On April 29th, 2011, George St. Pierre fought Jake Shields.
George had just recently celebrated his third aniversary as the UFC welterweight champion. He had fought five times since he had taken his belt back from Matt Serra in 2008. Coming into this fight, George was on a eight win streak, and held a record of 21-2. Both of his losses he had avenged.
Coming into this fight, people widely considered George to be one of the best fighters in the world. The most dominating champion his division had ever seen. There were many who believed that there was nothing left for George to accomplish in this division; that he needed to move onto more incredible challenges. Jake Shields was an afterthought to the idea that George might fight the champion of the Middleweight division, Anderson Silva.
Jake Shields was coming into this fight on a 15 fight win streak. He had just recently come out of the smaller MMA company, Strikeforce, where he was the Middleweight champion. He vacated that title in order to come to the UFC,
where he had only one fight before St. Pierre.
It was widely believed that the only way Shields was going to have any success fighting a brilliant athlete like St. Pierre was to take the fight to the mat, and turn the game into a struggle for submission victory. This meant that the crucial question that needed answering was simple. Can George stuff Shield's take down. If the answer was yes, then Jake would be in for a long night.
The lights went down on the sold out Arena crowd. With a primal roar they began to chant GSP, GSP, GSP. The music blasted over the sea of people, and the champion emerged, already victorious in the eyes of his fans.
As the two were announced, Jake Shields was booed.
The two touched gloves in the center of the octagon, and referee Herb Dean
began the fight.
The first round was a feeling out. A small dance between warriors, waiting for when to strike. Both men threw small punches, attempting to find the distance they would need to dominate the other. George unleashed a kick to the midsection of Shields. Jake's arms tangled around St. Pierre's leg, wrenching it in an attempt to pin him to the ground.
George bounced on one foot, avoiding the take down attempt with dexterity. Shields muscled the leg into the air, and began to move his captive towards the cage wall. St. Pierre pulled the leg away, and the only perceived threat that Shield's had to offer collapsed. When George pulled away from his opponent, Joe Rogan stated with an apathetic observation, "And he's free."
The fight was less then two minutes old, and already the audience believed it was over. By the end of the first round, it was apparent that Shields was in over his head in St. Pierre's striking game. George was too fast, and too clever. Feinting, and pawing at Shields, only to land a crisp left jab over and over. Jake didn't attempt another takedown for the entire round as he fended off a St. Pierre who was looking better and better as the round wore on.
When George went to his corner his corner man, Greg Jackson, asked him to breath, calm down and relax. "Settle down my friend, settle down." The Jackson camp obviously believes in a thinking fighter, and St. Pierre was their poster child.
The second round was simply more of the same. Mike Goldberg and Joe Rogan praised their champion's seemingly unstoppable abilities, as he began to throw more and more threatening punches. Spinning back kicks, wild right hooks, and fast jabs peppered a bloody, wide eyed Shields. At the end of the second, the crowd was expecting a finish. "Knock him out," Greg Jackson told his pupil as they went into the third.
Shields came out of his corner with an urgency that he had been lacking in the previous rounds. He knew he had to make something happen, or else have the night end in failure. George was able to handle his aggression, and easily shrug off take down attempts. This was his fight.
At one minute and thirty two seconds in the third, George St. Pierre wiped his left eye. He thought that perhaps
there is some sweat or even blood that has suddenly obscured his vision. An easy problem that needs to be rectified quickly, and then forgotten about. At one minute and twenty five seconds, he wiped it again. His vision did not improve, and George began to panic. He couldn't see out of his left eye. He brushed at it again mere seconds later, desperately clinging to the hope that it is simply an errant string of hair, and not something that might end his career in the octagon. They will never let a man with one eye fight. He will never fight again.
Shields is standing in front of him, and George has to fight. He throws more quick, and impressive shots. At a minute and two seconds, he glances up at the clock. He wants to know how much longer he needs to play this dangerous game before he can retreat to his corner and find some help.
