I’ve become a big fan of MMA over the last several years, and follow the sport as much, if not more so than I do wrestling today. And being Canadian, of course my UFC allegiance lies with current UFC Welterweight Champion, Georges “Rush” St. Pierre. GSP has reached a status of iconic proportions in this country and I, like thousands of others, have spent money to see him fight in person and on pay-per-view, plus I’ve parted with additional dollars for St. Pierre-branded merchandise like T-shirts and action figures. And while GSP isn’t the most famous athlete to come out of Canada (no matter how much Dana White wants you to believe it), he has undoubtedly become *one of* the most famous Canadian athletes, and a legend in the making when it comes to the world of MMA.
As dominant as St. Pierre’s 22-2 record makes him appear to be – and in many aspects he has been – there are a pair of factors that have prevented him from reaching the top of the “pound for pound” greatest list. Most agree that Anderson Silva is the king of that list, and recently Dana White even pushed GSP from his long-standing placement in the #2 position, feeling that UFC Lightweight Champion Frankie Edgar has surpassed GSP and overtaken that position to leave St. Pierre as the 3rd rank. Of course the “pound for pound” list is irrelevant and a matter of opinion, but it’s pretty telling to have a dominant champion successfully defend his title six times straight (and win nine straight fights overall) and get outranked by a champion who barely squeaked out a victory in his last fight after fighting to a draw with the same opponent in their previous bout. Again it comes down to a pair of factors that, if GSP is unable to overcome them prior to his February 2012 showdown with Nick Diaz, may result in St. Pierre suffering his first defeat in five years, and rightfully so.
We’ve seen it time and again – fighters become different in the ring after knockout losses. Wanderlei Silva went from ferocious to cautious after getting KO’d by Mirko Cro Cop in Pride, and he was never the same again. Chuck Liddell was a dominant UFC Champion before a defeat at the hands of Quinton “Rampage” Jackson changed everything and saw Liddell go on to lose four of his next five fights and be forced into retirement after three straight KO losses. And then there’s Georges St. Pierre. He entered the UFC in January of 2004 to much fanfare, and aside from a submission loss to Matt Hughes that October (with just one second left in the first round), he was a force, dominating opponents with his ability to work the angles and mix up his strikes to always keep them guessing. He also displayed a tremendous ground game, wrestling at such a high level that he was a candidate for the Canadian Olympic wrestling team. GSP quickly became one of the UFC’s most popular and most bankable stars. But with the success came the pressure, not to mention the outside temptations, and it all caught up to St. Pierre on April 7, 2007 when he lost his title via knockout in the first round to Matt Serra. Going into the fight, Serra hadn’t even been considered a legitimate contender, having earned the title shot by winning that season’s “Ultimate Fighter” tournament against a group of has-been fighters looking for another shot at glory. But whether it was a fluke or an inevitable conclusion didn’t matter; GSP was out, and Serra was the new champion.
When St. Pierre returned to action, he displayed all of the hunger and dominance that had brought him the title to begin with. He blew through Josh Koscheck with a wrestling game that stunned the former NCAA wrestling stand-out. He knocked out former champion Hughes. And then he pummelled and pounded Serra in their rematch to reclaim the championship. He became even more popular, an even bigger pay-per-view draw, and he was considered untouchable – if not unbeatable – by fans and critics alike. But fast forward a few years, and some things have changed. Georges is still the champion, having won six straight fights in the four years since he beat Serra. He is still a top PPV draw, and is still embraced by his countrymen as an all-time great. But with respect to his in-ring performances, he has become a disappointment, unable to finish any of his last six opponents (BJ Penn’s corner threw in the towel after the 4th round of their fight so it was ruled a TKO, but Georges didn’t finish him). He has been questioned repeatedly by the media for his inability to finish fights, and GSP himself has felt the need to voluntarily address this issue in interviews, expressing his disappointment after each unanimous decision win.
Not only did GSP’s KO loss to Serra seemingly turn him into a more cautious, hesitant fighter, but you also have to look at the insurmountable pressure that he faces each time he steps into the UFC Octagon. He carries with him the weight of not just a nation, but a global fanbase that views defeat as unacceptable. He also faces the pressures of an employer that always shines the spotlight on him, labelling him as their prototypical fighter, role model and spokesman. In addition, he is the first UFC fighter to land major corporate sponsorship from the likes of Under Armour and Gatorade. This all adds up to a fighter that feels the pressure to win perhaps more so than any other.
All of this pressure has caused St. Pierre to take opponents more seriously than perhaps he should, as if he believes the UFC’s own marketing efforts in promoting his opponents. When he fought Dan Hardy in March of 2010, Hardy was viewed by many as a, shall we say, less than formidable contender. GSP did come close to submitting Hardy at one point, but otherwise he was content to win a five-round decision full of mostly takedowns and ineffective, cautious strikes. Hardy went on to lose three straight fights after the GSP loss, including one by KO to Carlos Condit, and one by submission to Chris Lytle.
Next for St. Pierre came a title defense against Josh Koscheck, and despite an impressive usage of his jab – which broke Koscheck’s orbital bone and closed his right eye – Georges never “went in for the kill” and was content to circle and jab (and use the occasional takedown) for five straight rounds. Most recently, GSP won a lacklustre fight against Jake Shields and again, GSP lacked killer instinct and chose to fight a safe fight. He even managed to knock Shields down a couple of times but never moved in for a finish, choosing instead to stay back and allow Shields to get up. GSP simply showed Shields (as he did Hardy and the others) too much respect, something Jake Ellenberger didn’t do when he knocked Shields out in the first round of their fight, five months after the GSP fight.
Next up for St. Pierre is Nick Diaz, the brash, disrespectful former Strikeforce Champion that initially lost out on his chance to fight GSP after repeatedly missing press conferences to promote their fight, then re-earned the title shot after beating BJ Penn and promptly calling out GSP. According to Dana White, St. Pierre “flipped out” after Diaz accused him of faking a knee injury in order to avoid fighting that same night, and St. Pierre demanded that White match him against Diaz next rather than his previously booked opponent, Carlos Condit. White obliged St. Pierre in his request, and the match was made for this coming February. So it begs the question – which GSP will show for the fight with Diaz? Will it be the hungry, aggressive GSP that once laid beatings on all who opposed him? Or will it be the cautious, hesitant GSP that seems more interested in winning than in finishing? If the latter fighter shows up that night (again), maybe a KO loss to Diaz will smarten him up. Time will tell.