This Saturday's UFC 94 main event between welterweight champion Georges "Rush" St. Pierre and lightweight champion BJ Penn is one of the greatest matchups in the history of combat sports. You're got two of the best pound-4-pound fighters in their prime, combined with their history (a split decision victory for St. Pierre at UFC 58) and the bad blood that has developed between these two since that fight, particularly through the latest TV series UFC PrimeTime.
Leading up to the fight, many critics, fans and pundits alike have tried their best to break down the fight. They discuss Penn's jab and heavy hands, but St. Pierre's versatile striking arsenal. Or Penn's superior flexibility and jiu-jitsu and St. Pierre's world-class wrestling. Penn's questionable cardio against St. Pierre's bottomless gas tank. Or even the fact that Penn is moving up from lightweight while St. Pierre will undoubtedly be cutting 15-20 lbs. this week just to make 170. There will be a considerable size advantage, but will it matter? Each fighter will walk into the cage on Saturday night with considerable advantages in different disciplines and areas of the fight game.
But one aspect that may have been overlooked, or perhaps not given enough attention is the mental aspect of this fight. Penn has referred to GSP as a mental midget, a bully and a quitter. And while GSP can say all he wants to refute that, and people can point to his impressive resume of victories over the likes of Penn, Matt Hughes (2), Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, Matt Serra, Sean Sherk, Frank Trigg, Jason "Mayhem" Miller, Dave Strasser, Karo Parysian, and Jay Hieron, I'm here to point out a noticeable trend in St. Pierre's fights.
I've been watching MMA and UFC for several years now. My first exposure was TUF Season 1, and my first live fight on TV was the classic TUF finale between Stephan Bonnar. I've been hooked ever since and made it a priority to catch every Fight Night, PPV and TUF episode possible in one way or another. So I've seen each and every one of GSP's fights as far back as his destruction of Jay Hieron at UFC 48 in 2004. If you haven't seen that, it's a beauty, reminiscent of Houston Alexander's massacre over Keith Jardine.
The problem with St. Pierre's resume is that all of his fights have, for the most part, been one-sided. His two victories over Hughes and his wins over Fitch, Serra, Koscheck, Trigg, Hieron, Strasser and Sherk were complete dominations in favor of GSP. He controlled the fights from the outset, imposing his will and at no point in any of these fights was he in any bit of trouble. GSP was essentially on cruise control, faced little to no adversity and was able to execute his gameplan en route to a finish or lopsided decision victory. Whether the fight ended via stoppage or went to the judge's scorecards, the fans were left with no doubt from the start of the fight to the end as to who the victor would be.
However, it's important to closely examine those "other" fights. His decision victory over Karo Parysian was said to be closely contested, but I'm tossing that out the window due to the fact that it was five years ago to the date tomorrow. Interestingly enough, five years after his UFC debut, GSP will be competing in perhaps the greatest mega-fight in UFC history. Parysian, meanwhile, is fighting on the undercard against a guy nicknamed "Stun Gun", and reports from mmamania.com indicate the UFC is concerned Parysian may pull out at the last minute. This is after Karo withdrew from UFC 88 hours before the fight due to panic attacks after being KO'd by Thiago Alves in his last fight.
So moving past that early fight in his career we start to see the trend unfold. The loss to Hughes in their first tilt is perhaps the first and most exemplary sign of St. Pierre's weak mental state. Admittedly he was nervous leading up to the fight, which is understandable considering it was his first title fight, only his 8th professional bout, and he was fighting a legend of the sport. GSP could not look Hughes in the eyes during the stare down, but incredibly he dominated the first round. His striking and takedown defense were remarkable, and the highlight of the round was a spinning back kick which caught Hughes and visibly locked up his stomach and chest muscles, knocking the wind out of the opponent and momentarily putting him in trouble. But at the end of the round, Hughes scored a takedown and while trying to impose his legendary ground and pound attack, latched onto an arm from the top, swung his left leg around GSP's head and fell off to the right, locking in an arm bar. St. Pierre instantly tapped, not even attempting to fight off the submission, roll out of it or hold on until the end of the round. And sadly, just as Big John McCarthy stepped in, the horn went off signaling the end of the round. But the stoppage had been declared, and St. Pierre was left to wonder what could have been. He gave up at the first sign of trouble, plain and simple.
