Is it fair to call one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet disappointing?
Coming off the heels of less than optimal performance against contender Jake Shields at UFC 129, fans are beginning to grumble that St. Pierre is now officially boring to watch. No one is undermining his talent and it's not that he's not dominating opposition. St. Pierre is fighting in arguably MMA's toughest division and often making it appear a matter of procedure.
But he's routinely falling short of expectation. There isn't a one-to-one correlation with 'decision' and 'boring fight', particularly when there's parity in a fight. Often decisions are MMA's best viewing spectacles, but that tends to not be true when there's a talent disparity between the competitors. So consider: since stopping Matt Serra in 2007, 6 of St. Pierre's 9 fights have gone to a decision. With the exception of and since his win over the much smaller B.J. Penn, all of St. Pierre's five-round fights have gone the distance including his last four. It's been over two years since St. Pierre stopped anyone he fought.
Is it fair to say St. Pierre is boring? And are the expectations placed on him unreasonable demands from an adoring but impatient fan base? Doug Brown, a defensive lineman in the Canadian Football League, tries to articulate the disappointment:
If you were to watch any of GSP's last three fights against Shields, Josh Koscheck or Dan Hardy, you definitely wouldn't get the impression that he is out there trying to end it early or knock anybody out in the first round. He displays an arsenal of skills that tells us he could, but he does not.
I am not privy to his strategic game planning or there when he breaks down film on an opponent, but these days GSP seems as happy as a clam to win on points. It is the safest way and the most effective way for him to hold onto his title and that is what he does. He seems to negate whatever the strength of his opponent may be, which in the fight against Shields was his ground game, and force them to fight on his terms. Translated to the fight on Saturday, this meant Shields was going to have to fight St-Pierre in a standup contest, and GSP did more than enough to win that competition. GSP will wade into the throes of a battle, throw a one- or two-punch combination -- maybe with a spinning back kick for good measure -- then retreat to the high ground before his opponent can mount a counterattack. Engage, retreat, engage, retreat. It's like watching a hummingbird dance with a bird feeder for five rounds.
The only thing I am a champion of at this moment is my home and my dog, so it's not exactly fair for me to throw stones at a man who has accomplished something to such a degree that I never will. But I long for the GSP that commits himself to a fracas with disregard for the legacy of his title and personal safety, like he used to before he was champion, so we can see the measure of this man when he is threatened and stands in harm's way for more than the briefest of moments.
It's impossible to deny there is a strain of conservatism to St. Pierre's attack in his recent fights. I don't mean risk management, although there's that, too. I mean risk aversion: avoidance of risk past the point where the calculation of cost vs. benefit determines offense is still acceptable. I'll give an example.
Against Dan Hardy at UFC 111, St. Pierre was able to take down and essentially hold down Hardy at will (at least from within Hardy's guard, not necessarily off the back). Many St. Pierre supporters rightly noted GSP had no obligation to stand with Hardy in kickboxing range, which would be an unnecessary acceptance of risk given other alternatives. What they don't note, however, is that St. Pierre failed to execute much ground and pound on a man who was thoroughly controlled underneath. St. Pierre did attempt two near finishes with submissions and deserves credit for such. However, failing to posture and soften Hardy in top position during a 25-minute fight given a) his near complete control of Hardy on the ground and ability to get him to the ground, b) St. Pierre's underrated, thrashing ground-and-pound skills and c) the remote possibility St. Pierre would be physically damaged or submitted in any way on top either in half or full guard indicates clear risk aversion. There's risk in standing toe-to-toe with Hardy, but very little in working on top where Hardy's guard is very little threat, his ability to get up is near nonexistent and the Brit's ability to throw punches from a grounded position nearly eliminate potential for damage.
How much was St. Pierre affected by the eye injury at UFC 129? I suspect substantially. His performance lacked that night, but there's a perfectly valid excuse. He should not be docked for it. The problem for St. Pierre is his performances don't live in a vacuum. He is carrying the baggage from previous disappointing outings into last Saturday's. Worse, eye injury or not, most fans sympathies don't extend very far. What they process is performance as they see it, not as they try to understand it after careful consideration. St. Pierre looked downright impotent and looks are what matter.
I reject the idea St. Pierre has to be negligent in his risk management to either entertain fans or prove something about his toughness. All of that is silly. It's perfectly possible to employ proper levels of risk management and be both exciting and finish top-level opposition. It's not easy, but well within the capabilities of a super athlete like St. Pierre.
However, the idea that unfair standards are being foisted onto St. Pierre - standards he can't live up to - are pure nonsense. This is a man who constantly says in public forums he aims to be the best MMA fighter ever. Read the again: the best MMA fighter ever to have lived, irrespective of weight class. St. Pierre is the author and owner of this goal and while he doesn't necessarily need to finish opposition to achieve it, it certainly would not hurt his argument.
That's the essence of the criticism surrounding the welterweight champion. Finishing opposition is not a function of fulfilling fans' bloodthirsty hopes. It's about establishing a legacy. There is no question St. Pierre is fighting tougher opposition at welterweight than Anderson Silva is at middleweight, but Silva is with few exceptions putting opposition to sleep. He's creating memorable performances and establishing divisional hierarchy with exclamation points. The UFC middleweight champion is definitively deciding where he belongs in considerations of greatness, year after year.
This leads the conversation into a question about what constitutes domination: not finishing tougher opposition or finishing less tough opposition? It's a difficult question. What isn't hard to grasp, however, is that if GSP is honest in his claim he wants to supersede all of his peers, MMA's pioneers and future greats to come, not finishing opposition is not helping his quest.
Jake Shields fought a 25-minute kickboxing match with Georges St. Pierre and even won rounds. If you had told me that was going to happen prior to this fight, I'd have likely blocked you on Twitter or laughed in your face. But it actually happened. There's no argument the eye injury must've been tortuous to handle, but my willingness to look past it this far into St. Pierre's career is minimal. He wants to be the best ever and that means being held to the highest standard ever, one I wouldn't dream of applying even to other excellent fighters. Criticizing St. Pierre on standards we would hold other excellent fighters to would be unfair. But we aren't talking about good or excellent or truly exceptional. We are talking about what GSP has told everyone who will listen: the highest conceivable standard in the sport. That means if you're not finishing highly outmatched opposition, you aren't getting the job done, especially when contemporaries who can also lay claim to the mantle of all-time best actually are putting fighters away.
St. Pierre is seeking to be as close to perfect as possible; to be as accomplished as possible; to be as dominant as possible. Not finishing profoundly outmatched opposition in pursuit of that lofty goal is causing him problems. He may still achieve the level of greatness he seeks, but he needs to accumulate more stoppages for that to be a clear cut decision.