Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Georges St-Pierre, Fighting Safe and It Takes Two

Recently, Chris Lytle submitted Dan Hardy. Even more recently, Jake Ellenburger knocked out Jake Shields. In both instances, part of the story was that Georges St-Pierre did neither. The narrative rules thus, “Because inferior fighters like Chris Lytle and Jake Ellenburger finished Dan Hardy and Jake Shields, this is proof that GSP fights ‘safe’.”

It’s a very interesting narrative because I don’t think it has much basis in fact.

The first time I noticed it was after Matt Serra knocked out GSP. The rumors abounded that GSP had no heart to be punched, and his subsequent fights didn’t dispel this notion. He dominated Josh Koscheck and submitted Matt Hughes so completely that one might think it was true GSP didn't want to be punched - so, great performances by GSP, his incredible defense, were transformed into strikes against him. I found this very bizarre. Like getting punched was, somehow, a virtue in MMA.

Serra vs. GSP II was pretty interesting in the context of the narrative around GSP. When GSP immediately took Serra down, Eddie Bravo (filling in for Joe Rogan) talked about how that was a conservative strategy. In Eddie Bravo’s world, ground fighting with a high level Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt trained by Renzo Gracie is “conservative” instead of, oh, a demonstration of GSP’s utter confidence in his ability to dominate Serra on the ground. Which GSP then proceeds to do.

It gets worse in the second around. Even while GSP is destroying Serra’s internal organs in alphabetical order with some of the most brutal knee strikes seen in MMA, Eddie Bravo is talking about how conservative GSP is fighting. Even as GSP crushed Matt Serra, this was the narrative, even though the evidence against that narrative was literally happening in front of Bravo.

Since then, that narrative has taken on a life of it’s own because GSP hasn’t finished four opponents, though he has often dominated them. The idea that he's fighting safe has simply become accepted by large parts of the MMA community, even though the evidence against it right there. But, like Eddie Bravo, they refuse to see it.

When you look at GSP's fights, the truth is you find an extremely active fighter with an arsenal of diverse MMA techniques second to none. He throws many standing strikes, he has great takedowns and ground and pound, he's good at submissions. Indeed, one of the characteristic elements of GSP's style is he often goes after a fighter where he's strong - so he'll stand up with fighters like Thiago Alves, but take fighters like Jon Fitch to the ground.

Still, I think I do know why GSP doesn't finish more opponents. It's not because he doesn't fight - it's because they don't fight. GSP's opponents since Jon Fitch have not meaningfully tried to mount an offense against GSP. Even if they're aggressive against other opponents, against GSP they become timid, if not outright cowardly.

Really, if you look at GSP’s fights, he throws a lot of risky techniques and often meets fighters were they’re strongest in order to overwhelm them. This is not a particularly conservative strategy, it is not being risk adverse. You can’t throw a spinning high kick in a risk adverse way! But it’s one of GSP’s favorite techniques.

Well, my friends, it takes two to tango. It was almost a foregone conclusion that GSP vs. Fitch would go the distance. Fitch is a grinder with a really hard head and great submission defense. His entire fighting style is to neutralize his opponent’s offense . . . which he managed to do just barely enough to stop getting knocked out or submitted.

But things get really interesting when you look at GSP vs. BJ Penn II. Many people thought that Penn beat GSP in their first fight, and even GSP fans would generally concede that Penn got the better of GSP in striking. A lot of people thought that Penn was a bad stylistic match-up for GSP - Penn's got a great takedown defense and really fast hands with knockout power. Penn is also a notoriously aggressive fighter.

And let's look at Penn's offense. In four rounds, BJ Penn threw 37 significant strikes. Oh, sure, you might say, but most of the fight took place with Penn on the ground and GSP grinding him out. Yet, of standing strikes, GSP threw 47 strikes (landing 30) and Penn . . . threw 27 strikes (landing a mere 8). GSP launched almost twice as many attacks, standing, as BJ Penn.

Penn was supposed to want the fight standing, but even standing, GSP just tore him apart. And GSP was the clear aggressor. Penn was the person avoiding GSP, not GSP avoiding Penn. That's not even counting that all the takedowns (4 total) and seven of the eight takedown attempts were by GSP.

So, really, who fought the conservative fight there? The guy doing the punching, kicking and takedowns, or the guy who didn't do those things? BJ Penn is supposed to be one of those iron willed fighters who always goes forward - but that's just not true in his fight against GSP. He fought timidly, refusing to engage GSP both on the feet and on the ground.

In GSP’s fight with Thiago Alves, Alves was timid. I mean, I love Alves. He’s got shotgun shells for shins. He turns over a low kick like no one else. And if he’d been willing to use that against GSP. . . but, no, during the stand-up, Alves attacked GSP often, but timidly. Alves was so frightened of GSP’s various abilities that he landed only 19% of his blows - about half his average. Like with Penn, Alves was supposed to have the advantage in striking.

