Folks have a definite tendency to take a look at St. Pierre vs. Penn and say something along the lines of "well, GSP is the most dominant 170 lb. fighter I can imagine, and BJ Penn is probabaly the most dominant 155 lb. fighter in the world, so St. Pierre gets this because he's got 15 more lbs. of pure domination."
This viewpoint is of course an over-simplification, but it generally reflects the public consensus. And in all fairness, it actually held true the first time these two fought. It was an even contest edged over by the size and strength of St. Pierre more than any other factor, and this ultimately raises the question of how BJ Penn would be able to avoid this outcome again.
Disclaimer: first time poster, long post. Related tangents are numbered and boxed-- total nerd-out, I know.
GEORGES ST. PIERRE:
Great athlete. Great wrestler. Smart striker. As a purportedly voracious student of the game and a natural physical talent, Georges St. Pierre calls upon the most obsessively complete arsenal of moves in all of MMA. He talks about his techniques in this very same light, as a detached set of tools from which he (and his team) can design and construct the ideal beating to suit his competitor.
 In a recent interview from the Gracie Barra academy in Brazil (Georges earned a Gracie Barra BJJ black belt while prepping for this fight), he even went as far as to tease that there were techniques at his disposal people had never seen before. There's something important in this to the very core of what makes Georges a fascinating fighter; he's as calculated and robotic and polished in everything that he does. He delivers a straight punch, a double-leg takedown or an interview response with such craftsmanlike perfection that it doesn't strain the imagination to think he can do anything well with the proper preparation.
This detachment won him the decision victory in his first encounter with Penn, where he found himself baffled and beaten up on the feet, suffering from a glancing eye poke and a broken nose in the process. He came back out in the second round with a new gameplan and proceeded to punt on the striking war altogether, using his size and wrestling (as well as tactical intelligence) to nullify the advantages Penn had sought to exploit.
This is sometimes argued in reverse with the eye poke being the cause for the lost standup exchanges; admittedly possible, but broken noses and poked eyes are things that happen accidentally when one is struck in the face over and over again.
Georges would later suffer an even worse first round in his first fight with Matt Serra, when he was surprised by a series of concussive hooks from the T-Rex arms of "the Terra." While dismissed by many as a random occurance, when Serra fought Karo Parisyan he got inside and floored him with a chin shot in exactly the same fashion (ten seconds into the first round), so this wasn't completely unprecedented. My point being that Matt Serra is a documented threat in the pocket, and this single loss sent GSP back to the drawing board.
What he came back with shocked everyone. Out of nowhere the Van-Damme "Kickboxer" GSP had been replaced by a fighter who would lock horns with the best pedigreed wrestlers in the wrestler-heavy welterweight division, take them down and beat them at their own game. Hughes, Koscheck and Fitch garnished St. Pierre v2's Montreal stoppage of Serra, as pantherlike takedowns and one-sided ground-and-pound replaced standup karate as fans' image of what a champion-level beatdown looked like.
Such is the depth of St. Pierre.
GSP trained with the Canadian Olympic Wrestling team and there was talk of him trying out for the Olympics. You couldn't make this stuff up, right?
Of course, the question nobody stopped to ask in the midst of the excitement over GSP 2.0 would go something like this:
"Where the hell did that come from?"
Possibilities I see:
1) He found enchanted spandex with magic wrestling powers.
2) He was actually walking around with this kind of a wrestling game the entire time, but never opted to use it.
Followup question: What's different now all of a sudden?
The slightly less-obvious answer: There's a range at which he now feels it's advantageous to be on the mat.
Somewhat less-obvious correlary: There's a range at which he prefers NOT to be standing up with an opponent.
I believe there's one other fighter in the UFC that shares GSP's penchant for chesslike ring mastery and tactical exchange. And it's going to get me in trouble to say. But Lyoto Machida and Georges deserve common mention for being the two most cerebral octagon presences today.
