Sunday, 14 April 2013
Review: Georges St. Pierre, The Way of the Fight
Not a pure autobiography in the usual sense of the word, in this book St. Pierre writes about scenes from his life and some of his formative influences. As he describes them, these are the Mother, Mentor, Master, Maven and Conscience, which correspond to chapters about his childhood with comments from his maman (Mother), and then chapters with his first real sensei, Kristof Midoux (Mentor), his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teacher, John Danaher (Master), his coach, Firas Zahabi (Maven), and his friend, Rodolphe Beaulieu (Conscience).
Ever the consummate professional, critics of St. Pierre's performance in the ring have complained that he lacks the killer instinct, saying that he plays it safe and doesn't take unnecessary risks. He wins, to be sure, but he doesn't finish opponents, or at least, he hasn't finished opponents since his 2009 fight against BJ Penn. After reading this book, I better understand why.
St. Pierre is a master strategist, as well as a master tactician, and he understands how his opponents will fight. His objective is to get ahead on points so that his opponents are forced to take risks, while taking as few risks as possible himself. It is a successful strategy, and given the personal risk he faces every time he enters the octagon, (both physically, of getting badly hurt and financially, of losing purse money and endorsement contracts), who is to say that this approach is not sound? Not I. I think St. Pierre is one of the more intelligent fighters out there, and it's always a pleasure to watch him at work, disassembling an opponent's game plan and crippling their resolve and will to fight. You could see this most profoundly in the 2009 Penn fight, when Penn's corner literally threw in the towel, but you could also see it as recently as the 2013 Diaz fight, where Diaz stumbled through 5 rounds of a solid schooling in mixed martial arts at the hand of a master.
More than a pure autobiography, this is a book of philosophy, in which St. Pierre explains his life philosophy as well as his fighting philosophy. A true polymath, St. Pierre incorporates many disparate elements from eastern teachings, history, geometry, anthropology and martial arts into his approach to life and work, and the combination is what makes him so special and so successful as a fighter. St. Pierre takes a much more analytical approach to life and work than most people, and certainly, most fighters.
It is his continual drive to improve that makes him so successful, and also keeps him from the normal life that others enjoy. I got the very real sense of estrangement from St. Pierre as I read this book. He must keep an emotional distance from many others in his line of work, both because the profession is a demanding one requiring many hours of work each day, and because anyone who has enjoyed his level of success must be careful to limit access to his inner circle. The Japanese have a concept of masks - the public mask, that others see, and the private mask, that only few ever witness. With St. Pierre, his public mask is on almost all the time, and the glimpses of his private mask are tantalizingly few, granted only occasionally, and only to the privileged inner sanctum.
It's a pity, really, because St. Pierre comes across as a very loyal, very intelligent, and very likable guy in this book, if tremendously driven. Almost obsessively driven, in fact. It would be interesting to get a glimpse behind the curtain, but it's unlikely that this will ever happen, at least so long as he is competing professionally in MMA. Too bad - he seems like the kind of person who would have some interesting things to say about history or physical anthropology.
If you are hoping to understand what makes St. Pierre successful, this book will give you a bit of information that will cause you to re-watch his fights with a fresh eye. If you are hoping to understand what makes St. Pierre the man the way he is, this book will not give you much. The book is, after all, written for the public mask of GSP, the fighter and the brand, not Georges St. Pierre, the man.
This book is as much about delivering on the GSP brand as all of his other very well-thought out marketing activities. As a person, St. Pierre understands that he is the product, and this book is intended to reinforce the brand rather than illuminate the person.
Within these limitations, though, this was a surprisingly well written book, and a very enjoyable read. I suspect that not only followers of MMA would enjoy this book, but also scholars of philosophy, and anyone who wonders what it is that makes the truly successful succeed.
A wonderful counterpoint to Sam Sheridan's The Fighter's Heart (Grove Press, ISBN 9780802143433) and The Fighter's Mind (Grove Press, ISBN 9780802145017), this book made me want to adopt some of St. Pierre's success strategies - - his visualization, and his goal setting, and his work ethic. As St. Pierre writes in his opening, every single morning takes root the night before. It makes me wonder what I can do tonight to make myself more successful tomorrow.