TORONTO -- Every once in a while in the fight game, you get a perfectly timed intersection of careers that leads to the two best meeting at their best. We don't always know it at the time, however. It's impossible to know the apex of an athlete's career until he retires and everything can be judged objectively. But it would be hard to imagine that either UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre
or challenger Jake Shields
isn't at the top of their game right now.
Between the two, they are a combined 29-1 over their last 30 fights. Since the start of 2005, each has fought 15 times; Shields is unbeaten, St. Pierre lost just once, and later avenged the defeat by dominating Matt Serra in a rematch.
The UFC 129
main event fight clearly features two athletes at the top of their game, and the result could change the way history is viewed.
St. Pierre (21-2) is a heavy favorite in the bout, as much as 4-to-1 according to some. With wins over Matt Hughes, Josh Koscheck and Sean Sherk, among others, on his resume, the book on GSP is that he chews up wrestlers. And wrestling is a big piece of Shields' success. Although he's better known for his submission game, Shields actually pays tribute to his wrestling roots by calling his hybrid wrestling/jiu-jitsu style "American jiu-jitsu."
Though Shields (26-4-1) does have a traditional wrestling background, his takedown style is somewhat unusual, and he is unafraid to sacrifice style for simple sweat. He is tenacious when he gets a hold of a leg, often working for the takedown well past the point others would have moved on to something else. As a result, Shields has successfully taken down opponents on 25 of 41 attempts (61 percent) over his last eight fights, according to Compustrike
The fact he's tried over 40 takedowns in eight fights shows how he views the ground position. It's his go-to spot. And because of his success putting opponents on their backs, Shields has spent over 70 percent of those eight fights on the ground. That's a huge reason Shields has continued winning. Even when he faced Dan Henderson -- a former U.S. Olympic wrestler -- Shields used his wrestling to come back from a horrific first-round opening and win.
So if you're a Shields' fan, the question you are wondering is whether he can do the same thing to GSP. And the answer to that is, probably not. Shields is going to be facing an uphill task for sure. St. Pierre's 17 UFC opponents have only taken him down a total of six times between them. Meanwhile, St. Pierre's taken them down 56 times, a 79 percent success rate.
St. Pierre is a better offensive and defensive wrestler than anyone Shields has faced, yes, even better than Henderson, who was hampered by an undisclosed back problem when he lost to Shields.
On their feet, Shields will have an even more difficult task. Though he is often criticized for his somewhat unorthodox standup, the raw numbers show that he's more effective than his reputation suggests. He lands 43 percent of his standing strikes, just slightly below average for a high-level mixed martial artist. This is where St. Pierre really separates himself, landing over 50 percent of his standing strikes, including a higher ratio of power punches and kicks.
Now that we got statistics out of the way, let's throw them out the window and try to figure out what each guy will do. With Shields, it's no secret. He's had the same formula for years, and if you can't stuff a takedown, you will lose. If you can't deal with his dogged determination, you will lose. If you can't stop a submission, you will lose. He's going to move in for a takedown early and often.
GSP though, is not so easy to figure out. He spent most of UFC 124 battering Josh Koscheck's face in the standup. The fight before that, he ragdolled Dan Hardy to the ground repeatedly. And before that, it was sort of a hybrid performance, where he utterly confused Thiago Alves, mixing up periods of standup and groundwork to perfection. Given what we know about Shields, I believe that St. Pierre will try to beat him to the punch. Instead of waiting for Shields to attack, he will go on the offensive and try to put Shields on his back.
Some people may think this is crazy, because why take Shields where he wants to go? It's simple. The tone of the fight is different when you're the one deciding where it takes place. It's almost always better to be on the offensive than defensive, Shields is not nearly as dangerous on his back as he is when he's on top, and most of all, St. Pierre believes his submission defense is strong enough to escape Shields' traps.
Anyone who has pulled off a 15-fight win streak, anyone who boasts names like Yushin Okami, Carlos Condit, Jason "Mayhem" Miller and Henderson on his list of victims is capable of pulling off the upset. Shields is game, so if at any point GSP wilts under the pressure, Shields will stun him. I just don't see that happening. St. Pierre is complete enough to win this fight wherever it takes place, while Shields can only win on the ground. I can't see him holding St. Pierre down for three rounds, and I think it's unlikely he taps him out as well. If he does, it's going to happen in the first two rounds. After that, St. Pierre's conditioning will take over.
Shields is extremely durable, and Hendo couldn't finish him after a shot that would have obliterated most fighters. So this is going to be a slow grind either way, but with more ways to win, St. Pierre should win by unanimous decision.