They both employ a rangy striking game that permits them to mentally dominate their opponents, timing them with fakes and sniping them from the outside with straight punches and superman punches, leg kicks and high kicks. But this type of approach requires that they protect a certain distance on the feet, and when this is threatened Lyoto alone opts to backpedal and sidestep. Georges St. Pierre used to respond gamely and wade into a standup brawl, but it's a random and dangerously fast variety of exchange that happens inside the pocket, and it's not conducive to the way GPS fights best (single, polished moves and salvoed combinations).
Georges seems to require a reset to create a little distance and re-establish his next move-- The best thing to do in a scramble isn't always clear (this should be accompanied by a slow motion replay of Serra's flailing 5'6" frame chasing
a stunned St. Pierre around the octagon), and if it so happens that you have the best (arguably) wrestling in the UFC, it's more than fair to opt to "hit the reset button" and move the fight to more favorable terms on the mat.
When a fighter adjusts as freakishly well as GSP does, it's hard to say the above reveals a weakness. At the very least though, it does express a preference on his part away from what's clearly not a strength. No fighter gets to choose from the menu of advantages Georges does, in a sport known for its variety of approaches. But all of this robotic universality suggests a more cerebral than instinctive fighter, and there are parts of a fight that cannot be managed through meticulous planning and preparation, milisecond-thin chaotic decisions that only hard-wired instinct can answer. And in those miliseconds are BJ Penn's only opportunity.
I'm just going to get it out there so all the hate can flow at the beginning and we can talk about concrete factors again: I truly believe BJ Penn is the more skilled fighter. But as has been demonstrated time and time again, this alone does not equate to a win. This is a fact that seems to continually surprise the BJ Penn of record, to the chagrin of fans and promotions alike.
Where much of GSP's strength comes from his chesslike employment of an array of practiced moves, Penn's lies in the seamless integration of a series of freakish gifts into a single, stubborn, enveloping offense. The Hawaiian is an aggressor of oceanic constance, battering the standing man with boxing and flexibly accomodating the grounded opponent with a masterful and active ground game that always looks to progress, to submit, to choke.
Regarding this sort of melded "grappling+striking" approach, there's only one competitor I know of in the entire breadth of the sport who looks like he does. Roll your eyes, but... I'm talking about Fedor Emelianenko. Both of these fighters enjoy a champion-level mastery of the ground game and highly regarded striking, but what joins them ultimately is that both truly incorporate the two as a single approach, and are able to seemingly progress a fight TOWARDS both a TKO stoppage or a submission simultaneously at all times. I won't pretend that there aren't stylistic differences, BJ Penn winning the lion's share of contests by RNC where Fedor favors the armbar, Freddie Roach praising BJ's striking and consistently badmouthing Fedor's, but these are two fighters whose MMA games are so welded to their being that they're known for not even bothering to develop gameplans. Following his tense but ultimately hilarious trouncing of Arlovski this past weekend, Fedor's camp admitted that their approach is to just put Fedor in the ring and let him flow with the pace of the fight. BJ Penn's own motto, which flavored all of his early work in the UFC, is the simplistic but accurate "Just Scrap." Both of these fighters carry a freakishly workmanline calm with them into the ring that leads their followers to declare them "natural" practitioners of the sport.
An important detail here: for such an accomplished groundfighter as BJ it is startling that he rarely looks to initiate takedowns. More startling is the reason; BJ Penn rarely finds himself losing a standup exchange, and will generally oblige to deliver punishment standing until his opponent falls down (out of the frying pan, and into the fire, so to speak). Setting aside this silver lining, it's an obvious and immense problem for someone whose strongest attribute of record is being a beast at BJJ, and one that's exacerbated when he goes up in weight: review his entire catalog of fights above the 155 lb. line and you will never see an example of him effectively using takedowns to create a grappling opportunity. It's a shame, because when BJ Penn gets on top of a grounded opponent it almost invariably results in a win, but it's also an indicator of the size and strength advantage he will concede. Even GSP has never been in a position to weather Penn's assault from the top, and it goes without saying that he will look to maintain thise streak on Saturday.
