Don't get mad!
I have a few critical opinions on welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and they have not been received with warmth and high fives. However, as the hours before GSP's showdown with interim champ Carlos Condit at UFC 154 dwindle away, today seems like an appropriate time to present my theories. They are:
- GSP's entire legacy is built upon smashing one-dimensional fighters, with the exception of two: B.J. Penn and Matt Serra.
- Of those two multi-dimensional opponents, one has knocked him out (Serra, the smallest and shortest welterweight on the UFC roster) and the other (Penn, a natural lightweight) was GSP's most hard-fought win; a razor-thin split decision that could've gone either way or been a draw.
- GSP is an outstanding 2-dimensional fighter who's intelligently applied either his stellar striking or unstoppable wrestling to dismantle the competition -- but he hasn't cemented himself as a legit 3-dimensional fighter yet. Why?
- GSP has only encountered a very short list of elite submission artists and beat most of them with his striking (but was submitted by one of them), so his grappling game is largely unproven against standout guard players.
Surely, you're looking for an explanation. Let's tackle those points in reverse order.
4. Unproven Submission Grappling
Let's take a look at all of GSP's opponents who represented a threat with submissions:
- Jake Shields: the most effective sub-grappler he's ever faced, Shields was unable to score takedowns and relegated to jousting on the feet, so his grappling never played in.
- B.J. Penn: this seemed to be the win that authenticated his top-game and submission prowess, and is no doubt impressive as Penn was the first non-Brazilian to win the Worlds/Mundials as a black belt. Despite his obvious talent, Penn has never submitted anyone in MMA from his guard. Of his 6 career submission wins, 5 were rear-naked chokes and the other was an arm-triangle. This indicates that Penn's voracity as a sub-grappler stems from a top-side, dominant position rather than off his back. (I won't even bother to touch on Penn's size or mention "The V-word.")
- Matt Serra: in addition to being one of the few dual-threat fighters he's faced, Serra, a longtime BJJ black belt, is definitely a talented sub-fighter. With minor disclaimers pertaining to being drastically under-sized, having only 5 submission wins and a single submission win both from his guard and in the Octagon (a triangle choke on Kelly Dullanty in 2002), Serra will stand as a positive nod for GSP's sub-grappling.
- Matt Hughes: anyone who almost submitted Royce Gracie and has 18 submission wins to his name counts here. However, Hughes is 1-and-1 with GSP on the mat, having armbarred him in their first contest and suffered the same fate in their 3rd.
- Jon Fitch, Jason Miller and Karo Parisyan: these fighters deserve a mention as legit sub threats, though GSP contested Fitch almost entirely on the feet and Miller drew GSP in his Octagon debut; actually, I think the way GSP knifed through his guard was a highly impressive showing. Parisyan currently has 12 sub wins but has never tapped anyone of note, especially from his guard.
Summary: Though he's faced and beaten submission grapplers, the only candidates he spent any significant time on the canvas with were Penn (once), Serra (once, who acounts for one loss) and Hughes (twice, who accounts for his other loss and ended with a 1-1 tally in grappling exchanges). My point is merely that, when isolating his submission grappling, GSP is largely unproven against elite submission fighters, which means he's really a ...
3. GSP is a 2-dimensional fighter
Don't get me wrong -- the champ obviously has improved his BJJ and submission grappling knowledge, but the way you define yourself as an elite submission grappler is to defeat other elite submission grapplers in ... well, in submission grappling. His history tells me that he's highly intelligent in implementing his core competencies -- striking and wrestling -- to exploit weaknesses of A-list sub-grapplers, which doesn't necessarily translate to being a better sub-grappler.
Summary: GSP is a phenomenal kickboxer and wrestler and that medley has been good enough to bring him success, but he hasn't cemented himself as an elite-level submissionist. If he finds himself entangled with one, I'm not so thoroughly convinced (as compared to the general consensus) that he'll carve them up with ease.
1 & 2. The vast majority of GSP's opposition were fairly one-dimensional
GSP applied his technical kickboxing to force striking matches with wrestlers in Shields, Fitch, Hughes and Josh Koscheck, or merely out-wrestled other wrestlers in Sean Sherk and Frank Trigg. The standout strikers he defeated were Dan Hardy -- wherein GSP pinpointed his weakness with his wrestling -- along with Thiago Alves and Jay Hieron, both of whom GSP beat on the feet, which is an undeniable compliment to his striking (which no one is refuting).
The non-one-dimensional opponents he's encountered were Serra (BJJ and boxing) and Penn (BJJ, boxing, wrestling), and it's not coincidental that they're responsible for 2 of the 3 fights in which GSP was either defeated (Serra KO) or looked quite mortal in eking out a win (split decision against Penn).
Summary: GSP has not been tested consistently by fighters who excel in more than one area and has struggled against those who do.
What's the point of all this blathering?
Carlos Condit will be one of the rare few challengers who's capable in multiple aspects of combat (striking and BJJ). He'll also be, by quite a significant margin, the most effective guard player he's faced and right up there with the best strikers he's dueled with. This tangent was a very long-winded and roundabout way to support the notion that "The Natural Born Killer" presents much more of a unique and perilous threat than many seem to realize.
