Defeating Jake Shields this Saturday, Georges St. Pierre defended his championship belt for a sixth consecutive time, becoming the longest-reigning welterweight champion in UFC history (Matt Hughes, after taking the belt from Carlos Newton in 2001, managed five consecutive defenses). St. Pierre also became the first person to defeat Shields in nearly six and a half years, and he now holds victories over all four of the topmost welterweight contenders in the sport today. It was, by most accounts, St. Pierre's worst performance in recent memory.
Let that be a testament to the high standards defined by St. Pierre himself--standards fulfilled by the rapid-fire assault of kicks leveled at Hughes, the heavy-fisted drubbing of Jon Fitch, and the wrestling game of a virtuoso used to out-fox Josh Koscheck. Compared with these feats, St. Pierre's performance against Shields was disappointing and uninspired. So what happened?
Many will point to the errant finger from Shields in the second round, which blurred St. Pierre's vision. Yet, even before then, St. Pierre appeared uncharacteristically tentative and sluggish against an opponent with glaring vulnerabilities and little finishing power. At this point, it's all-too-easy to play armchair corner man, and yet, obsessed as I am, it's almost impossible not to. Was that a hint of a spare tire I saw? Does he have Anderson Silva on the brain? Humor me, and let's consider some possibilities...
Too much success
St. Pierre's biggest detractors point to a string of decision victories dating back to July 2009, and crow that the champ has grown squeamish, and is no longer fighting to win, but trying his best not to lose. I've never believed this, and insist that each of his title defenses were occasions for St. Pierre to implement some new technique. In the case of the first Koscheck fight, he was showing off his wrestling chops. Against Hardy, he was implementing submission attempts. In the rematch with Koscheck, he was demonstrating his newly refined boxing technique. It wouldn't be long before he pieced it all together and put the judges out of work. This fight with Shields is a bit more puzzling, though.
Do I believe that St. Pierre is entering the cage counting the minutes until he can retreat back to the hotel with his belt? Absolutely not. However, I can't help but wonder if the burden of his reputation has got him a little spooked.
Too much science
St. Pierre's game plan last Saturday seemed to revolve tightly around the overhand right. Considering how Shields buckled under Dan Henderson's big, looping punches in their fight last year, it seemed like a pretty sensible game plan for St. Pierre to adopt. What's less so is that St. Pierre stuck to that game plan long after it proved ineffective.
Unlike Henderson, St. Pierre doesn't seem to have the proportions or raw power for that death-from-above-type punch, and yet he stubbornly held to his strategy, this in spite of the myriad offensive skills at his disposal. One might think that St. Pierre's compromised depth perception, which left him swinging far off the mark, might have further prompted him to switch tactics but, instead, he seemed at a loss, unwilling to deviate from that initial approach. It's possible that coaching from the famously calculating Greg Jackson has left little room for improvisation in St. Pierre's game, and resulted in something not so much a fighter as a finely tuned instrument that wins fights. St. Pierre may need to step out of his own head a little bit, and get in touch with some of the baser, more primal stuff in his belly.
Too much dominance
St. Pierre has cleared out the UFC's welterweight division. According to some, he cleared it out a year ago. There's still plenty of exciting talent, but fighters like Jake Ellenberger, Ricky Story, and Carlos Condit are yet a ways from making convincing contenders of themselves. With this in mind, and despite his best efforts, St. Pierre may be a bit unmotivated. The solution, it would seem, would be to jump up a weight class. On the other hand...
Too much weight
Reports are that St. Pierre has been putting on weight, walking around at about ten pounds heavier than usual. Perhaps it's something of an experiment as he contemplates a move to 185. Yet, whatever the extra bulk was supposed to have lent him in strength, it took away in terms of speed and balance. Though he was certainly faster than Shields, St. Pierre was a far cry from his usual laser-sighted, explosive self, and appeared noticeably uncomfortable, even before the poke to the eye. If that's the case, then maybe his concerns about moving up a weight-class were well-warranted after all. 185 pounds may simply not be an optimal weight for St. Pierre, a detail that is especially important when considering that he relies heavily on speed and timing. If he looks this relatively lackluster as a heavy welterweight, then we should definitely curb our enthusiasm for a St. Pierre at full-blown middleweight.
In the end, of course, it could be that none of these things contributed to St. Pierre's performance. Or, perhaps, all of them did, along with a host of other factors. Or maybe there's nothing the matter at all, and St. Pierre's reputation and success is affecting us more than it is him, leaving us jaded and unmoved even after he clears out one of the deepest divisions in MMA today.