 The two true exceptions to this are Duane "Bang" Ludwig and Takanori Gomi-- in both cases he shot preemptively and early. He's attempted the occasional desperation single-leg on bigger guys, but for these two fights it was a matter of tactical approach.
[5 Renzo Gracie, Rodrigo Gracie, Georges St. Pierre, Matt Hughes and Lyoto Machida were never really threatened with offensive wrestling.
What people are at this point unilaterally expecting, and what I've felt for a while now, is that the X-factor of this fight will naturally have to be BJ's standup.
Former opponents of BJ Penn will all tell a similar story regarding his boxing: it's shockingly accurate. What they generally mean by this is that it's not just good for a Brazillian Jiu-Jitsu specialist, as they were expecting. It's good for anyone who fights for a living. In a story on UFC.com, Sean Sherk testifies his dismay at being struck on the chin, hard, over and over again. Renzo gracie, who fought BJ Penn at middleweight, said the same thing surprised him when they fought, as well as Georges St. Pierre (whom he cornered in GSP vs Penn I).
Penn has to look to create a brawl, but to say that it's standup superiority alone that makes this advantageous to BJ is to oversimplify. It's the calculating nature of GSP, and the invariably constant fight in Penn that should favor BJ in a scramble (a scrap, if you will).
To this end we can at least be assured that he, too, is intelligently coached for the fight. A couple months ago, video footage started appearing of a new coach in Penn's camp, someone who was barely present in the "Primetime" series but whose reputation has begun to circle in the MMA nerdsphere this past week.
Sergio Cunha is a Muay-Thai trainer whose roots are in the Chute Boxe academy, the Manhattan Project of brawling in MMA. Recently he's indicated publicly in inverviews that their training has focused on closing the distance, and the effective use of elbows and knees as well as boxing. To be honest, I'm a bit surprised to see him as tactically forthright in an interview, but this seems to fit with "Team Penn" as a style-- direct, verbal, and pugilistically inclined.
That's all I've got. Regardless of outcome I cannot wait for this fight. Some closing thoughts:
- Aside from what he does in the octagon, the only other factor that improves BJ's odds in my opinon is not as much his lasting power as his physical bulk; I believe if this fight progresses into the later rounds it invariably swings towards Georges, whether ultimately going to stoppage or decision. What I'm referring to is adding muscle mass for the simple sake of making himself harder to bully and control in the critical second and third rounds. I haven't checked the weigh-in pics yet but he has generally looked a bit more built prepping for this fight, at the very least sans the love handles he's sported going up in the past.
- Continuing on the above, it's an ironic twist that if Muay-Thai brawling in the pocket and possessing equivalent muscle mass to GSP are the best possible ways to solve for him, challenger-apparent Thiago Alves has both to spare.
- I see GSP as the obvious winner of this fight, as it's on BJ Penn to reverse existing proven circumstances. I personally support the theory I've just laid out at length, but you could write at least two or three of these if taking the premise "how do you find a hole in BJ Penn's historic game for GSP to exploit"; it's a testimony to what a daunting front Georges presents that he's the fighter it's worthwhile to spend a stack of pages trying to find the weaknesses of out of the pair.
- I'm picking BJ anyway, because in order for him to beat GSP he'll have to show us a level of skill that has rarely if ever been seen in MMA, in a forum where it will be noticed outside the sport. If GSP wins, he'll basically be defending the status quo for our expectations (though admittedly one he pushes every time he fights these days). Also, I kinda want BJ to win because so many people on the web are choosing this fight on character after "Primetime," instead of fighting style.
- If you read this far, thanks for hearing me out. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the fight as well as the above. Hit me up with a comment.
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