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:
NOT BEING A PROFESSIONAL ATHLETE.