With his Ivy League education, John Danaher is often one of the first names mentioned when it comes to brilliant minds in mixed martial arts. The New York-based jiu-jitsu coach isn't just book smart; he has mentored champions like Georges St-Pierre and Frankie Edgar on the mats. St-Pierre is still one of his prized students, and Danaher will be in his corner on Saturday night in Montreal when he attempts to defend the title against Nick Diaz.
As usual, St-Pierre is a strong favorite to win. Oddsmakers opened the UFC 158 main event line in his favor at slightly more than 4-to-1 odds, and since then, the public has bet him up closer to 5-to-1. The conventional belief is that St-Pierre's wrestling and stifling ground control will render Diaz's punch output useless and neutralize his aggressive guard from the bottom position.
As Danaher sees it, MMA is a free-flowing yet highly fragmented game that can be won and lost in specific positions, and each one sees its favorite.
For example, he acknowledges that St-Pierre's top control and guard passing are superior than that of his opponent, but says Diaz presents more danger than GSP from the bottom. Within wrestling, St-Pierre scores most of his takedowns from lower-body shots, while Diaz does his best work from upper-body attacks, particularly against the fence.
In Danaher's mind, the match will be decided in such positions.
"You can’t just put out these simplistic blanket statements that Diaz is better at jiu-jitsu, Diaz is better at boxing," he said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "There's aspects within those games where one of them is superior than the other. And the one that will be successful is the one who can manage to keep the fight for as long as possible in those niche areas where they feel they have superiority."
The fight has been advertised as something of a grudge match, but Danaher believes that characterization has been blown out of proportion. He says that St-Pierre holds no ill will or strong emotion about Diaz, regardless of what is portrayed in various sound bytes and audio snippets used to sell the fight.
As he puts it, you don't get to a championship level by letting emotion get the best of you, anyway.
"Nick seemed to think he was wronged more than anyone," he said of the recent conference call fireworks between the two. "I would say it went in the other direction. Secondly, you must remember, these are professional athletes. You can talk about emotions, you can talk about words, but ultimately, it’s a physical fight. Once the first punch gets thrown, all those words, all those emotions, they go right out the window. It comes down to the technique and preparation of the athletes involved in who prevails. Don’t get wound up in words and emotion. Both of these guys are highly experienced professional athletes, and ultimately what determines the winner is physical preparation, skill set and knowledge. It's not about emotion. Emotions don't win fights. Techniques do."
Anyway, Danaher says that St-Pierre views Diaz as a worthy foe and interesting character. Even if the St-Pierre camp are not fans of the challenger's communication style ("I don't have a child, but if I did, I wouldn’t want my own child speaking in some of the ways he chooses to speak," he says), Danaher acknowledges Diaz's anti-hero charisma.
"We tend to remember different characters rather than characters who are all the same as us," he said. "As I said, I think there are many things about Nick Diaz that are laudable and good. I admire his dedication. I admire his work ethic. I think he trains very, very hard. So, you can't say Nick Diaz is all bad for the sport. You can't say he's all good for the sport. He's a polarizing figure. He's very good in some ways, and not so good in others."
While Danaher declined to speculate on how the fight will turn out, he did offer thoughts on a potential superfight with Anderson Silva. Though St-Pierre turned down a match with Silva in favor of the bout with Diaz, there still remains the possibility that the two can meet up in the future, though the chances of it seems to grow more remote by the day.
Not surprisingly, Danaher feels that St-Pierre has the right stuff to offer a stern challenge for the middleweight king.
"You can never say of anyone fighting Anderson Silva that Anderson doesn’t have a very good chance," he said. "Anderson is a tremendously gifted mixed martial arts athlete with genuine knockout power in all four limbs. That's something you don't see very often, but I do believe that if Georges did fight him, he'd have an excellent chance at victory. It would be more dangerous in Georges' case because of the considerable size difference, but yes, I do believe Georges would have an excellent chance for victory even against someone as formidable and gifted as Anderson Silva."