Without Writing

The art of writing without writing… about fighting.

Georges St-Pierre: Right decision, just twelve years too late

GSP seems to be happy that he's left the sport... but he may have been happier if he'd never gotten into it in the first place.

GSP seems to be happy that he’s left the sport… but he may have been happier if he’d never gotten into it in the first place.

Most people au fait with the martial arts will be aware that Georges St-Pierre, a man who could legitimately be called the greatest pound-for-pound martial artist the world has ever seen, has vacated his world title– a title which he has held and defended against all comers for the best part of six years- and has taken an indefinite leave of absence from the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).

Naturally, most of the coverage of this significant event in the sport revolves around a discussion of his legacy, with some folks speculating that the closeness of his recent fights has led him to give up, due to his competition catching up uncomfortably close behind him. Others are wondering how his effective retirement will impact the box office for MMA globally; St-Pierre has been the biggest draw in the sport for some time, after all.

But- of course, and as ever- this is a sideshow to the real discussion that people should be having. The issue is not whether St-Pierre should leave the sport; the question is not how his departure will affect the sport… in fact the more pertinent point of discussion is: whether he should ever have gotten involved with the sport in the first place… and for that matter, whether anyone should.

GSP is a nearly peerless all-round athlete who has mastered all the hyper-complex core disciplines of human unarmed combat, who has been on the cutting edge of technical advances in combat tactics and training for the past decade, and who fights with a technical expertise and intelligence nearly unheard of in human history. Put any fighter from history up against GSP with few or no rules, and he would undoubtedly prevail. Only the heavier fighters from the current crop of GSP’s contemporaries would stand a chance of defeating him. In fact, he’s a man who is blessed with so many natural gifts, (natural intelligence, adaptability, physical capability) it’s arguable that he could succeed in virtually any field.

He should have tried another field. Combat sports were not the right decision for GSP. They were not the smart decision. GSP may have succeeded in his sport… but even with his exceptional skill, he could very easily have failed. Virtually nobody who tries to make a living in sports succeeds.

To demonstrate this, let’s take the USA as an example, since they have one of the most sports-based cultures in the world: In the USA, if you play a sport at the college level, you’re already in the upper echelons of the talent pool, a very rarified group indeed.

Well it’s estimated that just over one out of every hundred college sportsmen (with the exception of those playing baseball, where the estimate is just over one in ten) ends up playing their sport professionally. So suppose you’re great at your sport in school, and then you make it into the even more challenging college level… after this point you STILL have to be in the top one percent of your peer group to make it any further, and to make any kind of money at all at your sport.

Let’s say you’re really one in a hundred in an already unbelievably competitive environment. Let’s say you get an actual job doing your chosen sport for a living. Well of those sports people who manage to break into the rarified strata of the professional level, few keep the money they make. It’s been estimated that in the USA, eight out of ten American Football players end up bankrupt after their lucrative career finishes. Six out of ten basketball players have no money left after ending their playing careers. Part of this is due to the fact that sports people have spent their youth working to become better at their sport, and NOT learning how to handle money or business deals, but part of it is the professional sports environment itself; managers, trainers, promoters and other sundry hangers-on all demand their respective fees, and the sports person themself is often unaware of how little remains of their winnings after their dues are paid.

Then you have the brevity of even a “successful” sporting career. Let’s say that someone becomes a chef. Well a chef can do that job until retirement age, or even further in some cases. Let’s say someone decides to become a lawyer. Well, their earnings will increase exponentially throughout their life, and they’ll have the opportunity to be well-off in their old age. How about becoming an electrician or a plumber? Well there might be fluctuations in available work, but there will always be wires and pipes that need fixing. But a sports person? Most sports careers are over when the athlete is still in their early thirties. A successful athlete in his or her forties is so rare it’s remarked upon in awed tones by commentators. Athletes in their fifties still competing? One can count them on one or two hands, worldwide. So let’s say you’re that one-in-a-hundred-thousand person who gets into pro-sports and you don’t blow all the cash you’re earning on fast cars and expensive champagne. You’ll still only have a few scant years to save up enough money to live off for the rest of your life. Because guess what? If your sports career ends, you’ll be relatively unqualified for any other job.

