On his better days, and there are many, Georges St-Pierre, the UFC welterweight champion, is the nearest to a perfect fighter mixed martial arts has seen.
While fighting every top contender in his weight class, St-Pierre has lost once in the past six years, and that record does his greatness small credit. Rami Genauer of Fight Metric, UFC's official statistical service, parses fights for a living, devising dozens of measures to weigh the relative benefits of takedown defense against an aggressive striking game, the rear naked choke against joint locks and so on.
"St-Pierre," he said, "is one of these guys that shows up in the top five, top 10 in most categories. Striking, grappling, submissions, it doesn't matter."
Wrestling, though, is St-Pierre's best and most reliable tool. If fights reveal character, he seems to be a bit of a control freak, far more interested in asserting himself over his opponent than anything else. He works his hands beautifully, but mainly in service of an incredible shot no one has solved. Robert Follis of Team Quest, who knows as much about the art as anyone, calls St-Pierre one of the two best wrestlers in MMA today.
"When he changes levels, his timing is just phenomenal," he said. "I would put him on a level with Chael Sonnen."
The numbers bear it out. In his four most recent fights, St-Pierre has attempted 39 takedowns -- an average of one every two minutes -- and landed 32, while fighting such incredible defenders as Jon Fitch and B.J. Penn. That success rate, 82 percent, is nearly twice the UFC average of 43 percent.
All of this puts former Division I champion Josh Koscheck, who plays a loudmouthed boor on UFC's reality television show The Ultimate Fighter and is an impeccably disciplined athlete in real life, in an impossible position. Saturday, at UFC 124 in Montreal, he will be facing a man who soundly thrashed him three years ago at UFC 74, who is better in every measurable aspect of the game, and who will have a loyal and largely French Canadian crowd of more than 20,000 behind him. Most give Koscheck nothing more than a puncher's chance.
In the most volatile of sports, though, there is always a way to win. And as is usually true, St-Pierre's great strength, his methodical wrestling game, is also, in theory, a weakness.
"St-Pierre has become predictable since he got knocked out in the Serra fight," said Pat Miletich, himself a former welterweight champion. "Quite frankly, I think Koscheck has the edge. Koscheck is technically the better wrestler. I think he's going to be the aggressor. You get off on the striking, and deal with the takedown."
Serra -- that would be Matt Serra, who, with a brutal first-round knockout in 2007, is the only man to defeat St-Pierre in the last six years -- doesn't think the championship will change hands, but he agrees on the ideal strategy.
"Koscheck is going to want to hurt him," he said. "He should be looking to fight George the way George fights: Take him down, put him up against the cage, rough him up."
Follis, for his part, also likes the champion -- "I have a hard time thinking that Koscheck is going to bring anything that can neutralize St-Pierre," he said -- but offers a concurring vote on what the challenger should try to do. "You want to force the standup game, you want to try to not get taken down." He also spies the same weakness in St-Pierre's game that Serra hints at.
"It goes back to the Serra fight," he said. "I think he's a little bit scared of that happening again. He became a much more conservative fighter after that.
"He's still winning fights, and he's doing it in dominant fashion, but he's leaving something on the table that he could use. I start to wonder, 'Dude, why aren't you finishing this guy?' "
It's a fair question. Over the past two years, a span covering four title defenses, St-Pierre has fought 95 of a possible 100 minutes. He's slowly become a vastly more athletic version of the old-school hammers who dominated the sport a decade ago by pinning down opponents and pounding them, and the key to beating him is probably taking advantage of this possibly unnecessary caution.
Either that, or get him to abandon a winning game plan. As Erik Paulson of Combat Submission Wrestling figures it, Koscheck's reality television antics and epic trash talk are part of a broader strategy designed to trick St-Pierre out of fighting the way he usually does.
"Kos is trying to get him uncomposed so he'll lose his cool, and then he can get on him that way," Paulson said. "You can just see St-Pierre brewing."
(Heavyweight contender Josh Barnett, working the mat while Paulson is talking to a reporter, doesn't think it will work. "GSP all the way," he said. "He's going to take him the [expletive] down over and over and over again.")
Take it all together, and the ideal strategy looks like this: Hope that all the hype work has gotten under St-Pierre's skin a bit, bait him into keeping the fight standing by keeping distance, stop the takedown and stay patient. He doesn't like getting hit, so hit him, and wait for a mistake. Even nearly perfect fighters make them sometimes.
The problem is that fighting is about execution, not strategy. Take the issues inherent in trying to play the striking game with St-Pierre. One of Genauer's esoteric statistics tracks the difference between the number of strikes a fighter lands and takes per minute, a sort of plus/minus ratio. St-Pierre's rate of 2.73 has him at fourth best all time among UFC fighters; Koscheck's career rate of .346 places him 112th. Limit it just to each of their last four fights, and Koscheck comes in at 3.4, a reflection of how much he's matured since his early days as a prospect fresh off The Ultimate Fighter. St-Pierre still nearly doubles him up, at 6.3.
On the wrestling end of things, there is more hope for Koscheck. Intriguingly, their 2007 fight marked the last time either was taken down, and there is at least the possibility that a more mature Koscheck, more wary of St-Pierre's skill, might do better than his AKA teammate Fitch did. Really, there's no way to tell how this will play out: "This is the first time in a while for either guy," as Genauer said, "where they're facing anyone who even has the capability of putting them in a disadvantageous position."
Even for a national champion who's integrated what he learned as an amateur into his fighting style as well as anyone else has, though, gaining an edge on the wrestling end is likely going to be at least as hard as outstriking St-Pierre. In the end, it's one thing to say Koscheck has to deal with the takedown and another to do it. The champion is just too good, and that will likely be the story of the fight.
"St-Pierre is definitely predictable," Serra said. "Here's the train coming, now try to stop it."