While discussing Rory Macdonald's performance in the Ellenberger fight in my most recent post, I was asked what I think of GSP's standup. In response, I'm going to adapt something I already wrote that looks primarily at his footwork and uses that to explain his standup. Because when looking at a fighter, you should always be watching from the ground up.
Let's take a look:
Here we see GSP use the same inside angle 3 times in a row to land strikes without being countered. Notice how with each strike he throws, he moves slightly to his left just before throwing it. The combination of him getting to an angle and threatening with 3 differing lead side attacks keeps Koscheck paralyzed. He knows that when GSP circles a jab will likely come, so he extends his arms to try and parry the first jab. As a result, GSP takes the same angle and throws a lead left hook, which Koscheck eats because he again extends his arms in anticipation of a jab. Finally, GSP keeps circling, then waits until Koscheck stops moving with him to throw an inside leg kick. This is what GSP does best, he takes an angle to land single shots that he sets up with the other single shots he throws. Note that this was at the end of the fight, so his feints are extremely potent by this point.
This gif I love. It shows how GSP's footwork gets messed up as he tries to throw his right hand, as well as how he uses his jabs and footwork in unison. See how GSP takes two steps as he circles to the left before Koscheck readjusts? He's able to do this because of the jab he feints. In case anyone is wondering, this is a great example of what people mean when they say to "establish the jab". Koscheck is so worried about the jab he keeps eating that he's noticeably oversensitive to it. Watch him extend and drop his right hand in response to GSP's jab feint, which leaves him wide open for the real jab coming in behind the feint that can now be thrown unobstructed. So basically, Koscheck's fear of the jab allowed GSP to not only actually land a jab, but to circle and feel comfortable enough to throw a relatively rare right hand.
However, if you watch the right hand you see the problems with the footwork. GSP has moved to the left, but notice how he hasn't really turned towards Koscheck as he moved. His lead foot is pointing in the same direction at the finish as at the start, when it should turn to point right at Koscheck the entire time. When getting an inside angle, the idea is that you want your lead shoulder, hip and foot to all be on an imaginary line that splits your opponent in half, while their feet both point away from your center. That doesn't happen in this gif. Instead of pivoting and taking an angle, GSP is stepping to the side just to get his right hand closer to Koscheck. It doesn't actually put him in a better position. The reason he's "successful" in this gif is because his jab is preventing Koscheck from doing anything to counter. If, instead of freezing, Koscheck had circled around GSP in the same clockwise direction, he actually would have taken an angle as GSP moved passed him. This would have saved him from the jab and put him outside the cross, while leaving him in a good position to land his own shots.
Also notice that GSP's stance and footwork do not set up his right hand. His weight is too far forward and his feet are too wide, so he can only throw the right hand with the power generated by his back and arms, instead of his hips and legs. This is a common problem he has, especially in recent fights.
So the point is, GSP's footwork here looks good until you analyze it closely and realize that the threat of the jab is doing all the work, when he's actually leaving openings with his footwork.
This is another gif that shows good and bad footwork by GSP. It's weird because he technically does control the range and exploit Condit's forward momentum, but he doesn't do it with good footwork. See how he squares up as he hops back? This takes a significant amount of power off of the cross he throws while actually creating an opening for Condit. It's a good thing Condit was throwing a flying knee and not a crane kick. GSP's footwork is linear and it puts him in no good position to counter with a straight punch. If he had maintained his stance as he hopped straight back or taken an angle and let Condit pass him, he would have been in a much better position to punch (with a straight shot if he moved straight back, or a hook if he moved to an angle and squared up). That could have been a knockout if it was thrown properly from a good stance.
So why did GSP choose to square up? So he could show us good footwork by taking an angle immediately after landing and avoiding the counter. His square stance allows him to pivot outside the right hand Condit throws after being tagged. That's good defensive footwork at the end, but poor counter-striking footwork in the beginning.
This gif shows how GSP can be caught as he resets. Notice how he lets his feet get square and is hopping backwards. It looks like GSP was preparing to leap forward after the right hand, and was too focused on watching Condit's head moving to his left so he never saw the kick coming from his right. With his weight forward, hands down, stance square and eyes facing the wrong way, it's a good thing that kick was so awkward and didn't connect perfectly, otherwise he might have been out. If fighters can get him backing up more (perhaps with uppercuts), it could be very possible to catch him in these moments with kicks.
This gif, however, shows pretty good footwork all around. You can't see the feet, but if you look closely you can see how GSP moves slightly to his right (an inside angle on a southpaw) to land the jab inside Diaz's punches, then pulls back out at a slight angle to avoid the right hook. I really love this example because it shows how versatile the jab truly is. a lot of people will swear that it doesn't work against a southpaw, but GSP landed it consistently and with force against a taller, rangier southpaw. He also proves how moving into the power side of a southpaw isn't suicidal, it's actually a very sound strategy and very important part of the fight when done properly. Everyone is obsessed with getting the outside foot position against a southpaw, when that's only half the fight. If both guys are only fighting for the outside position, it becomes a test of who has faster feet instead of who has better footwork.
