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Friday, December 10, 2010
Diverse team core to GSP's success

By Josh Gross
ESPN.com

Georges St. Pierre won't inform his trainers before Saturday who landed the assignment to work the corner that night against Josh Koscheck.

And the 28-year-old UFC welterweight champion, appearing in his 10th title fight, might just decide based on the pitch of their respective voices.

The Bell Centre, host to UFC 124 in St. Pierre's hometown of Montreal, passes for the loudest fight-watching venue in the mixed martial arts universe. When St. Pierre defended his title against Matt Serra in front of 21,390 people to an ear-ringing conclusion, he couldn't hear his chief second, Greg Jackson, unless they were nose to nose.

If this weekend's sellout crowd of over 23,000 is as "insane" as UFC president Dana White predicts it to be, St. Pierre (20-2) and his team might actually find use for the sign language they developed to communicate during fights. Such are the innovations that Jackson has come to expect from Firas Zahabi, John Danaher and Phil Nurse -- who, beginning with a decision win over Koscheck in 2007, have served as the four legs of St. Pierre's training table.

"There's no obvious difference in outlook between any of us," said Danaher, a New Zealand-born Brazilian jiu-jitsu maestro who is one strong dissertation defense away from earning a Ph.D. at Columbia University. "We all have a strident belief in the idea of high-percentage mixed martial arts -- the idea of approaching the sport as a thoroughly professional athletic endeavor, with certain ways that will lead to success in the long term. We've always approached the sport in terms of strategy, technical nuance and thorough preparation. That sort of underlying philosophical element that the four of us share means there's no fundamental discrepancy in our view of training mixed martial arts. It's easy for us to get along, and since we work in slightly different areas there's no real cause for friction on technical areas."

St. Pierre trained with Danaher well before he was regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. He was literally a garbageman who managed regular eight-hour trips from Montreal to New York to find fight-related training. The two met at Renzo Gracie's academy in Manhattan, and Danaher has taught St. Pierre longer than anyone.

Through Danaher, St. Pierre hooked up with British Muay Thai specialist Phil Nurse, whose gym, "Wat," also resides in the city. "Rush" got to know Firas Zahabi, a Lebanese Muslim, as they rose through the ranks together in Montreal. And Jackson, operator of one of the most successful gyms in the U.S., came on board to train St. Pierre when he was slated to fight another Danaher pupil, Matt Serra.

That their skill sets vary hardly makes the quartet unique in the coaching world. The men working 33-year-old Koscheck's corner -- Javier Mendez, Bob Cook and Dave Camarillo -- are as skilled and successful, having helped Cain Velasquez win the UFC heavyweight title in October. Yet there appears to be something unique in the way St. Pierre's camp operates, looks and feels.

"Georges' entire entourage is quite unique in its diversity," said his manager, Shari Spencer. "I think that's a part of it."

Diversity of opinion. Diversity of background. A diverse St. Pierre -- in the cage and out.

On the rare occasions when the trainers congregate, such as Thursday when the Albuquerque-based Jackson plans on joining his colleagues at Zahabi's Tristar Gym, they'll clown around as much as they can. But it's mainly business. Late suggestions, observations, themes, tactical concerns. They're all discussed, generally sans St. Pierre, who by this time is settled on what he wants to do to his opponent. This, said Jackson, is so the trainers are "working from the same sheet of music" on fight night.

"Those meetings to me are very productive," Nurse said. "I think they're very much needed. There's no use having something in your head wishing you said it. We come up with a lot of things in those meetings I feel some people would never even think of."

The focus of their attention for a second time is Koscheck (15-4), who failed at his strength -- wrestling -- when he tangled with St. Pierre three years ago. Both fighters have grown, though a good case could be made that St. Pierre is more improved than his challenger. Rematches are generally a good indicator, said Zahabi, because St. Pierre's ability to adapt and open his mind to the lessons of experience are on display.

"It's my opinion that the more rounds he banks in with Koscheck, the easier it is for him to beat his opponent," Zahabi said. "Georges' game is very complex; it has many layers and he's far more difficult to figure out."

Those dimensions exist in some measure due to the people guiding St. Pierre's career, though none of the four was willing to take credit for his charge's success. Nor were they going to accept the premise that trainers Freddie Roach, Otis Grant and Bruno Fernandes weren't worthy of a mention.

"Beware too much of thinking of the four of us as Georges St. Pierre's brain trust," Danaher cautioned. "We're not that smart. And the really important point is a huge part of that brain trust is Georges St. Pierre himself. I think there's a widely held belief -- and I believe erroneously held belief -- that Georges is a kind of programmed computer, that he has a brain trust behind him that puts ideas in his head and he's the physical powerhouse that carries them out. I don't believe this is at all an accurate picture.

"I've seen so many talented athletes in various sports, not just mixed martial arts, who have coaches that were overzealous in their claims as to why their athletes succeeded. The four of us have had effects on Georges, but I'm heartened to say that none of us would be so egotistical to claim that we're the reason for that. I think you can point, really, to Georges himself as to why he's so successful."

To that end, St. Pierre will want to hear the advice of his team as best as possible as he dances with Koscheck. After all, they've won seven in a row together. Whose voice will make the cut? There can only be one, and it's usually Jackson.

The champ will let them know on fight day.

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.