GSP breaking through to the mainstream
The chiseled figure in the bicep-hugging Dolce & Gabbana sweater arrived at a Fashion Week party at the Giorgio Armani flagship on Fifth Avenue in a manner befitting a star. He ducked out of a rear door of a black Cadillac Escalade, curled his lips into a haughty smirk and strutted down the red carpet, past security and into the paparazzi scrum.
A busty, honey-blond model embraced him like a long lost friend, recounting how they had shared laughs in Paris, as cameras clicked away. But the man — Georges St-Pierre, the reigning Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight champion — couldn’t return the sentiment. An awkward smile froze on his rugged face. “I have no idea who this girl is,” he said.
He may have been the only man in the party who didn’t. She was Bar Refaeli, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model. “Leo DiCaprio’s girlfriend,” Mr. St-Pierre’s manager, Shari Spencer, shouted over a thundering R&B beat a few moments later, after watching the encounter from a few feet away. “She and Leo partied with you.”
Mr. St-Pierre, who showed up as part of a weeklong promotional tour of New York to raise his profile, dipped his head in mock shame, exposing the scars in his closely cropped scalp. If Mr. St-Pierre, a 29-year-old Quebec native, really wants to become a face that sells mixed martial arts to the mainstream, he’ll need to embrace the A-listers as enthusiastically as they seem to want to embrace him.
Mr. St-Pierre has a rabid following among testosterone-fueled, under-35 head-banger types who, in another era, rallied around Hulk Hogan.
The sport has shed some of the stigma that led Senator John McCain to once dismiss it as “human cockfighting.” Years after banning some of its more overtly prison-brawl maneuvers, like groin-kicking and hair-pulling, mixed martial arts is growing in respectability and giving boxing a run for its money. Last year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship — the sport’s most visible promotion company — tallied nearly eight million pay-per-view purchases, a record by any company, including any provider of boxing or professional wrestling, said Dave Meltzer, who tracks such figures for his newsletter, Wrestling Observer, and for Yahoo! Sports.
Top bouts have attracted celebrities like Mr. DiCaprio, Mandy Moore and Jessica Biel. And some fighters have already made incursions into the mainstream — a former champ, Chuck Liddell, has shown off his mohawk on “Entourage” and “Dancing with the Stars.”
But if the full-contact sport is going to take the next step and graduate from being a profitable niche obsession to a franchise with broad cultural appeal — with more cross-market tie-ins, corporate sponsorships and lucrative television contracts, the way that Nascar did in the 1990s — it would help to come up with a few handsome, highly presentable ambassadors.
Mr. St-Pierre, who is still in his athletic prime, says he’s ready for the job. “I’m trying to be that guy who brings the sport to the mainstream,” Mr. St-Pierre said over a Thai dinner before his evening of fashion parties. “I want to be the guy who made the difference.”
Last year, he was named fighter of the year by SI.com, and he is a celebrity coach on “The Ultimate Fighter,” a reality show on Spike. When he arrived at the Armani party, he had barely exited the Escalade when a young man with an Australian accent approached him for a handshake.
Mr. St-Pierre also seems like a safer option to sell the sport to soccer moms than some of his trash-talking brethren. The polite Canadian was one of the first fighters from his organization to appear in a suit at post-match press conferences. He has gentle ice-blue eyes and boyish smile, and over dinner, he recounted in his soft Québécois accent how he took up martial arts as a child because he was so relentlessly bullied at school. Unlike some fighters, he has only two tattoos, one a fleur-de-lis on one calf. It’s a similar pattern to the new GSP logo — his initials — that Mr. St-Pierre hopes will represent his brand.
Indeed, his manager — a former investment-banking consultant in her 40s who speaks in a pillowy Georgia lilt — seems to envision the fighter, who already has endorsement deals with Gatorade and Under Armour, as a marketing force that transcends his sport. That’s why she arranged his New York media tour to include television interviews outside his sport’s orbit, a meet-and-greet with editors from Details and GQ and a press conference with Serena Williams to announce a new charitable foundation in partnership the Mission skin care line.
“We want people to think of him as Georges St-Pierre first, then athlete, then fighter,” she said in Escalade as it lurched from party to party.
But for that to work, Mr. St-Pierre will have to steel himself for the tireless salesmanship it takes to become a celebrity. That night, he seemed about five-ninths committed to the prospect. Slouched in the darkened Cadillac, he batted away questions about ambitions with single-word responses.
Can mixed martial arts be bigger than boxing? “Absolutely,” he said, as he tapped away on his BlackBerry, trying to arrange a night of clubbing with friends afterward.
The first stop that night was a party for the designers Viktor & Rolf at Saks Fifth Avenue for the citywide Fashion’s Night Out event. Emerging from the elevator on the seventh floor of Saks, he carried himself with the heavy gait of a child being dragged to the orthodontist.
“I hate it,” he said of the process of glad-handing potential sponsors at parties. “They come at me, it’s all right, but me going after them? No, no, no. Not my thing.”
It didn’t help that the party turned out to be open to the public. There were no handlers to escort him and no celebrities to be photographed beside. Instead, Mr. St-Pierre, in his crisp D&G jeans and black patent leather basketball sneakers, stood frozen near the corner behind the Gucci suits, looking like a bully version of a store mannequin.
He didn’t go entirely unnoticed, however. “Wait, are you … ?” said a young surfer-type in a gray fleece jacket, one of the few men in the crowd who didn’t look as if he was dressed for a casting call for “Zoolander II.” “I’m very surprised to see this guy here,” he said after asking to be photographed with the champ. The majority of the crowd, however, was made up of women — it looked like a vast army of assistant editors at Elle. None seemed aware that a master of the Anaconda choke move was in their midst.
This is not to say that Mr. St-Pierre’s appeal is lost on women. Just the opposite. Earlier that day, Ms. Spencer said, a woman in her 30s had approached him as they dined at a restaurant in the East Village and confided that she was a real fan. She liked to make her husband dress up in a Georges St-Pierre T-shirt and murmur to her in a gruff French accent when the lights were low, she confided. Mr. St-Pierre smiled sheepishly as Ms. Spencer recounted the story.
In fact, Mr. St-Pierre insisted that at least 30 percent of the fans at his fights are women. “It’s made for everyone, but at the same time, it’s not made for everyone,” he said, adding, “It’s very violent.”
By that point, the fighter’s energy was visibly starting to flag. In the coming days, there would be meetings with corporate sponsors, television appearances and a batting practice photo-op with the Mets. While he was succeeding in getting in front of the public, Mr. St-Pierre was also starting to act as if he would rather take roundhouse kicks to the face inside the chain-link octagon than endure the tedious work of personal brand-building.
Picking up on his waning enthusiasm, Ms. Spencer escorted Mr. St-Pierre toward the elevators. Outside, Ms. Spencer reminded him that there was one more promotional duty for the night.
“Where are we going?” he asked wearily.
“Armani,” she told him.
“What are we going to do there?” he said, in an almost teenage whine.
“Mingle,” she said firmly.