When we last left our heroes...GSP is our sport's greatest professional. If we ask ourselves the borrowed question of Carl Sagan on collective loyaly, 'who speaks for MMA?', GSP would undoubtedly be that ambassador.
However, no matter how significant each event is that he headlines, observers still feel like he hasn't quite reached for the stars. GSP's brilliance seems effortless, but not dynamic, and so critics always feel like he fights with a somnambulance unbecoming of a champion considered a pound for pound all timer.
At this point, I think for some, the question is simply a matter of when age will catch up to GSP. Yes, he's only 32 but he's had multiple knee surgeries, and 'fight age' is always a different number entirely.
He's coming off a win over Nick Diaz in a bout that saw him dominate the grappling (particularly with his clever placement of his right shin to lock down Nick's left leg), extending GSP's title defenses to #8.
Opposite GSP is the challenger and fan favorite, Johny Hendricks. His background in the NCAA has served him well thus far. He has only one loss on his resume, which was to Rick Story. His last bout was an absolute firecracker of a fight as he stood toe to toe with Carlos "Conduit" Condit.
The most interesting thing about this fight is that this really feels like the bout "we've all been waiting for". Yes, in Goldberg voice, that phrase makes you roll your eyes, but thinking about it logically, Hendricks does feel like the guy with actual power who won't be powerless to stop a takedown.
There's a shade of Fedor vs. CroCop to it all, and though snobs will mock the comparison because nostalgia is the cancer of affection, it's accurate insofar as the king of the division will need to be prepared for a weapon the great Vizzini would have called "inconceivable!"
What both men can do: and that is Hendricks' left hand. What distinguishes Johny's power hand from most fighters is that 1) it comes from a southpaw stance which is often tricky in and of itself 2) it's much quicker than it appears and 3) he makes its redundancy an asset.
As in, you'll see Hendricks miss and double on it, and sometimes triple his left hand. He caught Condit on multiple occasions doing precisely this. It's also a bit sneaky. He throws that left straight well...straight, but he also hooks it, and slices it when he puts his head down feigning the takedown. I have a feeling GSP will have to get hit with it at least twice if he wants to win.
GSP's game is well studied. He does everything well, but he especially dominates the grappling aspect of MMA. And I do mean grappling. Not wrestling, but actual honest to goodness grappling. His jab is the socially acceptable version of Tim Sylvia's.
And his takedowns rival any of the best wrestlers in MMA. Needless to say, Hendricks will have his work cut out for him.
What both men can't do: This is where things get interesting. GSP still lacks head movement. If he backpedals like Condit did against Johny, he could easily get caught like Condit. This is the part where I could easily see GSP losing his title. The ability of Hendricks to double and triple that left hand moving forward will be huge in this fight.
St. Pierre hasn't seen this combination of speed and power since Thiago Alves (you could count Condit in there but I don't consider him especially fast even though he was still able to get to GSP's chin).
The problem for Hendricks is that he stays pretty still when he isn't going for the knockout. His feet are planted in the ground like a fantasy creature that lives in the woods, which will make him prone to the takedown, which GSP will absolutely get.
Some fans might point to the Rick Story fight as a good barometer, and I'd agree but with the caveat that Story did himself favors by coming in with combinations before shooting. GSP doesn't do that. Which is not to say he won't score takedowns regardless of how far he has to travel for a takedown.
Observes say it all the time..."finally a tough stylistic matchup for GSP"...I do believe those words finally have real meaning in this context. But I still don't think it will be enough for Hendricks, who will be taken down over and over.
When all is said and done, GSP will retain his belt like he always does.
X-Factor: The MMA gods. Everytime fans finally get what we've been asking for, there's always some silly Murphy's Law atavism that shows up, and bursts out of our chests. In this case, a hand injury that stops the fight prematurely. Hendricks seemed to be having trouble with it against Condit, and GSP's career appears to be winding down in general, so expect the unexpected folks.
In-Fight Soundtrack: If You Leave.
Prediction: GSP by Decision.