Hughes-St. Pierre II
Coup d’Etat or Affirmation?
By Michael DiSanto
Two years ago, a young, relatively untested Georges St. Pierre stepped into the Octagon to face Matt Hughes for the vacant UFC welterweight crown.
For St. Pierre, it was the chance to live up to the hype surrounding him as the “heir apparent” to the throne. For Hughes, it was a chance to rid the sour taste left in his mouth from the loss to B.J. Penn at UFC 46—his only loss in his previous 15 bouts.
In the opening moments, it looked as if St. Pierre would, in fact, fulfill his vast potential, stuffing a takedown and hurting Hughes with a spinning back kick. But it didn’t take long for Hughes to settle down, secure the top position on the ground, move to side control and spin into a fight-ending armbar.
The fallen French-Canadian chalked the loss up to a learning experience, claiming that he gave Hughes too much respect heading into the fight. The champion acknowledged that GSP might be the future of the division, but reminded everyone that the future wasn’t going to start anytime soon.
On November 18, St. Pierre will face Hughes in a highly anticipated rematch to once again attempt a coup d’Etat of the welterweight division. Is Hughes finally ready to step off the throne?
Let’s break it down:
After watching Hughes potshot an injured Penn in the third round of their title fight at UFC 63, many fans may believe that the champion has improved his standup to the point where he can now confidently stand and box with opponents. Wrong. Hughes is a well-rounded mixed martial artist, but his striking ability remains the biggest hole in his game. As a fight wears on, he tends to drop his hands, and at times, he is guilty of tipping his punches by hitching with his shoulders. Both create openings for GSP to land big bombs. Still, the Matt Hughes of today is a far better striker than the Matt Hughes that fought St. Pierre in 2004, particularly with kicks to the body.
GSP, on the other hand, is a skilled striker with an excellent jab, good straight right cross and a varied arsenal of kicks. When he throws shots, he keeps his hands in a good defensive position, though like all fighters, one can counter over the top of his shots if gets lazy and leaves his hands dangling after punches. Plus, his tall, long frame allows him to pepper most welterweights from far enough outside that his opponents are ineffective firing back. He used that advantage to completely dominate the shorter Sean Sherk at UFC 56. Hughes is taller than Sherk, but not tall enough, so St. Pierre can easily pick him apart from the outside if the fight remains standing. Edge: St. Pierre.
Prior to their first bout, most people just assumed that Hughes enjoyed an overwhelming advantage over St. Pierre in the wrestling department. After all, Hughes is a decorated collegiate wrestler who uses dominant takedowns and an excellent wrestling base to overwhelm opponents with his ground-and-pound attack.
GSP might not have a wrestling background. But we learned in his first fight with Hughes (and his subsequent bouts against Sherk and Frank Trigg) that he is a vastly underrated wrestler who is extremely difficult to take down after years of training with the Canadian national wrestling team. Hughes still enjoys the edge here, but it isn’t nearly as wide as most think. It is very safe to assume that he will struggle at times to take GSP to the mat, which is necessary if he wants to win. Edge: Hughes.
This one is easy to break down. Neither guy is going to win a title at the Brazilian Mundials or Abu Dhabi anytime soon, but both have solid submission skills and submission defense. With that said, Hughes has shown that he is more difficult to submit, particularly from the bottom, than St. Pierre, who basically handed Hughes an arm at UFC 50. Hughes seems to be more committed to his submission attempts, especially the Kimura from side control. Both men have solid defensive guards, but neither wants to find himself there during the fight. Still, the submission aspect is only a subplot to the true ground fighting breakdown. Why? Three words: ground and pound.
It’s no secret that both men prefer the ground-and-pound route to transition jiu-jitsu. And when it comes to ground and pound, nobody in the world at 170 pounds is better than Hughes. The legendary Royce Gracie couldn’t survive his ground-and-pound attack. Trigg basically gave up his back/neck in their second bout because he couldn’t handle the carnage. And the list goes on. Edge: Hughes.
Hughes doesn’t use the clinch for much more than setting up takedowns. He isn’t overly dangerous with knees or elbows from that position, and he doesn’t use it to wear guys out against the fence ala Randy Couture. St. Pierre isn’t Anderson Silva in the clinch, either. But he knows how to use his leverage to put guys on the fence and use slashing elbows to cause cuts and swelling around the face. He showed those skills against Penn in his last bout. Being friends with David Loiseau obviously has its benefits. Edge: St. Pierre.
