Alex Dyas, a Canadian junior wrestling champion, has been grappling with St. Pierre for four years. He remembers when St. Pierre first came around, the wrestlers had their way with him.

"It didn't take Georges long, maybe a year, and he was holding his own against most people. And definitely taking it to me," said the 20-year-old Dyas, who was 10th at the world junior wrestling championship earlier this year.

"He's incredibly strong and flexible."

Nate Marquardt, a fellow UFC fighter brought in to spar with St. Pierre, says the Canadian is the real deal.

"St. Pierre is like a diamond in the rough. It's very area to find someone as good as him in every area."

While everyone praises St. Pierre's physical attributes, some have questioned the mental side of his game — which seems somewhat unfair considering he has only lost once. And that was to Hughes.

Hughes and St. Pierre first met in the ring two years ago at UFC 50: The War of 04, with a young St. Pierre declaring he was going to "shock the world." Hughes dismissed the challenger by saying he wasn't mentally strong enough to take him.

The Montrealer held his own in the first round, taking Hughes down and then stunning him with a spinning side kick. St. Pierre also managed to get back off the ground when Hughes, a superb wrestler, took him down.

But St. Pierre was taken down again late in the round and, from an exposed position, tried for a submission hold. Hughes reversed it, stepping over him and slapping on an armbar. The Canadian tapped out almost instantly, rather than have his arm bent any further in the wrong direction, with one second remaining in the first round.

The suspicion at the time was Hughes had got into St. Pierre's head. At the time, the Canadian considered Hughes "a monument in the sport" and post-fight footage made him look like a kid trying to get the champ's autograph.

"The first time I fought Matt Hughes, I gave him too much respect," acknowledged St. Pierre. "Now I see him as an opponent, not like the guy I was looking up to. So it's going to change everything."

St. Pierre and Hughes have each won four fights since then, with both notching a victory over former champion B.J. Penn.

Marquardt says the mental game will decide Saturday's fight.

"As long as he's there mentally, he's going to beat Matt Hughes. I think he's going to beat him in every area."

Predictably, those close to Hughes see a different result.

"I think he's really going to pick apart St. Pierre, get into his head and beat him up," said heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, a friend who trains out of the same camp as Hughes.

The six-foot-eight Sylvia defends his title against Jeff (The Snowman) Monson in Saturday night's co-main event.

St. Pierre says when the cage door closes for his fights, emotion is not a problem. He says he is totally calm, mechanical.

"I have no emotions whatever. . . . because when you fight with emotions you make mistakes."

While St. Pierre respects Hughes, it's probably fair to say he doesn't think much of him outside the ring.

Hughes is a master at getting under someone's skin.

He sees it as teasing. St. Pierre sees it as arrogance.

"He was very rude, he said a lot of bad things about me," said the Quebecer, who has a fleur-de-lis tattooed on his right calf. "But I don't take it personal, I think he just tried to build up the show, build up the fight.

"When you talk too much, if you lose, you look stupid. He's just going to get embarrassed when I beat him."

Hughes and St. Pierre crossed paths in coaching roles on Season 4 of the UFC's Ultimate Fighter reality TV show. Hughes wasted few opportunities not to take shots at St. Pierre, telling him during a dinner out that he would teach him how to defend an armbar — the submission hold he applied on the Canadian to win their bout.

St. Pierre even opted not to go to the gym on days when Hughes was coaching. While he saw it as the high road, some saw it as the champion winning the latest round of mind games.

In an attempt to play up their rivalry ahead of Saturday's fight, the UFC has used a clip of St. Pierre grabbing the microphone in the ring and having a go at the champion after Hughes' recent win over Penn.

"I am very glad you won that fight Matt, but I was not impressed by your performance and I look forward to fighting you in the near future," St. Pierre said at the time.

Hughes and his camp were not impressed, and an angry Hughes pulled St. Pierre close in the ring to tell him so.

It turned out that St. Pierre, a spectator at the fight, had misheard Hughes' post-fight comments and though he was being disrespected. He went to the champion's dressing room 20 minutes later to apologize.

"It made me look bad," St. Pierre said in an interview. "I made a mistake, I apologized like a man."

Hughes has mouthed off in the past. In the leadup to their first fight, he said he wasn't about to lose to a Canadian. And St. Pierre says he has been critical of the French.

"He's been very arrogant with me, but to tell you the truth I do my talking in the Octagon with my fists. I don't do my talking with my mouth outside of it."

While he is the No. 1 contender in the UFC, St. Pierre is not making megabucks yet. He is due to earn US$40,000 for the Hughes fight, with another $40,000 if he wins. He is under contract for one more fight after that with the UFC.

St. Pierre indulged himself recently by purchasing a Nissan Xterra SUV. But he has also invested his winnings in sparring partners, bringing in the likes of Marquardt, Keith Jardine, Rashad Evans and Joey Villasenor ahead of the Hughes fight.

The Montrealer is down to earth, his boxing club of choice a seedy second-floor gym oozing with character and crammed with posters featuring the likes of Ali, Foreman and Leonard.

He wrestles at the YMHA, where a wet broom on the floor at the door serves to moisten athletes' shoes before they hit the mat. Always the gentleman, St. Pierre politely steps aside to make way for youngsters as they rush through the door.

Single, St. Pierre focuses full time on fighting — spending one week every month in New York training with jiu-jitsu master Renzo Gracie — although he's an avid movie buff and enjoys hockey. The Edmonton Oilers are his first love but he also cheers for his hometown Montreal Canadiens and counts Phoenix enforcer Georges Laraque among his friends.

After each bout, he allows himself a week off — usually on a sun-drenched island somewhere.

Here's betting he's popular wherever he goes. Fighting for a living has not spoiled St. Pierre's good looks.

"I try to keep my hand up," he says with a laugh.

Look closely, however, and his left ear is beginning to exhibit the tell-tale signs of a wrestler. It looks like someone has taken a pair of pliers to it.

More often, he's the one leaving a mark.

Just ask Martin Germain, a fledgling 140-pound pro boxer who bore the brunt of St. Pierre's blows in an sparring session last week. St. Pierre wasn't even going at 100 per cent.

"He still hits hard," Germain, sucking in air through a mouthguard, said through an interpreter at the Club de Boxe Champions.

"If he turns it on, it's gonna hurt."

Source: Canadian Press

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