Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
MONTREAL -- It was almost five years ago when Nick Diaz first made Georges St-Pierre his public target. At the time, his request seemed both bold and overreaching. He was just two fights into his welterweight return, and coming off a win over the unheralded Muhsin Corbbrey. He was also under contract to EliteXC after leaving the UFC over a year earlier. The fight, it seemed, was nothing more than a pipe dream.
Little did the mixed martial arts world realize what a star he was about to become. Diaz had already been considered an excellent fighter with an intriguing personality, but after the promotion of an April 2009 fight with Frank Shamrock set the fight world abuzz, Diaz's career took off. Within two fights, he won the Strikeforce welterweight championship. He began to reel off highlight reel performances that were punctuated by showmanship and finishes. He could out-slug sluggers like Paul Daley, toy with black belts on the ground, like Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos, and out-box boxers like K.J. Noons. It was almost as if he was proving a point by beating fighters at their specialties, because f--- you, that's why.
Which brought him to the UFC. Diaz (26-8, 1 no contest) became such a cult of personality that even after losing to Carlos Condit in a close decision, his magnetic force could not be resisted. St-Pierre, who was tired of the years of antagonizing, gave in, requesting the match.
But something that St-Pierre (23-2) recently said regarding another match has gone forgotten, even though it can be related to him. The welterweight champion, when asked about Anderson Silva finally giving in to Chris Weidman's challenge demands, said that Silva was smart to grant the opportunity now, as Weidman is returning from a lengthy layoff. That is the same tactic St-Pierre has taken with Diaz. Weidman will be fighting Silva after one year away; Diaz has been on the shelf for 13 months.
St-Pierre, who only recently came off a long break of his own, knows the deal. It takes a few minutes to get back into the rhythm of a real fight. This is not sparring, where your teammate will let you work you way into the speed of it all. This is for real, and by the time Diaz catches up, he could be a round or more behind, and that could be all the edge St-Pierre needs.
Yes, there is a difference in their layoffs, in that Diaz was not injured, he was simply suspended, but you cannot replicate the speed of true competition. You can simulate it, but you can't recreate the intensity. Any fighter will tell you that.
That's only one of the factors that plays against Diaz in the UFC 158 main event. Far more significant is the advantage that St-Pierre has in determining where the fight takes place. He can stand with Diaz as long as he likes, but if things get dicey, there is little doubt he will be able to bring the fight to the mat. Diaz has much maligned takedown defense, but according to FightMetric stats, he actually stops 64 percent of attempts against him. That's a respectable number, but viewed alone doesn't tell the whole story, as Diaz has faced few strong wrestlers over the past few years.
You'd have to go back to his Feb. 2007 fight against Takanori Gomi to examine the last time he faced a sharp wrestler, and though Diaz eventually stopped Gomi with a rarely seen gogoplata -- a result that was eventually overturned to a no contest due to a positive drug test -- Gomi successfully managed to convert all three of his takedown tries.
Now, of course, you can surmise that Diaz has improved his wrestling during that time. He has proven to be very good at fighting position against the cage and against upper body attacks, but that's not St-Pierre's game. He is a level changer who goes after the legs, and given that he's taken down every one of his opponents during his current 10-fight win streak multiple times -- including wrestlers like Josh Koscheck, Matt Hughes and Jon Fitch -- there is little doubt Diaz will suffer the same fate, and likely at more than one point. And let's face it, judges tend to score rounds for the fighter on top.
As I noted before, Diaz likes to beat his opponents at their own game. If they want to take him down, he'll prove he can beat them their with a submission rather than try to get to his feet. That's a losing proposition against St-Pierre, who like Diaz, is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who has only tapped out once in 25 pro fights. To add to it, St-Pierre is an adept guard passer, who sliced through Condit's dangerous guard for eight position changes during their recent bout. Diaz's guard is the most dangerous place to be on the ground, and St-Pierre is likely to limit his submission tries by moving to less risky spots like half-guard or side control. Except for a two-fight stretch against Koscheck and Jake Shields, where he turned ultra-cautious and didn't pass guard a single time, GSP always takes the most advantageous position.
All that said, I don't expect St-Pierre to try to spend all 25 minutes on the mat. I don't think he particularly fears Diaz's standup, which is most dependent on volume that pays dividends over time. Diaz is not a one-punch knockout artist, which gives St-Pierre the luxury of letting the fight tempo move to a pace where Diaz grows comfortable moving forward. That is where Diaz is at his best. He likes to own the center of the cage, he likes to walk his opponents down, and he likes to be the aggressor. But all of this plays perfectly into St-Pierre's strength of ducking under his foe's forward momentum for a takedown. So even the standup plays into GSP's strengths, in a way.
Does Diaz have a chance? Of course. If St-Pierre hangs out in his guard, his long limbs are dangerous. If he shows some patience with his striking instead of constantly moving forward, he will have a better opportunity to resist the takedown. But after all his time fighting, Diaz mostly is what he is. He is talented and skilled, but his biggest weakness is St-Pierre's overwhelming strength, and one thing we do know is that the champion never fails to capitalize on such flaws.
A lot has been made of the emotion in this fight. As noted, Diaz has been pining for this fight for years, and regardless of what St-Pierre publicly says, there is little doubt the challenger has gotten under his skin. St-Pierre was visibly agitated at Thursday's press conference, and in the lead-up to the fight, he's said some things that are uncharacteristic of him. I fully expect him to leave all of that stuff behind. Much of what he does in the cage is a game plan learned through repetition in the cage along with muscle memory. He's also quite used to opponents talking trash to him. Even Diaz's accusations of steroids use aren't new; B.J. Penn lobbed out the same allegations when he fought GSP in 2009, and that didn't turn out well for him.
Fights are ultimately not decided by emotion but by executed game plans and skill, and St-Pierre's strategic approach and wrestling should win the grudge match and at least temporarily silence the mouth that roared. St-Pierre by decision.
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