Georges St-Pierre: Training with Freddie Roach ‘a fighter’s fantasy’ ahead of UFC 217

(This story was originally published on usatoday.com.)

LOS ANGELES – Freddie Roach steps into an unfamiliar field of combat this weekend, when the Hall of Fame boxing coach emerges as a fascinating subplot behind one of the UFC’s most intriguing bouts of the year.

Roach has had a key involvement in the preparations of Georges St-Pierre (25-2 MMA, 19-2 UFC), the returning UFC superstar, for his fight against reigning middleweight champion Michael Bisping (30-7 MMA, 20-7 UFC) at UFC 217. St-Pierre hopes that Roach’s trademark pugilistic coaching abilities, which worked on Manny Pacquiao with great success, can transfer to the octagon.

“Having him this whole camp is like a fighter’s fantasy,” St-Pierre said, ahead of Saturday’s pay-per-view main event at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Before retiring at his peak four years ago, St-Pierre, now 36, occasionally worked with Roach on his punching techniques.

For his comeback, however, things are very different. Roach has been an ongoing contributor in advance of the bout against Bisping, the veteran British mixed martial artist who has sought to rile his Canadian rival with some spicy pre-event smack talk.

Roach flew up to St-Pierre’s Montreal base each week throughout camp and embraced the different nuances of a sport with a handful of similarities to boxing, but a multitude of differences.

“I know a lot of boxers want me to hate (MMA) because they see it as a competitor, but I don’t,” Roach said at his Wildcard Gym last week. “But they are both sports I can help someone get better at and if I can do that in life I am happy to do it.”

Roach is 57 now but his career is still evolving, even as Pacquiao and his other big-name boxer, Miguel Cotto, near the ends of theirs. On the day USA TODAY Sports visited the Wildcard, once a boxing-only zone, Cotto was going through his paces alongside Aaron Pico, an emerging MMA fighter who competes in the Bellator organization.

It is no coincidence. The UFC and the rest of the MMA scene has seen a growing trend toward punching power and boxing nous as a route to success.

With all fighters having been forced to improve their wrestling, grappling and jiu-jitsu, the playing field in those techniques has leveled. And so, sheer knockout force can now provide the X-factor that shifts the outcome of many fights.

That was seen in high-profile contests such as Amanda Nunes’ brutal knockout of judo expert Ronda Rousey last December, heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic’s long run of early stoppage wins and perhaps most notably, the exploits of Conor McGregor, whose fierce left hand earned him top UFC billing and a lucrative boxing match with Floyd Mayweather.

“Freddie has the quality to work with any kind of combat sport,” Cotto, who will box competitively for the last time against Sadam Ali on Dec. 2, said. “He is so professional. I know he can do good things, no matter if it is boxing or not. He is going to be a great trainer (for St-Pierre).”

Bisping, as was to be expected, gave little credence to the theory that Roach can make a significant difference to St-Pierre.

“If Georges was coming to Los Angeles and going to Wildcard and training with all the killers in there on a daily basis, that would be a little different,” Bisping said at a UFC media lunch in Beverly Hills last week. “The best thing about Freddie Roach is the gym and all the fighters Freddie has. When he goes to Montreal he doesn’t have that with him.”

Roach enjoys the back and forth and has let rip with a few shots of his own, enjoying the hoopla of the UFC world and even hyping a potential fight between St-Pierre and McGregor, one that would surely shatter all known UFC pay-per-view records.

Meanwhile, he sits happily as a cog in the St-Pierre wheel, watching intently when the wrestling and martial arts coaches have their time, soaking it in, then taking center stage when it is time to work on punching.

“Everyone is an expert and one thing or another and I’m still learning,” he smiled. “This is fun.”

For more on UFC 217, check out the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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