Thug Sport

Georges St-Pierre

I am turning my back on the UFC. And it’s George Saint-Pierre’s fault.

The main event at UFC 158 was a title clash between Nick Diaz and GSP. The pre-fight weigh-in and press conference devolved into name calling, pushing and shoving.

The sport of Mixed Martial Arts has developed a reputation as a carnival of violent cruelty amongst its circle of detractors, and understandably so.

When I first heard about Pride, I declined watching it for a long time, even at the repeated recommendations of people I knew in the fightsports community.

John McCain, certainly no coward or stranger to bloodshed for that matter, was instrumental in banning the sport from cable television, denouncing it as ‘human cockfighting’.

Given the spectacle’s reputation for no rules and no time limits and the success of the brawler, I had no interest. Even the thought was sickening.

However, ‘Ultimate Fighting’ (a brand name) underwent a significant metamorphosis, not least of all evident in the fact it became broadly known as mixed martial arts, or MMA (genuine nomenclature).

It had shifted from spectacle to sport, showcasing one the most technically and strategically sophisticated physical contests on offer.

When I finally began to watch, I recognized an immensely intricate and sophisticated pursuit which had multiple planes of engagement – ground and stand-up – and made me feel, as a committed Thai boxer, that the sport I had given my life and body to had been usurped in popular consciousness in the way jazz was relegated to the oldies upon the arrival of Elvis Presley.

As a traditional martial artist, however, I had come to understand fighting as more than a sport; it’s a ritual. The Japanese use the word ‘budo’ to describe martial arts, which, loosely translated, means ‘warrior’s path’. Fighting is the crucible in which your training – and your character – ultimately cohere.

I have recently begun writing for Blitz Martial Arts Magazine, which has bought me into contact with a number of traditional martial artists. Last month, I wrote about – and interviewed – three of the world’s best fighters.

Sadly, one of those articles was a retrospective of the great Thai boxer, Ramon Dekkers. The other two were interviews with five-time heavyweight world champion kickboxer Semmy Schilt, and Kyokushin Karate luminary, Tony Bowden.

Bowden was a hero of mine when I began training in Kyokushin Karate, almost twenty years ago (!) He was a great full-contact fighter; he won the National Full-Contact Heavyweight title four years consecutively and often competed in the Full-Contact Karate World Tournament.

On the basis of his achievements, he ascended into the personal circle of Kyokushin’s founder, Mas Oyama. Tony was even among the three-hundred people invited to attend Oyama’s funeral.

Tony told a story about his toughest fight, which I consider to be definitive.

“When we were lined up ready to march on I remember saying to myself, ‘This guy is only small; he shouldn’t be too bad.’ How wrong I was! Sensei Kawabata was one of the toughest customers I had fought in a long time.

“At the end of the first round it was a draw, so it went to boards and we had broken the same amount (in those days you had to break a minimum of three, twenty-five millimeter boards before each round), so we fought again and again fought to a draw.

At the end of this round it was decided by weight; he was only about sixty kilograms and I was over a hundred. I didn’t even worry about the scales; I just raised his hand as the winner.

“I had hit him with everything that I could and still could not put him down. Then, following the bout, he ran off the stage and vomited out the side!”

“That fight was said to be one of the best fights of that World Tournament. On my last visit to Japan for last years World Tournament, someone came up to me and asked if I would sign a book that was put out at the time of the tournament when I fought Kawabata.

“I learned a valuable lesson from that match. Sometimes in losing, you can win more than if you had won. By this I mean that even though I lost the fight, because it was so tough and the sportsmanship that was shown made it… a great bout.

“It proved what [Oyama] always said about a good small man is just as good as a good big man. That’s why the World Tournament is an open-weight tournament.”

The victory is inconsequential. The true, lasting effect is in the way Bowden demonstrated true character.

Kyokushin is avowedly amateur; something I admired when I was nineteen, having been raised in a household where everything was geared toward worship of the almighty dollar.

The problem with professional sports is paradoxical because the true motive for competing becomes lost. Then, you end up with men like Wayne Carey and Lance Armstrong (both former subjects of this blog) who are successful athletes in the sense of win or lose, but massive failures as men.

Both are now fighting to construct identities at-odds with the news reports that appear outside the sports pages, detailing stories of domestic violence and drug abuse. Fifty years ago, an athlete who transcended the sports pages to appear somewhere in the rest of the paper did so as a statesman.

Semmy Schilt is a fascinating character; a true anomaly. He stands at two meters thirteen centimeters, or seven-feet-two-inches. His parents weren’t especially tall, he says.

He also came from traditional karate, having spent his formative years training in Kyokushin, a style both his parents were active in.

I asked about the K1 pre-fight footage of him running through the forest in training, dressed in his gi.

“The Japanese love that! When I train kickboxing, I wear shorts. It’s not important to wear the gi.

“Basically, it’s the mental discipline. [Karate] makes you the fighter that you are. I got my black belt when I was eighteen, back in 1993. I don’t practice so much, but I still teach. My style is karate; it’s in my heart.”

Cor Hemmers once said to me, “Sem Schilt, now he is something else.” He meant that when you looked at the skill and ability of that very top echelon of fighters, Schilt was a literal head-and-shoulders above them.

For this reason, his very rare losses are exceptional. His only KO loss (other than a loss to Alexei Ignashov, very early in his career) was to Badr Hari, whose genius as a professional kickboxer seems inversely paralleled by his misadventures as an amateur idiot.

After the decision of that fight, Schilt applauded Hari and shook his hand. A champion of his stature was again defined through defeat. When asked, Sem explained:

“In my opinion, you have to have respect for your opponent. Without a good opponent, you cannot win. He has to respect you, because he cannot win without you.”

It might seem like an odd place to find it, but that essential symbiosis of combatants is best explained in Genesis, chapter thirty-five, verses twenty to twenty-nine:

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.

23 And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.

24 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

25 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

26 And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

27 And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

28 And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

29 And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.


Later, in the book of Hosea, the man that wrestled Jacob is described as an angel.


Diaz is just an idiot. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination or inquiry to see that an ‘extreme’ sport like MMA – at least socially and culturally extreme – will feature such characters.

But the fact that a man like Pierre, who not only wears a gi into the ring as proof of his affiliation with traditional martial arts and their values, but goes so far to explain his links to Kyokushin at the post-fight press-conference to Dana White, should be ashamed. Because I was, and I was only watching at home.

GSP has lowered himself to either combat as an expression of anger and resentment, or a marketing exercise, both of which should be beneath him.

Unfortunately, both GSP and Diaz seem unaware that a dickhead wearing a title belt is still a dickhead. In fact, he is most conspicuously a dickhead when he takes it off.

Or has it taken from him.

One Response to “Thug Sport”

  1. Andrew Pavel Says:

    good article man. Still GSP, is a gentleman among thugs.

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