Eighteen months have gone by since we last saw Georges St. Pierre in the cage. It has been so long that I actually forgot all but the basic brushstrokes of GSP's game and history - "He takes people down all the time", "He was unlucky with finishes in his recent fights", "He is not impressed by Matt Hughes' performance" and so on.
From a grappling technical standpoint, the overall set of passes that GSP uses may not be as good as that of Jake Shields or B.J. Penn, but it works again and again and again on opponents who are certainly not accepting the guard pass. The overall package becomes astoundingly effective when combined with the great takedowns and GSP's ability to deal out quite a bit of damage while never compromising his balance for the pass. Everything works together just right and the constant pressure he brings while frequently dropping a barrage of punches to the noggin make GSP a nightmare to deal with for the recumbent opponent.
What is unusual about GSP's attack is that he has developed both a set of tight guard passing maneuvers and a open space passing game to either side - while incorporating strikes. This may sound easy to develop as a professional fighter has time, money and incentive to do so, but talking combat sports theory is vastly easier than actually doing something in the high pressure environment of a five round UFC welterweight championship defense against a person who is really, really good at fighting and wants to throttle you or knock you out. And GSP has done this nine times, while getting better and better the entire time.
Most fighters prefer to do a given combination, move, sweep or guard pass to one side, as that is the side which they have drilled most and feel more comfortable with using in an actual fight. A smart gameplanner can anticipate this and punish those fighters for their relative laziness. The UFC 140 Judo Chop detailing how Jon Jones brutalized Shogun Rua by stuffing his bread and butter half guard sweep is a perfect example of this. Getting comfortable on either side involves fighting against the brain's natural tendency to prefer one side over the other and long hours of tedious drilling.
The time investment it takes to get good enough at a guard pass to use on an elite competitor means that not every pass can be learned and used - especially since striking, wrestling, cage crawling and more things all have to be worked on as well. Thus, having a small chain of guard passes that flow together and out of the natural takedown positions that you prefer is incredibly useful. GSP has basically honed three passes on both sides and by doing so, Rush has ratcheted up his ability to crush the fighting spirit out of his opponents and to hunt for a surprising amount of armbars and keylocks.
Having a great position to start with is crucial. GSP is usually arranged in the half guard off the single leg takedowns or standing low in an open guard from the double legs. He loves snatching the left leg of his opponents and driving forwards with a little fishhook shape at the end to dump the opponent on the ground. It is his favorite thing in the world to do and it is magnificent to watch.
With his excellent takedown timing and chaining, GSP ends up in positions like this an astounding amount of times during a match. It's almost unfair how he creates a much easier environment to pass from the get-go, rather than laboriously breaking a closed guard or fighting past two active legs, while being careful not to get elbowed too many times in the skull. Note how GSP has his right leg planted out and his hamstring/butt on top of the left knee of Dan Hardy. This lets Rush prevent the left knee from sliding up and into a butterfly or open guard position. GSP is already bringing the right hand in to shove the left knee even further down.
He is doing the same hand on knee thing to Jon Fitch here too. The situation is slightly different as GSP is hoisting his right leg to get past that left knee, but the goal is the same: to get an underhook on the other (left side) and use hip pressure, shoulder pressure and punches to pass the guard. I call this a "smash half guard pass", but in Brazilian jiu jitsu, there are about fifteen passes that can be called a smash pass and they often look very different from each other. Whatever name this goes by in your local academy or group, it works and it works well.
The basic idea of the smash half guard pass is to use the weight of the body through careful placement of the hips to "kill" or immobilize the hips of the opponent, while not letting the opponent move their upper body to squirm free. Once the hips of the opponent are immobile, the goal is to free both legs from the half guard. To distract, GSP will give the opponent a few good punches to the face or the ribs while simultaneously reaching back with his free leg to get a pushing point on the thigh and start to slice his knee outwards.
The reaching back of the foot means that GSP's balance is not as stable as it is in the above two pictures. B.J. Penn could sweep him here or work his way to the feet. But Penn needs to be getting up onto one side or another to do so. That is why the underhook GSP has on Penn's right arm (GSP's left arm) and the head placement is crucial. With that underhook, Penn is kept flat, the hips are kept immobile and GSP has the time and space to slice that knee outwards across the upper thigh/lower groin area, while using the free leg to push downwards. GSP does not want to pick the trapped leg upwards - as Penn will probably use his crazy flexibility to shift around to a butterfly or open guard - he wants to slide the knee heavily and firmly towards the mat on the left side of Penn (GSP's right).