George continues to strike with Shields, relying on his one good eye. At twenty six seconds he glances at the clock again. He decides that there is not nearly enough time for Shields to setup any kind of submission attempt, and dumps the challenger on his back with ease. He kills the remaining seconds on the clock, and walks back to his corner, rubbing his left eye.
His corner man tries to calm him. "It's just a mouse," Jackson says, "You're not even cut."
"I can't see well," George mumbles.
Greg Jackson understands that he can't afford to have his fighter lose confidence because of an injury, even one as potentially serious as the lose of vision in the left eye. "Caaaalm your breathing down." He no longer sees a fighter, but a panicked young man who only wants to talk to a doctor. But to walk away at this moment would be devastating to George‘s career.
"I can't see with my left eye." The admission shakes George to his core. All the work, all the sacrifice and pain he has gone through to reach this point, and it might be over forever.
Jackson works to squelch the fear. "Doesn't matter. You've got one eye, that's all you need. Now breath, breath. Good." After calming his fighter down, he begins to talk game plan.
As the fourth round starts, it is apparent that George is concerned. The cool confidence he typically displays is covered with a layer of fear. Joe Rogan comments, "George needs to pick up the pace. He is outclassing Sheilds so much. He should be working to finish it." George just wants the fight to be over.
Throughout the fourth round it is obvious that George is suffering for the loss of vision. His technical and raw abilities allow him to stay threatening, delivering an incredibly head kick to the challenger, but Shields begins to achieve more and more success, bloodying the cheek of George's blind eye.
Shield's begins to feel confident against his weakened opponent and begins to taunt and mock George, playing into an already weakened will. When the horn blows, George walks back to his corner with his face covered in blood, still rubbing that left eye. We hear Jackson say "Go go go, let's see how bad it is."
"I can't see with my left." George says to his corner man forcefully.
Jackson is having none of it. "That's fine. You'll just have to fight through it." He dishes out the tough love as George spits out a mouthful of bloody water.
The final round begins. "Shields has wounded GSP," Mike Goldberg says. Rogan replies, "Who would have thought he'd do it striking." No one could have predicted that the champion would have to fight two round half blind. George's face pours blood as Jake's jabs become more and more effective.
St. Pierre glances at the clock at three minutes and twelve seconds. All he is thinking is that he wants this
fight to end. He may not even care if he wins or not.
"I'm surprised that George isn't doing more." Rogan says. "Maybe it's his eye, I don't know." While the commentator idly wonders what is going on, it is plain that there is a scared injured man not fighting to win, just not to lose.
The crowd boos and cheers as the fight comes to a close. They believe that there might still be a chance that George will score the finish, but the horn blows and the two bloody men walk to their corners to get some attention. The cage side doctor begins testing George's vision immediately. St. Pierre looks as though he might be brought to tears.
The doctor is pulled away as the two fighters are brought to the center of the ring for the decision. George looks up at the screens, looking at his own injury. The crowd begins to cheer. George shakes his head in dismay. They think he’s showing off. He’s just trying to see the problem.
The decision comes down. 50-45, 48-47, 48-47. The champion's hand is raised and the belt replaced around his waist. St. Pierre stumbled, and stuttered through the interview. It is obvious that all he wants to do is leave, but he still needs to at least try and talk like a champion.
George said his words and left the stadium to receive immediate medical attention. Fortunately, George's eye suffered no major damage, and the vision would return shortly thereafter.
Some fights are fought with muscle and grit. Others require a sharp mind and an overwhelming strategy. This fight became a fight about the heart, and the will to carry on. George St. Pierre told his corner that he was blind in his left eye, and then turned around and fought for ten more minutes. He batted away the fear and the anxiety, and did what he had to do. He could have called it off. His vision might very well be worth more to him then the entirety of his career.
But rather then walk away, he fought on in the face of a crippling fear that threatened to overwhelm him at a moment’s notice. For two rounds he fought half blind.
And we panned him for it.