Aside from Josh Koscheck, who is probably the single-most impressive athlete in the UFC, GSP has few peers in terms of pure athleticism. His balance, strength, explosiveness, reflexes and speed are impressive to say the least. Who else could stuff takedowns from Hughes, Sherk and Trigg without a wrestling background? Hughes was an accomplished wrestler and a top mixed martial artist, but GSP is one of those naturally gifted athletes that could have excelled at any number of sports. What does that mean in mixed martial arts? A superior athlete can sometimes get away with very minor mistakes simply because he is more explosive, quicker, stronger, etc. It doesn’t work all the time. And against a guy like Hughes, those mistakes had better happen on the feet rather than on the ground. If the fight comes down to a moment of explosiveness, speed, flexibility or reflexes, GSP wins. Edge: St. Pierre.
Have we ever seen either man gas in a fight? No. Both have plentiful gas tanks. Hughes, however, has unmatched experience going the full five rounds compared to his foe. We know GSP can go hard for three three-minute rounds. What if it goes the distance? St. Pierre is an unknown in the fourth and fifth rounds. Edge: Hughes.
Hughes wins this one on every level. At 41-4, he has more than three times the number of fights than his 12-1 opponent. He has almost as many championship fights (10) as St. Pierre has career fights (13). And he has been fighting in the main event or co-main event since before St. Pierre started in the sport.
Granted, many UFC fans will remember this writer discounting similar disparities when breaking down the experience factor for Hughes-Penn II. But just looking at the numbers when breaking down Penn’s experience sets up a straw man argument because he has faced such a wide variety of opponents, almost all of which were huge fights, and that gives him a unique kind of experience. In other words, Penn has seen it all in the sport after 14 fights. St. Pierre cannot make the same claim. Edge: Hughes.
St. Pierre is far from a mental midget, as he showed when refusing to quit in a gut-check win over Penn. But it is impossible to successfully argue that he has any sort of mental edge over Hughes heading into this fight for two simple, albeit related, reasons.
First, Hughes’ owns a definitive submission win over the French-Canadian. That has a huge impact on their respective pre-fight psyche, particularly since St. Pierre appeared to be controlling the action early. The net result is that a little devilish fellow called “doubt” will be sitting squarely on St. Pierre’s shoulder whispering in his ear as the action gets underway. Those whispers will become loud screams if Hughes is able to put St. Pierre on his back and pass his guard.
Second, St. Pierre’s actions in the trailing several months suggest that the fight has gotten under his skin. It is significant that he appeared tremendously uncomfortable in Hughes’ presence during the filming of “TUF 4: The Comeback.” In fact, he was so uncomfortable that he chose to leave the gym shortly after Hughes arrived. It was unclear at the time whether that was a bit of gamesmanship, a move strictly designed to hype the fight for the television audience or a display of nervousness. But St. Pierre’s odd decision to enter the Octagon and disrespect Hughes after the champion defeated Penn was completely out of character for a guy widely considered to be one of the nicest, most respectful gentlemen in the sport.
At the end of the day, it seems as if Hughes has gotten into St. Pierre’s head, or at least under his skin. Edge: Hughes.
At the end of the day, many of the above advantages and disadvantages wash themselves out. But there are two areas that could very well decide the outcome of the fight, and neither of them have anything to do with technique.
Since submitting prior to Hughes fully extending on the armbar at UFC 50, GSP has worn a huge question mark over his heart. That may sound harsh, but that is the reality of the fight game. This writer does not think he needs a pacemaker to keep his ticker alive. But he didn’t even attempt to free himself from the armbar before submitting, and that still must haunt him to this day.
Granted, he showed good resolve by fighting through tremendous early adversity against Penn. He definitely had every opportunity to quit in that fight, but he hung extremely tough. So, questions surrounding his heart may, in fact, be completely erased. Still those questions never existed with Hughes. Think otherwise? Go back and watch Hughes-Trigg II or Hughes-Penn II. He holds the edge in this department.
But where questions remain concerning St. Pierre’s heart, there is no such question regarding his overall fighting form heading into UFC 65. The way he dismantled Sherk shows just how good this guy is right now. The fact that he was much more competitive against Penn compared to Hughes (completely discount the third round of Hughes-Penn II because gassed out or injured, a full strength Penn was giving Hughes a beating) shows that he is truly at the top of his game.
Hughes looked like a monster against Gracie and Joe Riggs. But he looked downright befuddled, if not desperate, against Penn. One must wonder if that is just a case of Penn having Hughes’ number or possibly the whole “styles make fights” adage, or is Hughes starting to slip after 45 professional fights? Is he starting to deteriorate? Is Penn his only real nemesis? Edge: St. Pierre.
November 18 will answer all the questions one way or the other because GSP and Hughes will both undoubtedly show up as finely tuned and prepared as they can possibly be for a bout. St. Pierre has his mind set on a 170-pound coup d’Etat. Can Hughes quash the rebellion and affirm his rule?
I can’t wait to find out.