23 Feb 2019

UFC star George St Pierre's 'special' Kiwi connection

12:31 pm on 23 February 2019

By Ben Stanley*

The first time Georges St Pierre met John Danaher, they couldn't even understand each other.

St Pierre, several years before the start of his famed UFC arc, spoke barely a word of English. Danaher, a Whangaparaoa-raised Kiwi who has since established himself as one of the greatest minds in Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) history, had a pretty limited knowledge of French.

"[St Pierre] would come in and seemed like a strong, healthy kid with no special talents other than enthusiasm," Danaher told me, when I spoke to him for VICE New Zealand at the famed Renzo Gracie Academy gym in New York City.

"He just kept showing up. We used to laugh and say 'who is this strange French dude?"

Canada's Georges St-Pierre announces his retirement from mixed martial arts during a press conference in Montreal.

Canada's Georges St-Pierre announces his retirement from mixed martial arts during a press conference in Montreal. Photo: AP

Back then, GSP was just 19 years old and taking weekend bus trips down to New York from Montreal. He was living hard and lean; dedicated to becoming a great fighter.

That impressed Danaher, who remains based in New York coaching at the Renzo Gracie Academy. Over time, their teacher-student relationship - and friendship - between GSP and Danaher became a key ingredient in the athlete's rise.

Now 37, St Pierre officially retired in Montreal on Friday as one of the most storied fighters in UFC history. A former middleweight and welterweight champion, the French Canadian's 26-2 pro record does little to obscure the second-longest title streak, for the welterweight crown, in UFC history. His last professional loss was against Matt Serra in April 2007.

"Georges has cemented legacy as one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters ever," UFC president Dana White told media.

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Always training/always learning: So often I am asked how to increase progress in learning jiu jitsu. The real question they are asking is “how can i get good quickly?” While I definitely believe there are ways to learn more quickly than most, there is simply no getting around the fact that you will need to invest large amounts of time and effort if you wish to gain competence in the kingly art of jiu jitsu. The better question then, is not, “how do I get good quickly,” but rather, “how do I sustain progress over time.” The danger is that as time passes, progress can be destroyed in two main ways. First, by extended periods away from the mat. Second, by showing up and training without a clear sense of purpose for each session, just complacently showing up and thinking that’s enough. The first will cause you to lose skills you once had; the second will simply maintain whatever skills you do have and no more - guaranteeing a plateau in performance that can go on for months or even years. If you seek excellence - as time passes make a concerted commitment to the idea of MINIMIZING TIME OFF THE MAT AND MAXIMIZING THE VALUE OF YOUR TIME ON THE MAT. Do this by having at least one clear goal every time you go to train and a plan to work towards that goal - showing up is not enough to avoid stagnation. The single best example of this mindset in operation over long periods of time I ever saw was Georges St-Pierre. Despite winning the success that could have easily made anyone else kick back and relax, he trains constantly and learns constantly. This week he caught up with the squad and went though all the latest leg lock work. Now he is flying home to work with some European tournament Karate champions to work on distance and movement skills. This constant push for volume and progress in training is deeply impressive and an inspiration to us all.

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Beyond training in Renzo Gracie's legendary 'Blue Dungeon,' GSP and Danaher first combined talents for a pro fight in 2009 as St Pierre prepared for his famed BJ Penn fight in Las Vegas.

Danaher trained GSP leading up to his comeback fight against Michael Bisping in November 2017, and would have likely featured in the build-up to a clash with UFC lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov had it happened. Nurmagomedov pushed hard to get GSP back in the Octagon over the last six months, to no avail.

"[Georges] has an enormous amount of drive and an incredibly powerful work ethic," Danaher, the bald-headed son of a RNZAF officer moved to New York in the early 90s to study philosophy at Columbia before dedicating his life to BJJ, told me.

"Just the fact he'd travel so far to train, shows that. He also had a tremendous sense of foresight. He saw his investment in time and money as worthy. At the time he was working as a garbage man, and for a garbage man, spending money on hotels and bus trips is not cheap.

"He saw what so few people do, that the best investments are always investments in yourself and your abilities and skills. Most people invest in things that are in front of themselves. But, even as a 19-year-old, GSP saw the most important investments are in yourself."

Last year, I spoke to St Pierre via phone to ask him about his long professional, and personal relationship, with the greatest Kiwi sporting coach most New Zealanders have never heard of.

Kia ora, Georges. You've known John for many years now, and he's played a big role in the majority of your pre-fight camps. What makes him such a fantastic coach?

"Johnny is a very educated guy. He has a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University and he uses his experience teaching in philosophy to transmit his knowledge. That's a big plus.

"I could be wrong, but the way he teaches is the same way you do in philosophy. You break down everything in a way that makes it so easy. Also, John is one of those guys who is more educated than most others I know. [He is] more cerebral and smarter.

"What he does is he doesn't rely on athleticism - he relies on technique. Even if you are an old man or has athletic limitations, you are able to understand and reproduce the techniques he teaches you."

Describe John's role in your pre-fight camps.

"There are different layers in a training camp in preparation for a fight. The first layer, which is the foundation, is the physical aspect - are you in shape? This is what I have from all those years of training, early mornings and lifting weights.

"The second layer is the technical aspect of the sport. Do you know how to do an arm bar? Do you know how to do a kick? Do you know the escape from a triangle choke? Do you know how to do a sweep from a particular position? This is the technical aspect - and that's where John comes in.

"But the one place where John helps me the most, that is pretty unique, is the last layer. That is the tactical. You have the physical at the bottom, the second layer is technical and the third is tactical.

"That's where Johnny comes into play. He comes into play in both of my top layers. Tactical is what you do to overcome your opponent's strength. Are you going to bring him out of his comfort zone? This is where John is very strong for me.