And how about injury? Sports careers cause injuries, and those careers are ended by unforeseen injuries every day of the week, as so nearly happened to GSP himself when he tore his ACL. If a chef breaks his or her leg badly (which she or he is statistically unlikely to do) they can take a break to heal up and then resume their chosen work. If an athlete breaks their leg badly (which they are statistically more likely to do because of their very physical job), they will have to take a long recovery period normally without earning any money, and then face the strong possibility that they will never be able to do their chosen work ever again.

So let’s do some crude maths. Suppose you look at a group of one thousand excellent young athletes who have been good enough to reach the college level of their sport, and think they might be in with a shot at making some money fighting, or hitting balls with sticks, or whatever.

Well nine-hundred-and-ninety of those young athletes won’t ever make it into the professional arena. Of the ten who remain to have an actual career, six to eight will have lost all the money they make a scant few years after they leave the sport.

So of a pool of already very skilled athletes, that’s two in a thousand that will make any money in the long run out of their skills. That’s one in every five hundred already elite athletes. And even fewer will ever get rich doing their sport. After all, Georges St-Pierre is unusually rich even among other successful, financially solvent athletes.

So do you think you’re that good? The best person in a group of five-hundred people? Do you think you’re that lucky? The luckiest person in a group of five-hundred people, all similarly skilled and with a similar athletic work ethic to you? Play the odds, fella.

The media wants us to aspire to be like successful footballers, tennis players and fighters. But the fact of the matter is that a vanishingly small number of people can be successful sportspeople at any one time. Effectively, if you try, you will fail. And of course, though they’re very nice people by and large, professional athletes don’t contribute much that is of use to society. They’re not doctors or scientists or writers or thinkers or political activists. Society doesn’t want us to aspire to be these more mundane things, even though you’ll help the human race out a hell of a lot more if you’re a scientist than if you’re a football player. And frankly you’re more likely to be a successful scientist than a successful football player.

So ask yourself why society is structured this way. Could it be because a society made up of people scrabbling to achieve an unobtainable and essentially futile goal is easier to control and manipulate than a society made up of highly educated, financially conscious professionals? Just a thought.

Lastly, the worst possible sport one can get into is a sport involving repeated impact trauma to the brain, like boxing or MMA. Because research is now showing that even minor regular impact to the cranium can and does lead to tragic long term physical and mental health effects and personality changes. And this kind of injury is unavoidable in any of the above sports, if you have a long career. In other words, if you’re one of the tiny number of very very rare and very very lucky people who succeed in fighting sports and have a long, successful career, your very success will mean that you’re nearly guaranteed to sustain tangible brain damage.

It’s worth mentioning that another- albeit less high-profile- Canadian UFC fighter named Nick Denis retired after reading the research on sub-concussive brain injury in sportspeople. He discusses his reasoning here and here. It’s persuasive stuff.

Georges St-Pierre has left the game on top. But the odds of him ever making it to the top were microscopically tiny, despite his skills. He could have had as little as a couple more bad nights early on and his career could have gone in a completely different direction. And he was intelligent enough to realise this to some extent… he has stated that he finished his stint at college while pursuing a fighting career just in case his sporting career didn’t pan out. But despite this smidgeon of foresight he’s still at risk of suffering the effects of brain injury long-term because of his career choice.

Apollo Creed, the heavyweight champion from the Rocky movie franchise, said it most succinctly in the first, best and least bombastically right-wing of the series:

“Stay in school and use your brain. Be a doctor, be a lawyer, carry a leather briefcase. Forget about sports as a profession. Sports make ya grunt and smell. See, be a thinker, not a stinker.”

The character of Rocky Balboa also touched on the idea in the same movie, with:

“You gotta be a moron… you gotta be a *moron* to wanna be a fighter.”

and that could go for sportspeople in general… but especially fighters. Not because they are actual morons, but because society is encouraging them to aspire to a goal which can- realistically speaking- only damage them… and they’re allowing their capacity for ego and self-delusion to carry them along on this ruinous path.

