Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
MONTREAL -- The most precious commodity for professional athletes is time. It is limited and it cannot be given back or earned. How it is used can mean success or failure. And mostly, it is relentless. It eats away at everything.
Georges St-Pierre surrendered a chunk of it in the prime of his career. Now on the wrong side of 30, the UFC welterweight champion returns with the question of how that time away will affect him. It's not just the 19 months on the sideline though. If it was just that, it would be bad enough. Compounding the doubts are his return from a severe knee injury that required surgical reconstruction. It is often assumed that top-flight athletes that receive top-flight care will return at or near their previous levels, but that's no sure thing.
To date, St-Pierre (22-2) has gone out of his way to emphasize that he's beyond repaired. He has repeatedly said this week that he is at "120 percent" health, and that he wouldn't come back with his knee anything less than perfect.
The question then, is if you take him at his word.
If you don't, then you'd have to question whether the UFC welterweight champ will have the leg strength to drive into a takedown, the lateral mobility to execute effective footwork and the speed to match challenger Carlos Condit. If you do, well, then, you'd have to consider St-Pierre a sizable favorite.
Of all the stats I've seen about Condit in the last few week, the most interesting one is that in his UFC fights, he has spent 27 percent of the time on the ground, on the bottom position. That's not a number that bodes well for success against St-Pierre.
One of the reasons Condit (28-5) manages to win despite it is because he has a wicked guard, often using it to attack or sweep. But St-Pierre has never been a guy who hangs out in his opponent's guard. He always looks to pass to a more dominant position. Four times in his last seven fights, he's passed his opponent's guard 10 or more times, including a whopping 26 times against Dan Hardy. Since the Brit isn't known for his ground work, perhaps that number loses some of its luster, but he also passed B.J. Penn's guard 10 times, proving that he's capable of dominating positioning even against jiu-jitsu wizards.
St-Pierre has said he will more actively look for a finish, and if he gets it, it would certainly come as a surprise, given the fact that Condit hasn't been stopped in over six years, before he was in the UFC. But what will that entail: more active ground-and-pound or a hunt for a submission? Since Condit has never been knocked out, GSP may be more interested in looking for limbs.
There seems to be little question that the fight will hit that mat at some point, but the fight's complexion will change plenty if Condit manages to stay upright for long stretches. He's equally capable of inciting a brawl or playing tactically. He's got size (he's 6-foot-2, three inches taller than St-Pierre) and fearlessness, and will throw any strike that feels right in the moment.
The challenge for strikers fighting St-Pierre is resisting the urge to pull back on aggressiveness due to fear of overextending yourself and becoming more susceptible to the takedown. It's happened over and over to the men who are on St-Pierre's hit list. Dan Hardy could never really let his hands go. Thiago Alves got soundly out-struck on his feet for the same reason.
It's impossible to know if Condit will fall prey to the same phenomenon, but there's reason to believe he will not. Even when he's faced grappling studs like Dong Hyun Kim and Jake Ellenberger, he has declined to pull back on his risk-taking. One of those risks, a flying knee, even led to the finish against Kim. His style departure against Nick Diaz was probably more predicated on the conditioning aspect of the fight than an unwillingness to trade with an excellent striker.
Condit himself has very good hands, with a powerful left hook and overhand right. He also is wiling to throw leg kicks, as evidenced by the 68 he landed against Diaz in February. It will be interesting to see how often he throws it given that a) St-Pierre is coming off a leg injury and b) it could trigger a takedown attempt against him. That is a potential risk/reward scenario for Condit that will play out in real time.
Perhaps his most important trait is his tenacity, best illustrated in his late comeback win over Rory MacDonald. Condit has the durability to take a beating and return fire, and that's dangerous if St-Pierre's stamina isn't there in a long fight.
Most of the X-factors in this fight surround St-Pierre. To pick him, you have to believe that his knee is fine and his conditioning had a chance to catch up to his health. But if you believe those things, the prediction becomes less tricky. St-Pierre is more than capable of striking with anyone in his division, and when he wants to change levels and take the fight down, Condit isn't the one who's going to stop him. He's more than likely going to be content to fight off his back for some stretches of time, but as we've established, St-Pierre gets to dominant positions. That's an easy way to pile up rounds with miminal danger, and it's his likely route to victory on Saturday night. Before his home crowd, St-Pierre gets his lucky seventh title defense via unanimous decision.
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