This week, longtime welterweight kingpin and star of the sport Georges St.Pierre announced him semi-retirement, citing mental fatigue as a major role in his decision. Whilst it was admitted that other factors played a part, the conversation soon turned back to the mental drain that competing at a consistently high level has had upon GSP and his personal life.

St-Pierre has often said that the reason he is a champion is not because he is the strongest, fastest or most athletic fighter out there (though let’s face it, GSP isn’t exactly lacking in any of these departments), it is his mental determination and attitude to the fight which propels him above those he competes against.

In the build-up to his recent fight with Johny Hendricks, St-Pierre said that he becomes obsessed with his opponent and thinks about him at all times of the day regardless of what other tasks he may be performing. It is evident that this constant heightened state of concern has taken its toll on St-Pierre, and in recent years, his contact with the media has noticeably been more subdued and robotic.

Given that MMA is on the rise worldwide, it may well be that St-Pierre is the first in a number of high-level fighters who succumb to the pressure of having to train constantly to stay at the pinnacle of the sport or even just stay competitive enough to avoid getting beaten to a pulp come fight night.

In more established sports, there are numerous examples of depression, anxiety and other mental problems which are largely brought about due to the exorbitant amount of pressure placed upon the one individual.

Earlier this month, cricketer Jonathan Trott had to leave England’s Ashes campaign in Australia due to what was said vaguely to be a “long-standing stress-related condition.” The 32-year-old stated that he was simply not in a condition to play.

Furthermore, cricket is a sport that is used to talking about stress-related problems. Over the last few years, several other top cricketers have spoken out about the problems they have faced, dealt with and had to ultimately overcome with the help and understanding from those around them.

Marcus Trescothick notably said in 2009 that, “I considered hurting myself just to show people how much pain I was in.” This statement is a shocking yet clear example that we must look to appreciate the impacts that being under the microscope can have upon an individual. In a 2009 BBC Inside Sport interview, Trescothick went on to explain that, “If you’ve got a broken leg, you’ve got a cast on your leg. People can see you’ve got a problem, but when you’ve got mental problems there is nothing evident to people to show you need help.”

This is a clear indication that despite outward appearance, anyone can be suffering from stress or a similar issue.

In MMA, the problem is perhaps amplified more so than in other sports. At the end of it all, the fighters are risking their lives and health for the entertainment of the viewer. The risks involved are high and the rewards similarly so, but the sum of these parts equals an untold amount of pressure.

St-Pierre made a difficult decision this week given his controversial win over Hendricks, but he did so for the best possible reason—longevity, both personal and professional. Over the years, we have not seen GSP walk away from any prospective challengers, instead taking on all comers in his division. So in this instance it is hard to find fault with his decision.

Less than an hour after his announcement, St-Pierre held a press conference to open a shopping mall in Montreal. His mood was notably improved from other public appearances he has made in recent years. Whether this improved mood was due to him feeling at home in his surroundings or whether it was because he felt an immediate weight lift off his shoulders, it is perhaps too early to tell.

What is clear is that St-Pierre has stepped away from the division, leaving it wide open for anyone else at 170 pounds to step in and take control until such time as GSP feels suitably at peace to return and look to reclaim what is rightly still his.

The problem that St-Pierre’s abdication presents is for the UFC. The promotion will need to quickly legitimize a new champion at welterweight as the true champion, which may be difficult with St-Pierre’s return still a thought in the back of the minds of MMA fans everywhere.

What is a help is that Hendricks is perhaps already seen as the champion following his recent fight with St-Pierre, but the history books don’t lie. Both men entered the Octagon at UFC 169 knowing the rules and happily went ahead under those rules, so for anyone in the MMA community to discredit GSP and state that Hendricks is the true champion is absurd. The judges gave their decision as they were contracted to do and everyone involved needs to live with the consequences.

As the MMA community comes to terms with the absence of GSP over the next few months, it is key that MMA fans, promoters and sanctioning bodies recognize the mental aspect of the fight game as well as the physical so that all fighters are assisted in all areas to ensure the biggest fight they face is inside the cage and not inside their heads.

Photo: Georges St-Pierre (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer

Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.