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Wagenheim: Why Georges St-Pierre is the greatest fighter ever

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St-Pierre's legacy cemented as greatest MMA fighter of all time (1:54)

Ariel Helwani details why Georges St-Pierre is the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, winning a record 13 UFC title fights. (1:54)

It didn't hurt that Georges St-Pierre is a supremely fit athlete, fast and fluid and robust enough to render another man powerless. But even as GSP was sharpening his fighting skills in the gym over the years and utilizing them like a boss inside the Octagon, his focus always was more far-reaching.

"My goal is to be the most efficient, quickest-thinking fighter," St-Pierre, who announced his retirement on Thursday in his hometown of Montreal, wrote in his 2013 memoir. "I aim to be flexible, open-minded and ready for any situation."

It is this sublime blend of the physical and the cerebral -- and the byproduct of it, to the tune of a 26-2 record and UFC championships in two weight divisions -- that makes St-Pierre the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.

Why not Jon Jones? Anderson Silva? Fedor Emelianenko? Each of those Mount Rushmore immortals has a long list of accolades in his plus column. But it is the minus column that sets GSP apart.

While Jones and Silva have dazzled and dominated, each has failed multiple tests for performance-enhancing drugs. That has to factor into their legacies. As for Emelianenko, he conquered all comers for a decade but did so outside the UFC. Longtime fans will regard his days in the Pride Fighting Championships with fondness, but in the dozen years since that promotion shut down, Fedor has not swung a bat in the major leagues. That matters.

St-Pierre, by contrast, spent the better part of seven years at the top of the finest pile of welterweights on the planet. He stepped away from the sport in 2013 as a reigning champion, and four years later, he returned to capture the middleweight belt. He did all of this without the taint of a positive drug test, and that is a big positive for him. If GSP were a politician, pollsters would characterize him as having extremely low negatives.

The St-Pierre approval rating draws on factors beyond his numbers, of course, but let's start there. He won his last 13 fights, and 13 is also his number of title bout victories, the most in UFC history. The only two losses of GSP's career -- to Matt Hughes in 2004 and Matt Serra in 2007 -- he avenged with knockout wins.

Digging deeper into the 37-year-old St-Pierre's statistics reveals a fighter well-rounded in his supremacy. Despite having no competitive background in wrestling, he landed the most takedowns in UFC history (90), according to UFC Stats. His black belt in Kyokushin karate and his boxing training enabled him to become the only welterweight in the promotion's history to land more than 1,000 strikes (1,254). And his 2.39 strike differential -- strikes landed for every strike absorbed -- is the best of any 170-pounder in the UFC, ever.

The true beauty of St-Pierre as an athlete, though, wasn't just his diversity of skills. Even more so, it was the smarts he showed in employing those varied techniques. This did not come naturally to him, despite all appearances to the contrary. It arose from the bitter aftertaste of a hard-won lesson in the biggest upset in UFC championship history.

It was April 2007 and St-Pierre was making the first defense of the belt he had won nearly five months earlier with a spectacular head-kick finish of Matt Hughes in his second shot at becoming a 170-pound champ. He now was facing Matt Serra, winner of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality show, and was an 11-1 favorite. The night did not go as expected; GSP was KO'd in the first round.

"When he connected with a good head shot, I should have backed off and got my wits about me, but I didn't," GSP wrote in "The Way of the Fight," which is part autobiography, part philosophical treatise. "I couldn't believe what was happening to me. My ego didn't like it. Instead, all I could think was, 'Wow, I've been rattled by this little guy. Wow, I can't let that happen. I need to get him out RIGHT NOW!' So the real mistake was pride."

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2:43

Sport Science highlights GSP from his prime

In 2011, Georges St-Pierre's impressive punching power was measured by Sport Science.

From that point forward, St-Pierre swallowed his pride on the way to chewing up all opposition. He rejected the macho-man challenge of lingering in the danger zone of an opponent's most destructive weapons. That, to GSP, was an unnecessary risk. He would never again stick out his chin to see how much fight the other guy had in him. He was all about disarming that adversary by putting him in a position where he could not put up a fight.

So when he defended his belt against Jake Shields in 2011 before a then-UFC record crowd of 55,724 at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, St-Pierre didn't roll on the canvas with the submission wrestling ace; he ended Shields' 15-fight win streak by battering him in the standup. The next year, when he took on Carlos Condit, a dangerous striker with a deficiency in wrestling, GSP scored seven takedowns on the way to a unanimous-decision victory. Others who might have game-planned to stand and trade with St-Pierre also were put on their backs early and often: Nick Diaz nine times, Thiago Alves 10 times and Dan Hardy 11 times.

GSP was never interested in puffing out his chest and beating someone at his own game. Inside the Octagon, it was always Georges' home game.

Outside the cage, however, St-Pierre did not always take the path of least resistance. He surely did not endear himself to the UFC brass in 2014 when he acknowledged that one of the reasons he had stepped away from the sport was what he perceived as a lack of support from the promotion as he campaigned for more stringent PED testing. "It bothered me greatly," he said.

Two years later, GSP was a prominent player in an effort to get a fighters' union off the ground. "The UFC without fighters is just three letters of the alphabet," he said during an introductory news conference for the Mixed Martial Arts Athletes Association. "It's time for us to make our voice heard."

Standing up for his fellow fighters and for the sport itself make St-Pierre an outlier among star performers, but as honorable as that is, it doesn't factor into anointing him as the GOAT. Neither does the consistently pleasant demeanor of Gentleman Georges, who was never one to talk trash -- other than the time he entered the cage following a Matt Hughes victory and famously said, "I was not impressed by your performance." (He later expressed regret for his mild bit of rudeness, naturally.) Why even bring these things up, then? Because they show that there's strong character at the root of every last page of the GSP story. It's all part of the total package.

Georges St-Pierre's final act inside the cage came in November 2017, when he returned after four years away and choked out Michael Bisping for the middleweight title. Barely a month later, he vacated the belt, much to the chagrin of UFC president Dana White. That likely spoiled any chance GSP had of being booked for the one remaining fight he coveted: a shot at a third title in a matchup with undefeated lightweight champ Khabib Nurmagomedov. That fight would have been nice to have, but no matter. The GSP legacy in MMA already shines more brightly than any other. And St-Pierre's exit from the sport mirrors his participation in it: He always operates on his own terms.