Georges St-Pierre has indeed made the right decision in not being part of the sporting world, but twelve years too late. He- and every other person considering a career in the high-risk, low return arena of professional sports- should learn the following lesson from the case of “Rush” St-Pierre: Don’t even try. If your dream is to be the next Georges St-Pierre, you’re better off ignoring the brief period of his life where he was paid to get punched in- and to punch people in- the head, and merely follow in his footsteps by doing what he’s doing right NOW:


4 responses to “Georges St-Pierre: Right decision, just twelve years too late

  1. mark french 2013, December 16 at 1:27 am

    Great article.
    In the age of increasing reliance on technology to make our lives easier and more comfortable there is an inherent pull for a lot of men to experience the primal nature that is essentially the basis of who we are. We are born into the world as vulnerable babies and there is something refreshingly honest about this vulnerability and something which can also be felt when two men face each other in combat. It is why we test ourselves in situations like this.
    What then propels a man to lead a life committed to professional combat sports is another matter and one that only the person involved can answer. Given the wildly unpredictable nature of professional combat sports and the risks involved one would have to be slightly crazy to pursue this path. Indeed fighters do tend to be from the fringes of so called normal society. Then again what is considered normal by todays’ standards-sitting at a desk for 8 hours daily, staring at a screen,communicating largely through smartphones and other virtual devices,staring at another screen during leisure time etc etc-is only considered normal because it seems the vast majority of us are doing this on a day to day basis.
    That the majority of the population does lead this sort of life only makes us easier to manipulate by the minority who control societies for their own gains.
    I would also like to see reliable statistical data on the background histories of fighters-that would give us a better idea of what pushes a man into a sport that is so unpredictable.

    • withoutwriting 2013, December 17 at 12:32 am

      Many thanks for the comment. You make an excellent point when noting that- just like the pro athlete- the average person’s life also contains an element of absurd daily activity, disconnection with the realities of human society and flagrant manipulation by a dominant hierarchy of state and media control (on behalf of business). In this respect, the average person and the pro athlete have much in common.

      Of course, those of us who spend our lives at desks may feel oppressed, but we are not sustaining progressive brain damage while doing our jobs… though it may feel as though we are sometimes.

      But the point is well taken; we should look at the miserable fate of pro athletes as a whole and learn lessons relating to our own lives, specifically: Do not seek fame and attention; do not measure your own achievements against the achievements of others; seek to live a frugal and secure life with whatever income you currently obtain rather than dreaming of bathtubs full of cash money and women; try to be beneficial to others in your professional life as well as your private life.

      All those things we should pity the poor misguided professional sportspeople for, we should take care not to emulate in our own lives in more mundane ways. Then perhaps the sacrifices of the innumerable punch-drunk boxers and football players, poor and destitute athletes who have finished their brief careers and- yes- the cheerleaders who break bones and spines in the most dangerous sports-related activity in the world… will not be in vain.

      These are the examples we should take from our sporting heroes… What NOT to do, rather than rejoicing in them successfully punching another person in the face.

      PS: It would indeed be a most interesting piece of research to look into the backgrounds of pro fighters to find commonalities. I wonder if anyone’s done it?

  2. Peter McCarney 2013, December 16 at 8:38 am

    A good and thoughtful article. The Apollo Creed quote is actually taken from Muhammad Ali in the preface to “The Final Round”. Be smart, stay in school, carry a briefcase, don’t be no fighter…You could also mention Mike Tyson. He was scheduled to be able to Retire in his early 20s owing to the investments made by Jimmy Jacobs and Bill Cayton. All were cashed to pay for his lawyer prior to his conviction. In UK football, despite colossal salaries, we see Gascoigne, Sansom, Merson etc. broke and alcoholic. The problem here is one of immaturity. I’ll stop here. As said, a good and timely thought-provoking article.

    • withoutwriting 2013, December 17 at 12:20 am

      Tyson, Gascoigne et al. are indeed perfect examples of how even the best sportspeople (in terms of their raw skill) fall victim to a society which has no interest in teaching them how to live their lives in a self-enriching and productive fashion.

      A great many people seemed to care a great deal about Tyson and Gascoigne’s performances in the ring and on the pitch… but few cared that they were damaged individuals without the necessary tools to lead a safe and happy life back in the real world.

      When a person becomes a professional sportsperson, they become nothing more than a commodity in a system that enriches already wealthy businessmen. Yes, the odd example of a rich sportsperson who retired early does arise… but always as a rarer-than-hens-teeth exception, and little to do with the skill of the sportsperson, I might add. Anyone considering a career in sports should think again, for the reasons outlined above.

      Thanks much for the comment, much appreciated.

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