If you ever want a lesson in how fast the perception of public figures can change, you could do worse than to look at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre in the wake of his past two successful title defenses.
After St. Pierre beat Nick Diaz via (what else?) unanimous decision, the mixed martial arts (MMA) community was abuzz, discussing all the nuggets of unabashed crazy talk that came out of Diaz's mouth leading up to -- and after -- the much-anticipated showdown.
In stark contrast to the press conference skipping, tax evading, weed smoking, wolf ticket shunning, excuse-making son of a gun from the 209, the always composed St. Pierre appeared to be the very picture of the well-adjusted, highly successful superstar athlete.
What a difference eight months can make.
Fans who joked when the ever image-conscious St. Pierre mentioned going to his "dark place" before the fight with Diaz may have finally gotten a glimpse into that murky window, after he defended his 170-pound title against Johny Hendricks at UFC 167 this past Saturday night (Nov. 16, 2013) by the skin of his teeth.
That, coupled with St. Pierre's admission he lost his memory during the match because of how hard Hendricks hit him, was troubling enough. Then came the post-fight press conference (watch video replay here), during which the impenetrable steely reserve and smiles worthy of a campaigning politician that usually mark St. Pierre's demeanor at these events were replaced by a visibly hurt and confused countenance.
The effect was like that of a cracked flood wall doing all it could to hold back a raging current.
"I can't sleep at night now," an obviously agitated St. Pierre told the press. "I have issues, I am going crazy."
Just when the emotionally vulnerable champ's defenses seemed just on the breaking point, UFC President Dana White stepped in, like some swaggering FEMA agent, and prevented the emotional tempest swirling in St. Pierre's breast from spilling over his defenses by emphatically shutting down all questions pertaining to his apparent retirement.
And that's where our voyeuristic window into whatever inner-turmoil the normally self-possessed St. Pierre is wrestling with was emphatically slammed shut.
Perhaps it isn't fair to attempt to analyze a man based off a brief snippet of his life he allowed us access to while his brain was still cluttered with the cobwebs endemic to getting punched in the face for 25 minutes; however, given that St. Pierre is a public figure, part of telling his story is at least attempting to put together what pieces of information we do know and attempting to make sense of them.
In UFC: "Primetime" series (watch it here) that aired in the weeks before UFC 167, St. Pierre had mentioned how his obsessive focus on his opponents before a fight often keeps him awake at night. One theory coming out of his announcement Saturday night was that perhaps the champ's mind is starting to crack under the strain of walking around with his opponent on his mind 24/7, like his brain was an old VCR being perpetually rewound to the same scenes day-after-day until eventually the gears inside burn out.
From a storytelling perspective it's a rather juicy theory. The story of arguably the greatest fighter of his generation --and the most financially successful MMA star in history -- suffering a Howard Hughes-style breakdown because of the obsessive mental traits that led to his success in the first place backfiring on him would offer plenty of meat to sink one's literary teeth into.
However, behind the composed facade seen in Under Armour and Coca Cola sponsorships, St. Pierre is still a human being. If he really is going through something as serious as all that -- if like so many genius artists before him, the demon inside that urged him on to greatness has now turned malignant -- then now is not the time to be airing that dirty laundry in public.
If St. Pierre is cracking up under the strain of doing what it takes to be the best, he deserves a wide berth away from the public eye and whatever time he needs to get his head straight (as for his UFC Welterweight title, my take is this: Give him three months to come to a decision, and if by the end of Jan. 2014 he doesn't want to commit to an eventual return, vacate the belt).
Another possibility is that St. Pierre, who mentioned vision problems, as well as memory loss after his bout with Hendricks, is feeling the neurological effects of a career spent getting hit in the head over the course of 27 professional fights and countless hours spent sparring in training. If that is the case, then it would be best for GSP to walk away from the sport for good before suffering any more undue harm to his brain.
Consider this alarming statistic DeadSpin.com recently highlighted:
"If this is the predictable consequence of an athlete aging out of his physical prime, it may also have something to do with the costs of his style. St-Pierre has now spent 5:28:12 in the cage, the most of anyone in UFC history by far. Since he first won the welterweight title, he's taken, in addition to who knows how many shots in training, 875 strikes in competition, per the official statistics, with nearly half-412-now having come in his last three bouts. This was a tremendous contest, the most compelling St-Pierre has ever had, but even if you scored it for him you'd have allowed, as soon as the final bell rang, that this was clearly the end of something, and that he's now a somewhat lesser version of himself."
Of course it is entirely possible St. Pierre's admitted "issues" have nothing to do with the pressures of competing in the Octagon. Earlier this morning, gossip-mongering website TMZ reported the reason St. Pierre is under so much strain as of late has to do with the one-two punch of his father dealing with a terminal illness and accidentally impregnating a woman who, against his wishes, insists on keeping the baby.
As with any TMZ report, it is obviously best to take this with not just a grain, but a few handfuls of salt. In fact, one-half of that possible reason, the health of St. Pierre's father, has already proven to be entirely untrue.
However, if there is any truth to the remaining rumor, then the strain St. Pierre is under is entirely understandable, even if White thinks it's "really not that bad."
If the pregnancy story turns out to be accurate, then St. Pierre is right to think media will not ignore it, and in the process, tarnish the clean-cut image he has worked tirelessly over the years to manicure to maddening perfection. Is it the end of the world, though? Certainly not to the average layperson, but to a complicated individual such as St. Pierre -- one who is is incredibly well off -- it could be cause to completely freak out.
Regardless, the thing with rumors and speculation is that neither provide us with concrete answers. And even if we have no right to expect those answers, in this case it feels extra frustrating to be left without them.
After all, in a world full of ambiguity, where self-doubt is always lurking around the corner for some of us, for years St. Pierre's unflappable greatness and mental toughness has been one constant MMA fans could depend on. Now, after his cryptic comments on Saturday night, it seems even the great Georges St-Pierre is subject to the ravages of time in this vale of blood, sweat and tears.
And maybe even a scary dose of real life.