This is an interesting jab. GSP feints it as he steps outside Diaz's lead foot, but keeps the hand in place to land a backhand jab that splits the guard. It's another example of him using that jab to mask his footwork but, as usual, he doesn't take advantage of the opening with further offense. However, this further validates my point about the value of the jab against a southpaw and the importance of working from the inside angle as well. Since GSP has been able to land the jab from inside, he is now able to use it to move outside while keeping Diaz on the defensive. If both fighters didn't pull away and his weight didn't move forward, GSP would have been in great position to throw his right hand.
Up until this point, you may have noticed that I haven't exactly been giving the highest praise to GSP's footwork. However, that's because I've only been talking about his boxing. The true genius of his footwork only reveals itself when you look at his wrestling.
I know I was asked about standup, but if you look closely you'll see that a lot of the footwork GSP uses to set up his take downs is actually similarly used by strikers to set up knockouts.
First, the easiest thing to see is that he frequently baits opponents into coming forward with strikes by either hopping back or backpedaling, then using their forward momentum to help him close the distance faster and collide with greater impact to disrupt their balance. It's the exact same concept as him hopping back then landing a right straight on Condit in the gif previously discussed. It's a counter-striking strategy used by many great strikers. But instead of running people into strikes, GSP runs them into takedowns. This happens at 0:32, 1:12, 1:45, 2:32, 3:38, 3:49 and probably more that I missed.
GSP also uses the opposite strategy to pressure opponents with his jab and footwork, cut off the cage and shoot when his opponents have no room to back up. This is extremely similar to the classic infighter tactic of backing opponents against the cage/ropes then unloading power shots when they can't escape. His lunging in jab and superman punches assist him in cornering people, then he shoots once he knows he can drive them back into the cage even if they sprawl, just like how a pressure fighter blitzes when he thinks you're trapped. This happens at 3:25, 4:27, 4:45, 4:49, 6:01 and 6:20.
Another interesting strategy he uses is circling to bait attacks, then shooting to counter them. He does this almost every time he catches a kick in that highlight, but my absolute favorite example is at 5:30. Watch how GSP hops to his right and plants just out of range, then waits for his opponent to turn and try to strike. The opponent, who is still turning as he punches, ends up turning too far as GSP moves further away his opponent's right punch. The opponent ends up stepping his right leg forward to compensate and brings his hips in close as he walks right into GSP's double leg. That's the kind of footwork great counter-strikers like Machida use to turn the opponent then leap in as they're adjusting or throwing ill-advises shots.
So my overall analysis of GSP's footwork is that it's perfect for 2 things: lead hand strikes and takedowns. He sets both of those up very well and mixes them up to keep opponents occupied. However, his footwork always causes him to end up square and open to strikes when he wants to throw his right hand. This makes it hard to give a concise opinion, because it is flawless to set up wrestling, good to set up jabs, and bad to set up right hands. On defense, he is usually smart about exiting on angles but he can get caught moving straight back with his hands down when he isn't planning to shoot and is just resetting, or wants to leap in with strikes (see Condit's headkick). I think it's fair to say that if GSP didn't have his opponents so worried about his spectacular jab (complete with feints, superman jabs, level changes and lead left hooks mixed in) then his footwork issues would be much more problematic.
So when people talk about GSP not being a finisher, it's more down to style than a choice. He simply doesn't have the footwork to put himself into position to land powerful shots. His weight really shifts over his front foot when he jabs which adds to the power and works in unison with his wrestling, but it limits the power of his right hand and forces it to be thrown with poor technique. However, considering the style he has, what he does is nearly perfect. He busts people's faces up with his jab and completely dominates them with his wrestling. He'll attack with head kicks (though he doesn't often set them up well) and use a lot of nice leg kicks. Plus, when he's fighting guys like Nick Diaz (never been actually knocked out, hasn't been finished in 5 years) Carlos Condit (never been knocked out, hasn't been submitted in 6 years) Jake Shields (only knocked out once before fighting GSP in his 3rd fight, never been subbed) Fitch (finished twice in his first 4 fights, then never finished again til Hendricks) and other impossible to stop guys, it's harder to blame GSP for his lack of finishes when no one else is stopping those guys either. He absolutely does try and completely dominates guys, but his submission offense isn't excellent enough to finish these guys and while he does manage to land good ground and pound, the guys he fights are so hard to control that it's difficult to put together enough to get the TKO. I really admire GSP because he gets in there and beats people up, does a lot of damage, takes almost none and leaves no doubt that he's the vastly superior fighter. His jab is by far the best in MMA and while his (kick)boxing footwork could use work, his footwork is perfect for his jab and wrestle-heavy style. His fights are nothing like Macdonald's last fight. GSP hurts and dismantles people while Macdonald mostly just avoided Ellenberger.