It was a pretty sad spectacle, watching the normally aggressive Alves unwilling to commit to attacks. He threw a fair number of blows, more than GSP, but GSP hit much, much more - almost three times as much - because one of them was committing to the attack. It wasn't Alves.

Worthy of note, Alves has some of the best leg kicks in MMA. He threw only fifteen significant leg strikes at GSP during the whole fight - even though it is one of this best attacks and was landing half of them.

(Of all the fights I'm going to talk about, this one is the hardest to say that Alves was timid. I've watched many Alves fights, most of them several times, and Alves was timid against GSP, and often against wrestlers. You can see this same timidity in the first two rounds of Alves' fight with Rick Story. Rather than throwing aggressive techniques, Alves was active on paper but when you watch the fight it's clear he's holding back. How much he was holding back became clearer in the third round when Alves tore Story apart. Alves can get timid around wrestlers, generally, failing to commit to attacks because he doesn't want to be taken down. This is a serious flaw in his fighting style and lost him title contention for the near future.)

Hardy wasn’t particularly timid, but let’s face it, we all know it, he had no right being in the same cage with GSP. People wonder why GSP didn’t finish him, they say his armbar technique was sloppy . . . but I’ll tell you what I think. GSP pitied Dan Hardy. Hardy was the opposite of a threat to GSP, so rather than cripple the man, GSP went light.

But still, Hardy was in a cage fight against GSP. To win, you’ve got to attack. How often did Hardy attack? In 25 minutes, Hardy attempted 27 significant strikes - that’s slightly more than one a minute - and connected with 4. He tried no takedowns, no submission attempts. Hardy’s entire offensive output was one punch a minute. At no point did the Outlaw try to seriously fight GSP.

(And against Chris Lytle, Hardy was not the same fighter. Against GSP, he was the spunky underdog that had, through highlight reel comebacks, had earned a title shot against GSP. Against Lytle, Hardy was 0-3, not having won since before GSP. Saying Hardy was beaten before he ever got into the cage is, I think, fair.)

Next up was Josh Koscheck. GSP “conservatively” punched Koscheck, punishing Kos with 110 significant blows, 70 to the head. But a clear part of that fight was Koscheck’s lack of meaningful offense. While GSP launched his 136 significant strikes, Koscheck only attempted 30 and landed only 16 - less than one a minute. Remember, almost all of this fight was standing. Unlike the Hardy fight, you can't actually say that GSP used his wrestling to neutralize Koscheck's offense. Koscheck had as many attempts to strike at GSP as GSP had to strike at Koscheck. It's just Koscheck didn't take them.

In the fourth and fifth rounds, Koscheck only attempted one significant strike. In ten minutes, he tried to punch GSP once. And takedowns? Koscheck tried only 4 times, all of them in the first round. Which means in rounds four and five, Koscheck’s entirely offensive activity consisted of one punch. But the whole fight was Koscheck tentatively approaching GSP, getting hit and backing off - pretty much the whole damn fight.

After that it was Jake Shields and Shields wasn’t timid. He just cheated. Gouging your opponent is a good way to win, but a serious part of Shield’s strategy was to keep GSP off of him. He fought with his hand out, his fingers out towards GSP’s eyes, making it hard for GSP to approach without getting gouged. And GSP did get gouged. Five times. This fight was a travesty, let’s face it. It should have been stopped and Shields disqualified for his repeated gouges and then kicked out of the UFC for willfully endangering another fight.

To sum up, it takes two to fight. GSP is an aggressive fighter. He throws a lot of strikes, he does a lot of takedowns - but what if the other fighter only wants to survive the fight? What if you’re Thiago Alves and you refuse to use your strongest weapon? Or you’re Dan Hardy or Josh Koscheck or BJ Penn and you’re barely in the fight at all? Or you’re Jake Shields who just cheats.

Oh, and what about GSP’s “heart”. Sure, he doesn’t get hit very often, because no one seriously attacks him. When one fighter refuses to attack another, it’s very hard for the aggressive fighter to knock his opponent out. A perfect example of this are Anderson Silva's fights against Demian Maia and Thales Leites. Silva couldn’t put either away - and both Leites and Demian Maia had a greater offensive output than Dan Hardy and Josh Koscheck. Or Nate Quarry vs. Kalib Starnes. There was no possible way that Quarry could have finished Starnes . . . but Starnes fought harder than Hardy and Koscheck, given the fight was three rounds.

GSP doesn’t finish guys because they do not, in general, fight him. They either fight him timidly, failing to commit to their attacks, which is how Alves fought. Or they don’t mount any serious offense at all, such as with Penn, Koscheck and Hardy. Or they fight dirty, like Shields did.

GSP has broken the will of the entire welterweight division. Since GSP brutally punished Jon Fitch, his opponents have gone into the cage trying to survive, that’s all.

