Fans and stars of Ultimate Fighting Championship think it has a shot at being bigger than boxing. But one thing missing from this weekend’s big UFC bout — which some sports writers call the biggest UFC fight ever — is the severe smack-talking of boxing.
Last week, UFC headliners BJ Penn and Georges St. Pierre gave a telephone news conference to writers, and there was only one really testy exchange. Penn used a fleeting, taunting tone to ask St. Pierre about his seeing a sports psychologist.
"Does that help you out, Georges?" Penn asked. "You got psychological problems or what?"
"It does" help, St. Pierre said kindly. "I don’t have any psychological problems. And it just helps me to perform better."
That was it. End of taunting, for the most part, which leaves Penn and St. Pierre actually talking about their skills. Penn expects St. Pierre to throw a "bombardment" of attacks at him.
"He’s going to try to kick me hard. He’s going to try to punch me hard. He’s going to try to slam me on my head," Penn said. "I don’t have a specific technique that I’m going to beat him with. I’m just going to beat him with my mind and my heart."
Since then, I’ve talked with St. Pierre, and his words and demeanor were gentlemanly. He said he sees a sports psychologist about every week or two. The counselor helps him concentrate, focus and visualize the imagery and "scenario" of an upcoming fight, to "keep my eyes on the goal, and let nothing else bother me," St. Pierre said.
A lot of fighters don’t want to admit they could benefit from a psychologist, he told me. He understands their reticence, since he used to feel the same way.
"The first time somebody told me, ‘You should see a sports psychologist,’ I was like, ‘No, I’m not crazy. I don’t need that stuff,’ " he said. "But after you see one, it’s good. … Instead of reading a book, it’s somebody who tells you how to see things."
I wanted to see if St. Pierre would be boastful of his potential for being a sex symbol. So I asked him about groupies throwing themselves at him. He stayed focused.
"Ah!" he said with his Quebecois-tinged English. "There are not women who throw themselves at my feet. That’s not true. I have a lot of fans, but a woman who throws herself at me? I’m not like Michael Jackson or someone like that."
Like a lot of people who watch UFC fighters get beat up, I always wonder how much long-term physical damage they’re dealing with. So I asked St. Pierre how his body’s holding up: "Do you have all your teeth and your hearing, from all the punches?"
"I’ve got everything," he said. "I have a good mouthpiece. I train hard. But more importantly, I train smart. To have a long career, that’s more important."
St. Pierre’s calm approach is a lot different than the cussword-happy UFC President Dana White, who boastfully claimed in that news conference that mixed martial arts will become the most popular sport in the world — more than football, soccer and everything else — because people enjoy seeing two guys fight.
"I don’t care what country you come from, what color you are, or what language you speak," White said. "We’re all human beings, and fighting is in our DNA. We like it. We get it. It doesn’t have to be explained to us. You know?"
St. Pierre doesn’t disagree that UFC will get bigger. He’s just so much more peaceful when he talks about how laws will be overturned in New York and other states that don’t allow UFC fights now.
"It’s just a matter of time before it’s legal everywhere," St. Pierre said. "If you look at boxing, it took a lot of time for boxing to be approved everywhere. It took more time in boxing than in MMA."
So there you go. In this corner: the gentleman brutalizer Georges St. Pierre, who still has all his teeth. In the other corner: the only slightly annoyed BJ Penn, who will fight with his heart. In their big fight, they will raise their fists like warriors, trying to pound out blood on the Octagon.
What do you think about all this? Write your thoughts on my blog (reviewjournal.com/elfman) or e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org), and I’ll post them. My column runs Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. See you then.Preview UFC 94: BJ Penn vs. Georges St. Pierre 4:15 p.m. Saturday MGM Grand Garden arena, 3799 Las Vegas Blvd. South $50-$750 (474-4000)