UFC 167 headliner Georges St-Pierre knows what fans are thinking. That he's gone soft. That he fights safe. That he's willing to trade excitement for routine. That the man once known as "Rush" never bothers to shift out of second gear anymore.
That he never finishes a fight.
He's heard all the whispers. And the normally soft-spoken French Canadian welterweight champion isn't happy about it.
"Sometimes an opponent breaks mentally and he's not fighting to win anymore. He's fighting not to lose," St-Pierre told Bleacher Report. "He's not taking as many risks and he's only thinking about his well-being and not getting hurt. It's very hard to finish an opponent in these conditions.
"There are two kinds of finishes. Sometimes it happens spontaneously. Bang! It can be a submission. You see it—bang! You've got it. Jab. Cross. Boom! He falls down. It happens fast. You don't even see it coming," St-Pierre continued, with his voice rising to punctuate the bangs and the boom.
He's more animated than I've heard him before.
"There's another finish where you see your opponent breaking mentally. This happens more than the spontaneous finish. You see your opponent failing mentally. He starts to fight, not to win anymore but to survive."
While St-Pierre is adamant that nothing has changed about the way he fights, others aren't so sure. They see a fighter and a team so intent on minimizing risk that they've forgotten what made the sport—and St-Pierre—such a revelation in the first place.
"The young GSP was one of the most exciting fighters in the history of MMA, capable of tremendous and unpredictable violence. Unfortunately in the last four-and-a-half years, GSP hasn't finished a single opponent and his fights have become utterly predictable," said Nate Wilcox, editor of BloodyElbow.com, MMA's top hardcore fansite. "It's a simple game plan, as effective as it is tedious. First GSP will outpoint his opponent on the feet with jabs and leg kicks. Then he'll get a takedown and happily remain in the opponent's guard while he throws just enough strikes to not force a stand-up for lack of action.
"The fans have noticed and GSP's reputation has taken a beating among the hardcore fans who cheered his rise. Coaches Greg Jackson and Firas Zahabi must take some of the blame, but ultimately the fault lies with GSP, a man who is committed to not losing his title, even at the cost of losing his reputation."
Ludicrous. That's what GSP coach and strategist Greg Jackson calls the growing wave of criticism. All too often these days, Jackson finds himself fighting back against harsh words—not just fan outcry, mind you, but pointed criticism from the likes of UFC president Dana White.
St-Pierre is often at the center of that storm.
"We're not in love with any technique or strategy. We've fallen in love with victory," Jackson said. "Our style is whatever works...We do always try to finish the fight. The safest way to end a fight is to make sure the other guy isn't conscious any more. If you fight to play it safe, you're giving him every opportunity in the world to take the initiative back and beat you. But if he's unconscious, if you've choked him out or knocked him out, he obviously can't win the fight."
Some, like Wilcox, will point to St-Pierre's fight with Matt Serra as the pivotal moment when everything changed for the young champion. Caught with a winging punch to the temple, St-Pierre collapsed in a heap. Soon after, he tapped out to Serra's onslaught.
St-Pierre doesn't believe much has changed in the way he does business—only the opponents are different. Men he conquered early in his career, even the great champion Matt Hughes, had weaknesses to exploit. Today's fighter, however, is a tougher nut to crack.
"I've gotten better. More experience. More maturity. But the thing is—my opponents have gotten better as well. Competition is much harder than it used to be. I didn't fight guys like Carlos Condit or Nick Diaz then. I could go through opponents with only my athletic ability. It's different now," St-Pierre said.
As I started my next question, he continued on, not quite willing to let the subject die.
"Look up how many people have finished Carlos Condit. How many people have finished Nick Diaz? Nobody. You know what I mean? The guys I'm fighting are crazy. I do my best. I'm critical of myself. I want to do better and I'm working.
|Tough to Finish: GSP's Last Three|
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"A lot of time I fight guys and after a few rounds, they accept my dominance. They aren't fighting to win anymore. They're fighting to not lose. I've seen it many times. It's very hard for me to finish a guy like this. He doesn't want to get hurt. It's normal. It's human nature."
One thing was clear after talking with the champion—he doesn't intend to change what he's doing. It works. And, in his mind, winning fights, solving puzzles and building his legacy matter more than a handful of angry voices in the wind.
"I think the fans who are the least educated on the sport make the most noise," St-Pierre said. "And the ones who are the most educated make the least noise. I'm fine with that. There's always going to be critics all the time.
"People don't understand fighting. They think you just go there and stand in the middle and swing for the fence. People who fight like this are idiots. People who fight like this? They can get a win a couple of times. But sooner or later they lose. It's like flipping a coin. And I don't want my fight to be a coin flip. I'm too smart for that. I'm methodical and that's how I fight."
To expect anything else from St-Pierre is to ignore who he is. A man of routine, he does the same things week in and week out, building his body and his mind and creating the perfect vessel for the fight.
Then he returns alone to his home, carefully puts up his clothes and thinks, long and hard, about the tasks to come. To expect such a man to give in to emotion—to play the long odds or risk a certain win—is like expecting the tide not to come in or the rain not to fall.
"I use emotion in a positive way. I use emotion to finish a round strong," St-Pierre said. "But I don't use emotion to hate my opponent. That makes me do mistakes. People who have too much emotion in the cage, they can get a little bit stupid and carried away. You win with your brain, not your muscle. You can't do that if you get crazy. That's not me. I don't want to do that.
"The smart fighters in the UFC, they don't treat a fight like a coin toss. They fight smart," he continued, drawing a distinction between the most successful fighters and the stand-and-bang artists on the undercard. "Look at his career. Look at how much damage he takes in his brain. Look how he is before his career and how he is after. I've seen some pretty distressing stuff in the fighting world. And I don't want to be like that. It's not my nature and it's not the way I'm going to fight."
Georges St-Pierre defends his welterweight title against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 on Saturday night on pay-per-view.
Jonathan Snowden is Bleacher Report's lead combat sports writer and the author of three books on the sport, including the best-selling Total MMA: Inside Ultimate Fighting.