"He is very strong technically, but [also very strong on tactically. It's very hard, and very unique, to process those [two] qualities. Most good or great trainers are good in only one of those two aspects - he is good in both of those aspects. That's the big unique thing that John has as a trainer."

Danaher is well known for his quirky, monk-like character. When I say that, what does it conjure up for you?

"If you see him walking in the street, he's a very nice person. He doesn't look like a bad ass that can kill you with his bare hands. He looks like a nice person.

"The way he speaks, with his accent from New Zealand, it makes him seem even nicer. He sounds like a gentleman - his English is very elegant. Aristocratic English. The way he speaks - all the words he uses are very nice.

"I know sometimes in the streets in the past - he has told me the stories - guys will randomly try to intimidate him and push him. They quickly find he's the wrong guy to mess with. It makes me laugh, because you would never think a guy like this could kill you with his bare hands.

"You can not judge a book by its cover - and John is a perfect example of that."

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A study in greatness: The most important people in our lives are those who give us an example of what is possible so that we can lift ourselves higher. They don’t give us THINGS, they give us IDEALS; and those ideals can move us from within to become better people. Georges St-Pierre was the single greatest example of a positive athletic role model I ever met in my career. Every dojo or training partner he walked into or befriended was lifted by his appearance. Starting off as an unknown youngster from Quebec, he fought his way to the top of the fight worlds toughest division and beat the best of three generations of welterweights and then came back from an initial retirement to win the title at middleweight. Along the way he exhibited the highest standards of character and professionalism in an often wild sport. He ushered in the modern era of professionalism in preparation for MMA athletes to replace the traditional martial arts methodologies used by previous generations of competitors. Nobody did more to elevate the standing of the sport in the public eye as it grew from its bloodsport beginnings into the most popular combat sport in the world. He was an innovator who staked his career on the paradigm shift from single style specialists to what he stood for - integrated skills where the primary emphasis was on the interface BETWEEN skill sets rather than over emphasis on any one skill set. This enabled him to outwrestle wrestlers, outstrike strikers and dominate Jiu Jitsu champions on the floor. He was not the best at any one of those skills - he was the best at integrating them with a speed and direction that no one could keep up with. He defeated all his opponents, dominated every re-match he ever took and shut down the toughest opponents to a degree what was utterly astounding. It was the greatest privilege of my coaching career to be a small part of this great mans ascent to the top of martial arts. Through all the time i knew him and i have no doubt all the way into the future - He was a martial artist first and an MMA athlete second. This made him a perpetual student, a generous teacher and a truly noble fighter. Thank you, Georges, from all of us

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How close have you and John become over the years? Do you consider him a close friend?

"Johnny is a very special human being. He is not the kind of person you meet every day of your life - that's why he has had such a big impact on me.

"John lives his life the same way as a samurai. What I mean by that is he lives his life to be the best he can be, because there is no such thing as perfection.

"He lives his life focused on one thing - and be the best he can be at that particular thing. He chose one thing that he loved - that was philosophy. Then he fell in love with jiu jitsu and he switched his focus.

"I think he fell in love with jiu-jitsu so much that he adopt the samurai lifestyle. He wanted to perfect an art [to] a point where he would reach perfection [but] without reaching it because it is impossible. He will try and attain the highest level of knowledge and perfection of technique. That is what I believe from having observed John.

"His life is built on being the best jiu-jitsu guy in terms of knowledge and providing information - that is his goal from his standpoint of life."

Given his incredible influence and standing in the world of mixed martial arts, are you surprised that Danaher isn't better known in New Zealand?

"It doesn't surprise me because the same thing happened to me. Sometimes you need to be adored by a foreign public before you get accepted as a great one for your own country.

"That's what happened to me. I started to get known in the United States of America before I was known in Canada. It was the same thing with Celine Dion and different artists and singers from my country.

"I think it's a universal thing, but I think it's a question of time. I do know John deserves more - of course he does. He is a very unique human being, and a product of New Zealand. The New Zealand people should be very proud of this guy."

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Controlling movement: A central feature of all good jiu jitsu is that of learning to control an opponent’s ability to move. The best athletes can reduce an opponent’s ability to move to that of a puppet, whose every move is determined by the strings to which he is bound and whose every motion is wholly determined by the puppet master. Note that it is not always possible or even desirable to completely STOP an opponent’s movement - often it is enough, or even better to DIRECT an opponent’s movement - controlling the speed and direction in which he goes. This theme of beginning with stopping, restraining, slowing or directing movement is a central feature of my approach to leg locking. Until you have the ability to restrict or control MOVEMENT, the application of the locks is very difficult against skilled opposition. That is why we strongly separate the mechanism of CONTROL (the ashi garami variations), from the method of BREAKING (usually heel hooks, but there are others). The ashi garami holds an opponent in place long enough for a breaking force to be applied to the leg. What was different about our approach is that multiple ashi garamis were used in a sequence to perform a single lock. At least one of those ashi garami had RESTRAINT OF MOVEMENT as its main task. Probably the most recognized is the ankle lace ashi garami that ties an opponent’s legs together in a way that makes effective movement extremely difficult and sets up some particularly punishing leg attacks. Here, Georges St-Pierre works on binding the ankles together as a prelude to a heel hook variation.

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What does Danaher's friendship mean to you?

"We talk about everything - all my personal life. He knows what I like, my problems with girls, my problems with my career, who betrayed me in my life, who I trust.

"I'm a popular person. I'm known in MMA and have a lot of acquaintances. But the true real friends? I can count on the fingers of one of my hands only. John is one of these true friends I have - I don't have a lot."

*Ben Stanley is a journalist from Taupō, who is a former staff writer for the Waikato Times, Sunday Star-Times & VICE New Zealand.