Unlike a grinder, who takes an opponent down and uses top control wrestling to shut down their foe’s offense, GSP is quite willing to stand up and trade blows. He did it with Alves, he did it with Koscheck and Shields. But he’s usually the only guy seriously throwing. He’s trying to get into a fight, and he gets timidity, backpedalling and lack of any serious offense at all - or cheating.

So, a shadow of Dan Hardy got submitted by Chris Lytle. Yes. But Hardy fought a totally different fight against Lytle. To wit, Hardy fought it. Against GSP, Hardy threw a meager 27 significant strikes. Against Lytle, Hardy threw 238 significant strikes. Naturally, with Hardy winging blows with abandon, with no defense, it shouldn’t be surprising that Lytle was able to submit him. Hardy fought a stupid fight and he lost.

Likewise with Shields and Ellenburger. I’m guessing fighters and referees are now watching for the eye pokes. But instead of trying to keeping Ellenburger away, Shields instead charged in for takedowns with no attempt at defense. He fought stupid and got knocked out. How does that reflect on GSP? Shields fought a totally different fight - a cleaner, dumber fight - and got caught. (Not to mention that Shields’ dad died three weeks before. It is hard for me to count that loss too much against Shields, and I think the dude should have been kicked out of the UFC when the amount of cheating he performed against GSP became evident.)

Fighters fight timidly against GSP, so he can’t finish them. Just like Anderson Silva could not finish Thales Leites or Demian Maia and Nate Quarry could not finish Kalib Starnes; it’s hard to fight a guy running away from you. You watch Carlos Condit, next. Watch how he comes out. What he’s learning from Winklejohn, right now, is that there is nothing he does that GSP doesn’t do better. Condit will have to make a decision. He will have to decide either to fight GSP like he has fought everyone else, in which case we’ll see Condit go out on his shield, or he will spend the whole fight looking for a weak spot that simply is not there . . . the fight will go long, and Condit will probably see all five rounds. (I hope that doesn’t happen. I hope Condit tries to win, I seriously do, rather than meekly pressing the attack and hoping for GSP to make a mistake. But I believe that what we'll factually see is a timid, meek Condit.)

If you look at the numbers and kinds of attacks GSP uses, he is an extremely active fighter against unusually timid opponents. He does not grind. He throws a lot of leather, he does takedowns, he tries submissions. But when the other guy is focusing solely on surviving the fight, well, these are the best fighters in the world. They’re probably going to make it.

However, the narrative is that GSP is a conservative fighter. He’s a “safe” fighter. Perhaps so. I don’t think this is a slur. The guy is almost impossible to hit or take down and that’s a testament to his incredible skill. But if the other fighters don’t launch a sustained offense, how on earth can GSP finish them? It takes two to fight.

It also means that when someone else finishes a fighter GSP did not finish, it means nothing. The narrative that GSP is somehow a timid fighter is bizarre and absurd. It’s his opponents who are timid, when fighting him.

PS with Anderson Silva. And, in comparison, Anderson Silva is lucky in his opponents. Yushin Okami, after getting rocked twice by Anderson Silva, pressed ahead, anyway, winging clumsy blows at Silva. As one BEer said, the secret hero of UFC Rio was Okami. He decided to go out on his shield. Vitor Belfort stuck right in the pocket, right in front of Anderson Silva, and paid the price for his aggression.

You can even see it happen. In Silva’s fight with Forrest Griffin, Silva goaded Griffin into the attacks that allowed the counterpunch that drove Forrest’s will to fight right out of his body, never to return. Silva did the same thing against Hendo - instead of sticking to the gameplan, Dan Henderson decided to get into a punching match with Silva and paid the price.

Silva is an incredible fighter, but much of his legend must be attributed to the people he fights. As a rule, they are there to fight. The come forward, even when it’s foolish or even hopeless to do so.

But when faced with fighters who fight like the fighters GSP fights - people like Maia and Leites, except GSP's opponents are more generally skilled than Maia or Leites - Silva fares no better than GSP. Indeed, he fares worse because Silva is a more defensive fighter than GSP and, unlike many of his opponents, Silva can not be swayed from his game plan. Even if it makes him look ridiculous.

It really takes two to fight. Silva is fortunate that his weight class is filled with so many brawlers and tough guys. That Silva can get matched up against Rich Franklins and Forrest Griffins and and Dan Hendersons instead of Josh Koschecks, Dan Hardys and Thiago Alveses.

Which is why after GSP takes apart Condit, I hope he goes up in weight. I think Chris Leben would be a good first fight for GSP. It would draw an instant comparison with Anderson Silva, who’s first UFC fight was with Leben, it would be exciting because Leben is definitely a “go out on your shield” type of fighter, and we would get to see how GSP handles a brawler. My guess would be “easily”. I believe that GSP at middleweight would produce more interesting fights . . . until GSP crushed the division’s will to fight, too.

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