Wrestling Canada officials are intrigued by Georges St-Pierre’s interest in wrestling at the Olympics but, like the mixed martial arts star himself, are tempering their enthusiasm with a dose of realism.
The 28-year-old UFC welterweight champion from Montreal says he is mulling over giving up his title and walking away from MMA to spend 18 months devoting himself to making a run at the 2012 Games in London.
Canadian wrestling coach Dave McKay, a two-time Olympian who finished fifth at the 1988 Olympics, has never met St-Pierre or seen him wrestle. But he is no stranger to MMA and speaks highly of his skills.
Still, he says getting to the 2012 Games will be a tall order for St-Pierre, who would have to win the Canadian Olympic trials and hope that he or someone else earns Canada a berth in the 84-kilogram Olympic weight class.
“Without a doubt. Time is not on his side,” McKay told The Canadian Press. “I mean we’re talking about athletes who typically go through about eight to 10 years of preparation before they can hit the international scene . . . The greatest impediment in this story or this scenario is time to accumulate that experience.
“It is not lack of ability, it is not lack of desire . . . He’s a top international champion, but to make it to the top level in wrestling, he’s going to need time and we’re not just talking just months, we’re talking years.”
Still McKay would like to see him give it a shot.
“I think it would be really exciting for our sport to have him in the program. Personally I’d be really excited to see how it does. I think it could only be a positive for wrestling.”
Wrestling Canada president Clive Llewellyn, a supporter of mixed martial arts, has high hopes should GSP devote himself to wrestling.
“He’s got incredible talent, balance, focus, drive, direction, and in amateur wrestling he could actually harness all of that in such a way that he would be a formidable opponent,” he said. “He would have to learn to shut down the attack against him and then he’d have to learn how to score in a particular way.
“Do I think he’s capable of that? Absolutely.”
Mike Jones, wrestling coach at Simon Fraser University, would also welcome St-Pierre to the sport.
“He is a very good athlete with a high profile in the MMA world,” he said in an email. “He certainly would not be starting from scratch and the difficulty would be in adapting to sport-specific rules and technique.”
St-Pierre is considered the best wrestler in mixed martial arts, able to take opponents down to the ground and control them there. But amateur wrestling is different from the wrestling that is incorporated into MMA.
“One is a sense of beating up your opponent until he submits,” said Llewellyn, referring to MMA. “The other is controlling the opponent in such a way that you’re scoring points.”
No modern-day UFC fighter has scored more takedowns that St-Pierre, according to FightMetric which tracks the sport.
He has succeeded on 63 of 80 takedown attempts for a success rate of some 79 per cent. The UFC average is 45 per cent.
Opponents, meanwhile, have succeeded on just five of 40 takedown attempts against GSP. That puts his takedown defence rate at 87.5 per cent, compared to the UFC average of 55 per cent.
No one is questioning St-Pierre’s athletic skills or desire.
“All indications are he certainly is a super well-conditioned athlete, that’s pretty obvious,” said McKay. “He’s very strong mentally. . . . He shows the physical capacity, the mental capacity. And pretty good wrestling skills, from what I’ve seen. Certainly he has a lot of what it takes to be an accomplished wrestler.”
Rob Moore, who helps coach St-Pierre at the Montreal Wrestling Club at the George Reinitz Wrestling Centre, says the fighter has a lot going for him.
“One, he’s extremely coachable, two, he learns fast and, three, he trains very hard. He has an outstanding work ethic.”
St-Pierre’s coaches in Montreal include Victor Zilberman, who assisted McKay at the 2008 Beijing Games.
Making the Olympics as a wrestler is a two-tiered process. Canada would have to qualify in that weight class and St-Pierre would have to win the Canadian Olympic trials in December 2011. That would include beating the national champion – twice.
The current Canadian title-holder at 84 kilograms is Travis Cross, a 30-year-old firefighter from Port Alberni, B.C.
“He’s been reasonably close in cracking into top five and medal contention,” McKay said of Cross’s status internationally. “And Travis is a veteran in the program and certainly a front-runner.”
Earning an Olympic berth can be accomplished by finishing top eight at the world championships or excelling at the continental championships where Canada must contend with strong competition from the U.S. and Cuba.
Cross earned Canada a spot in his weight class at the Beijing Games when he finished eighth at the 2007 world championships.
Olympic qualifying can also be achieved by winning one of several wild-card tournaments, which like the continental championship come after the Canadian trials.
No matter who earns the Olympic qualification spot, it will go to the wrestler who wins the Canadian trials.
Just making it to the Olympics is a feat for any wrestler. The Olympic field is restricted to 16 wrestlers in each of the seven weight divisions.
On the men’s side, Canada sent one Greco-Roman and five freestyle wrestlers for the 2008 Games.
No matter what GSP decides, Llewellyn sees the ties growing between the two sports.
“For example if you want to do amateur wresting at Red Deer, Alberta, you’re going to have to do it at an MMA club because there’s no local senior men’s wrestling club. Because most of those are at universities and the University of Red Deer doesn’t have a team,” said Llewellyn, a lawyer who coaches amateur wrestling at the BDB Martial Arts gym in Calgary.
Should St-Pierre elect to follow his Olympic dream, wrestling will benefit whether he makes it or not. But McKay is realistic in the interim.
“Until somebody weighs in and steps on the mat, we’re just talking about it. . . . Everybody speaks with their performance on the mat in these sports. But I mean it’s a great story and it’ll be interesting to see how it turns out and develops.”