Condit is also tough-as-nails and extremely difficult to finish: the last time he was stopped was back in 2006 and, since then, he's won an astounding 13 of his last 14 fights and his only flaw was a contentious split decision to Martin Kampmann that perfectly fits the "could've gone either way or been a draw" label. (To be fair, the same could also be said of Condit's win over Jake Ellenberger.)
With that exhausting (sorry) analysis of GSP's tendencies and fight tactics against previous opposition, let's dive into the style comparison in the Three Phases of Combat.
Free Movement/Striking Phase
Betwixt his fascination with bipedal carnivores and admitted fear of being abducted by aliens, GSP took to heart the widespread observation that the jab is an under-utilized weapon in MMA. Standing behind a cumbersome 76.5" reach measurement, the crux of GSP's striking evolution boils down to the crisp and piston-like jab he relied on in his recent striking showcases.
The jab is a perfect complement to GSP's arsenal: it gives him a highly effective distance weapon that he can flick out quickly, accurately and safely from the far-end of the strike zone. It's like a stiff-arm in football that creates a force-field around him, helps him dictate the fight's tempo and makes the act of closing distance a formidable task for his adversaries.
In the pocket, GSP's deadliest weapon is the cracking left high kick, which he throws with almost no set-up or forewarning. This tool stems from GSP's original martial arts foundation of Kyokushin karate, which he undertook at age 7 to thwart schoolyard bullies. His boxing makes up the rest of his striking offense, which generally consists of the jab, excellent use of the straight 1-2 and the occasional uppercut, left hook or Superman punch.
Condit is one of the most dynamic and volatile Muay Thai practitioners in the game. Whereas GSP's striking tendencies are fairly simple and straight-forward, Condit unleashes the whole enchilada. From out on the fringe, he'll throw teeps, rear-leg push kicks to the head, body and the lead knee, scorching roundhouse kicks to the leg, body and head and ridiculously violent flying knees. He's also clever in leading with one attack often and then keying off it to set up his follow up, as he did by attacking Dong Hyun Kim with a few high kicks before faking another and going airborne with a nasty jumping knee.
At close range, Condit wields his hands well but not with a traditional, tight-stanced release. Though it's why he generates a lot of power, Condit tends to plant his feet and sail out wide-sweeping loopers with both hands. It's still effective but his lack of defense and active head movement along with his knack for straight-line retreats and allowing himself to get backed onto the cage got him trouble against Ellenberger and Rory MacDonald. Most of his damage in close quarters comes from snatching up the Thai plum grip and thwacking knees, dirty boxing and short elbows.
The former category pertains strictly to striking but the last two are influenced by a blend of wrestling/grappling and striking. For example, most of GSP's clinch game consists of stifling pressure against the fence and dropping levels to secure takedowns.
Condit, on the other hand, is perfectly content to stay upright and trade strikes in the clinch. He's a mauler in standing tie-ups who's willing to let counter-strikes bounce off his chin in order to blast his foe with a Thai-accented stockpile of aggression. However, the easiest fighter to take down in the clinch is one who's committing fully to strikes and the best counter to the Thai plum is going low to attack the waist and legs with takedowns. This causes the defender to lower his center of gravity and shift his grip downward to dig in underhooks -- which is why GSP gets the nod here.
Again, this aspect is shared by top-side wrestling and guard play alike. I don't think anyone will argue that GSP is the superior takedown artist and top player and Condit is the superior submission artist and guard player ... which makes this a tough category to assess.
Looking at the grappling facet as a whole, GSP is the best wrestler in welterweight history and, even if Condit is busy and effective with sweep and submission attempts from his back, modern day MMA judges rarely even consider attempts from the bottom and Condit really has to complete a sweep/submission or escape the bottom position entirely. Still, since he's wildly talented off his back and ultra-clever in transitions, the gap in this category is pretty close.
Advantage: GSP (slightly).
Overall Summary: I hope I can make up for my introductory criticism of GSP here. Though I'm staunchly convinced that he's still unproven in a few key areas, his top game is unbelievable and his monumental wrestling advantage will result in complete domination of control. GSP's control will give him the luxury of a second option if the stand up exchanges are not to his liking, it'll make Condit hesitant to commit to power shots for fear of the incoming takedown and the ability to just bully Condit around with his physicality.
Condit will be a load out on the fringe and I expect him to use myriad kicks -- including roundhouses to all levels and straight push kicks to the knee and body -- but GSP can match him pretty well in range striking with his long jab and footwork while having a strong edge with his wrestling in the clinch and on the mat. Condit's best option is to throw caution to the wind and unload everything he's got with furious aggression. That's what got him here and engaging in a methodical chess match is playing right into GSP's hands. I wouldn't rule out a highlight reel stoppage, capitalizing on a choke after stunning GSP on the feet or just relying on his willpower, heart and chin to make things competitive, but the chances are unlikely.
My Prediction: Georges St. Pierre by decision.