Javier Mendes, Dave Camarillo, and Bob Cook have the hardest job in sports. For the last two months, Josh Koscheck's primary trainers at the American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) have been desperately looking for a chink in the armor of the greatest fighter in mixed martial arts today, perhaps in mixed martial arts history. How can you beat Georges St. Pierre? No one has managed the feat in three years and the best of the best have given it their all. AKA has had two shots in that timeframe. Koshceck and his teammate Jon Fitch never even made the great champion sweat. Only three fighters have ever given the French Canadian star even the slightest pause - and here's how they did it.
1. Intimidation: At UFC 50 the young St. Pierre found himself staring across the cage at the great Matt Hughes. Already a legend in the sport, Hughes was intent on regaining the welterweight title he had lost to B.J. Penn the year before. St. Pierre, just 23 years old and in just his third Octagon appearance, was intimidated. Hughes was his idol, a fighter he looked up to and emulated. Fighting him, testing himself against the great Hughes, was more than Georges could handle at the time.
Today, it's a different story. A veteran of nine title fights, four reality television appearances, and international marketing campaigns, St. Pierre is world weary and wise. He's seen it all - trash talking, bug eyed staredowns, strikers, wrestlers. There's nothing Koscheck can do that St. Pierre hasn't encountered before. If this is Josh's plan, it's a bad one. This doesn't work anymore.
2. Defend the Takedown: Everything Georges St. Pierre does in the cage is predicated on him being able to put his opponent on their back whenever he chooses. Everything. His takedowns are legendary and anyone in the cage with him has to spend a great bulk of their time worrying about how he will stay vertical. In their first fight, Josh Koscheck didn't listen to trainers or teammates. According to Fitch he didn't respect St. Pierre's wrestling enough - and it cost him:
"He didn't want to listen to anyone when we told him to practice wrestling. He had it in his head that nobody could take him down if he didn't want them to. I don't think he drilled a single takedown that entire training camp. It was basically all standup and even very little jiu jitsu. I haven't taken that approach for this fight. I always train everything."
In his first fight with B.J. Penn, St. Pierre struggled to get the Hawaiian master on the mat. In the standing battle that ensued, Penn struck early and often, bloodying St. Pierre's nose and making the Canadian fans in Las Vegas for a Canada vs. The United States showdown more than a little nervous. In rounds two and three St.Pierre took the former champion down twice in each five minute block. It was the difference in a razor close decision.
Defending the takedown is key, because it allows you access to a third way to win against a nigh unbeatable opponent...
3. Throw the kitchen sink; hope something lands: Georges St. Pierre has some pretty darn good standup. After all, before he was known as the sport's best wrestler, he was a traditional martial artist with a ton of unconventional spinning kicks and wicked combinations. His defining standup technique is the "Superman Punch" a move he executes better than anyone else in MMA. His coach Greg Jackson described the technique in his book The Standup Game:
...this strike helps keep that uncertainty in your opponent's mind. The superman punch is designed to get your opponent looking low while you are striking high, so there's no reason to try to hide it. It capitalizes on the snapping motion of throwing your lead leg forward and then retracting it to generate power in your cross. It can cause your opponent to drop his guard just long enough to slip the strike in, and when executed properly, it can end a fight.
But as good as he is standing, it's also where St. Pierre is most vulnerable. The unheralded Matt Serra showed the world that GSP is a mere mortal when he winged him with a hard punch and then made him tap with a flurry of followups. People were quick to dismiss this as a lucky punch; Serra begs to differ. "What was lucky about that punch?" the voluble New Yorker once asked. "I was looking to hit him and I did. That's not luck."
I suspect Koscheck will look to do something similar. He believes he hits harder than St. Pierre and believes he has the wrestling ability to stay standing long enough to clobber GSP into submission. We talk a lot about how the sport and its tactics are evolving. I think Koscheck will be using a bit of a throwback strategy here: the sprawl and brawl perfected by one of Cook's other clients, the great light heavyweight Chuck Liddell. In The MMA Encyclopedia, we broke down the strategy I think Koscheck will use to attempt the unthinkable against St. Pierre:
...Sprawl and brawl is like the Bizarro version of ground and pound. Instead of trying to take an opponent to the mat, these fighters use the skills they've worked so hard on in the wrestling room to stay on their feet...The men who created the concept and utilized it to win UFC gold were both wrestlers with dynamite in their hands: Chuck Liddell and Jens Pulver. The two would spend the entire fight doing everything in their ability to stay on their feet - and since both were Division I-A wrestlers this ability was considerable- biding their time and hoping to land that one knockout punch.
If Koscheck has any hope of securing the title, this has to be his strategy as well. I expect this time around he isn't taking St. Pierre's wrestling accumen lightly. He'll have been drilling takedown defense non stop. And if he can grind GSP's wrestling game to a stand still it will become a standup war. And on the feet, as we've seen over and over again with four ounces gloves, anything can happen. I can't wait to see it play out.