As the above still shows, GSP is continuing to keep Penn flat - despite Baby Jay's vigorous efforts to resist - and the trapped left leg is slicing to freedom. The left knee of GSP is hitting the mat and he is about to swivel his hips and work to some sort of side control. In judo or folkstyle/freestyle wrestling, the top person will usually go to some form of kesa gatame position for the pin.
In MMA, most people like the conventional side control, as it is hard to effectively strike the opponent from kesa gatame.
GSP particularly loves to elbow or punch his opponents in the face and hop up into mount, rather than chill in side control and knee his opponent's ribs. This is probably a function of his opponents being rather good at regaining guard (see BJ's famous Jailbreak regain from UFC 94) rather than a belief that side control knees aren't awesome. In the above still, you can see that GSP keeps his left knee tight to the ground to prevent Penn's left knee from sneaking back up for a guard regain.
The problem with getting the underhook is that in MMA, people have a habit of planting a hand to one side to stabilize themselves for punches. That can lead to armbars and it's how Vitor Belfort almost snapped up Jon Jones's arm. Jon Fitch had a decent crack at armbarring GSP a while back, but the champion recognized the attempt and whisked his arm free from danger to find himself past Fitch's guard.
Another way GSP gets past the guard is to simply chuck aside the legs of the opponent - the "bypass guard pass". It's a little more involved than that, especially with the timing, but the takedowns he lands make it so frustrating for an opponent to deal with that they will often go all out to attack from their backs - which leads to great opportunities to chuck aside the legs and bypass the guard entirely.
He assists the chucking by dropping down, getting head control with his left arm and using the right arm to hook the nearside leg. With his head controlled and his leg hooked, Hardy cannot turn into GSP at this point to fend off the guard pass - and because GSP is extremely smart about physical positioning, the cage on the other side prevents Hardy from turning away. Hardy has to accept the guard pass at this point.
The third pass GSP likes to use may have a name, but I've long forgotten it. Once again, he is in the half guard (this time on the other side) and has a fair degree of mobility. Hardy does not have a lockdown grip with his legs on the trapped right leg and thus GSP can post up on the right leg. At the same time, Georges turns inwards, places his side on Hardy's belly, brings the left leg in and swivels his hips towards Hardy's feet. You can see that Hardy is briefly considering a back take - which is not going to happen because the strange position is actually nicely balanced for GSP. Note the right hand coming down to push off on Hardy's left leg. It doesn't work here, but often times in grappling situations, that push off is really helpful to get enough space to pull the knee up and out of the half guard - which ups the percentage of a pass considerably.
As an added threat, GSP can get a keylock on the farside arm. Most people threaten this to make it easier to pass the guard, but an incautious opponent can be finished from here with the keylock or the straight armbar. GSP picks the straight armbar in this case, after Hardy proves too strong or wriggly to keep in the keylock position .
All three passes can get GSP to the mount he likes so much. It's a terrific position for most people and GSP is rather good at punching from it (far better than Shields, although Jake has the better smash half guard pass movement). Once in mount, GSP is generally good enough to bring enough pressure and throw enough punches to make the opponent roll and give up the back in order to effect an escape.
If GSP can keep his opponents flattened out, he has very good back control (more on why he keeps screwing up on non-flattened out opponents below). Cumbersome gloves and the predictability of rear naked chokes make them a somewhat lower percentage move than they would otherwise be in submission grappling. GSP has adapted to this by constantly setting up armbars from the back. It's a somewhat rare move in MMA as going for it can result in loss of the back control and an opponent on top of you. However, GSP is GSP and nobody keeps him on his back long.
Punching Hardy in the face, while letting Dan work the usual back control escape of sliding off to a side and getting his back to the mat got GSP the nice double grip on an arm. You can see GSP's left leg planting on the mat for a spin out to an armbar and Dan is already reacting to defend the armbar.
There are some minor technical errors here from GSP, but Hardy's escape was due to his own refusal to quit and constant working of his arm from side to side - which eventually led to enough space to roll out and free.
The opponents often do escape when they get to their hands and knees because GSP has this back control tendency (in this situation) to be too high up for secure control or too slow/not fluid enough to get a farside armbar (he likes armbars quite a bit).
For an idea of how fluid a farside armbar has to be, look at how Marcus "Buchecha" Almeida pulls one on Roger Gracie from a berimbolo.
This type of pass chaining and striking is difficult to do on a resisting opponent without good to great technique combined with very good hip work and GSP does it well on both sides. It is a mark of a champion to have such a fluid, interlinked and effective combination that works on opponent after opponent.
In a partner Judo Chop, we'll take a look at how Carlos Condit deals with being put on his back (hint: rather well) and the two Judo Chops will leave you to decide which fighter will better implement his gameplan on November 17th for the unified welterweight title.