Then there was the first fight with Penn. St. Pierre's face was bloodied and bludgeoned by a fighter who was a natural 155, smaller fighter who had a history of fighting bigger opponents and not only holding his own, but holding his own. The guy has a decision loss to Lyoto Machida...remarkable especially with where Machida currently ranks in the light heavyweight division. The second round was more closely contested, with Penn continuing to land strikes, but St. Pierre scoring takedowns and trying to work some ground and pound from Penn's guard. It was competitive and close, and was undoubtedly the swing round in the bout. The third round most likely belonged to St. Pierre, as Penn's gas tank went on empty and shifted the momentum into the Canadien's corner. Many question whether the result would have differed if Penn came into the fight with better cardio. Even so, many including myself argued that Penn did enough early to earn the split decision. But alas, the victory went to St. Pierre although he was immediately ushered to the hospital for overnight observation.
Against Matt Serra, St. Pierre was heavily favored. Serra actually came into the fight as a +800 underdog in Vegas. He was an improbably title challenger, perhaps an undeserving one after claiming the TUF Season 4 welterweight crown via split decision victory over Chris Lytle, a fight that left many in the audience underwhelmed by the action. Serra was certainly a veteran of the sport, a solid resume with fights against Shonie Carter, Din Thomas, BJ Penn and Karo Parysian. But he'd lost all four, and the promotion by Dana White to have the TUF 4 winner fight for a title was undoubtedly an effort to reinvigorate the TUF brand. And in the first round, both fighters exchanged pleasantries in the form of strikes on their feet. A couple minutes in, however, Serra caught St. Pierre with an overhand right that put the champion on queer street. Smelling blood, Serra moved in for the kill, landing bombs almost at will and staggering GSP into the cage, onto the mat and across the octagon. Finally Serra landed a blow that put the champ on his back and into a corner, and a flurry of strikes prompted Big John to step in. But tape revealed that prior to the referee stoppage, St. Pierre was actually tapping out. The strikes were overwhelming him, and he was asking for help. He wanted to be saved from taking any further punishment. Again, he quit in the Octagon in the face of adversity.
Given his history, I can't help but believe Penn will hold a considerable mental and psychological advantage heading into Saturday's fight. Dana White mentioned in his video blog that during the staredown at the press conference, Penn kept telling GSP, "You cut too much weight Georges...you cut too much." He's getting in St. Pierre's head and making him question everything, from his training to his ability to his mental state heading into the fight.
The bottom line is that Penn is right: St. Pierre is a bully. He is able to dominate and walk through most opponents with ease. His superior athleticism, cardio and strength combined with his arsenal of strikes, wrestling and submission skills make him a tall task for anyone. But many opponents have allowed him to impose his will, and once St. Pierre has taken control of a fight, he's been allowed to maintain control and blitz through fighters with ease. Yet as Penn has said, all it takes is for someone to stand up to the bully and challenge him. For years that bully stole money from kids in the lunch line every day, until that one time some unknown stepped out of the line and punched him flush in the nose and put an end to the robbery from that day forth.
Well that unknown is Penn. He will challenge St. Pierre and keep pushing forward, giving the welterweight champion all he can handle. Saturday's fight will prove one of two things: a) Penn is right and St. Pierre will fold under the pressure or b) St. Pierre has evolved and matured and will outlast the lightweight champion. Thus, I see this fight ending one of two ways. Either Penn by stoppage or St. Pierre by decision. But ultimately I think Penn will live up to his word and take on the bully and stop him. As great a fighter as St. Pierre is, Penn is just as great and has the mental fortitude to press forward and pressure his adversary to the tipping point. And on Saturday night, there will be two differences from their first fight. A recommitted fighter in Penn will have the gas to last longer and this time around, he won't need the judges to earn the victory. Penn will become the first fighter to simultaneously hold titles in two weight classes with a 3rd round stoppage over GSP.
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