Shields' path to victory vs. GSP
Fighting makes so little sense so often that the sharpest observers I know, the people who spend the most time studying it as an art and science, won't make predictions. They'll hedge, they'll offer that such might happen if so on does, and they'll talk favorites, but they won't pick winners.
Unlike them, I'm dull, so I'll put it out there: I think Jake Shields is going to beat Georges St-Pierre at UFC 129 on April 30. Or, rather, feel it. When you reason it through, St-Pierre is the obvious choice, a younger, better athlete who's had better results against better competition, and is better than Shields at what Shields is best at. St-Pierre may be the best fighter we've seen. Shields may be the best welterweight in his own camp. There it is.
Because fighting makes so little sense, though, if you have a strong intuition, you may be on to something. I'm not going to try to argue anyone into liking Shields in this fight, because there aren't rational reasons to do so. But there are some points worth considering.
First, think about who Jake Shields is, and what he does. He's a large welterweight with specialties in wrestling and jiu-jitsu and a weakness in striking. He hasn't lost since 2004, partly because he maintains control and positions so well and partly because his chin is so strong that he can win fights in which he's already been knocked out. (This actually happened last year, when Shields fought Dan Henderson.)
The obvious retort is that St-Pierre has already fought him, when he was going under the name Jon Fitch, and it was one of the all-time one-sided beatings. That's fair, but even as president and treasurer of the Jon Fitch Appreciation Society, I'll allow that Shields has real advantages on the pride of Fort Wayne, Ind. One is that he isn't just large, but he's defeated Henderson at middleweight and Robbie Lawler at a 182-pound catchweight. Another is that he's a different kind of jiu-jitsu player. Fitch, as you may have heard, doesn't finish. At one point, from 2007 to 2009, Shields won six of seven fights by submission. Those are real differences.
"So," you say, "Shields is a slightly better model of a fighter St-Pierre tore apart. Doesn't that mean he'll just take a slightly less bad pasting?" It could. I'm not sure.
The conventional wisdom on St-Pierre is that his one weakness is that he doesn't like to get hit. One theory is that getting knocked out by Matt Serra in a fight in which he was an 8-to-1 favorite made him forever wary of the power of a good hook. Another is that he's spent far too much time around fighters who can't say their own name without stammering and values his cognitive functions enough to not take unnecessary risks. These aren't mutually exclusive theories and probably do explain why St-Pierre fights the way he does. I'm unconvinced, though, that a good hook is the only way to reach the champion.
Review the man's record since he first won the title, from Matt Hughes in November 2006, and you'll notice something strange: In all that time, no one has made one serious submission attempt on him. Partly that's because he's freakishly strong and quick and doesn't allow opponents to reach a position where they can try one. Partly, though, it has to do with the kind of fighters he's faced.
Serra, Josh Koscheck, Dan Hardy, Thiago Alves and B.J. Penn, whatever their other strengths, all fought St-Pierre as if the only way to beat him was to clip him. Fitch and Hughes played more of a wrestling game, and were just outmatched. Serra and Penn would be the strongest submission stylists he's met, but both are true lightweights, without the strength to really handle St-Pierre on the ground, and both fought as if they knew it.
Shields is a big man, and while he's being talked up as the latest in a long line of contenders who purportedly had the wrestling chops to keep St-Pierre from dictating where the fight takes place, what's relevant is that he comes with real grappling credentials, such as a bronze finish at Abu Dhabi. That doesn't make him Roger Gracie, but he isn't going to be put out by landing on his back, he isn't going to gas, and he's almost certainly going to put St-Pierre in position to fend off chokes and armbars. He's aggressive enough to not just seek escape but try to turn a bad position into a good one or a good one into a dominant one; patient enough to wait for the moment that will allow it; and strong and smart enough to be able to do so. He isn't going to go into this fight looking to land one good shot, but looking to play St-Pierre's game.
More than anything else, this is what gives me the odd gut sense that Shields is going to pull it out. It's a truism respected in theory more than practice that in a conflict you don't attack a weakness, but rather a strength. Run through your favorite upsets and you'll notice a certain commonality in them: Whether it's Frankie Edgar outboxing Penn, Fabricio Werdum baiting Fedor Emelianenko or any number of people getting into striking contests with Randy Couture, they happen when a fighter can deny his opponent a retreat to the safe place where he feels he can't be touched. For St-Pierre, that's the ground. Make him wary there, and you'll have a shot at taking him. And if anyone can make him wary, it might be Shields.
Are you convinced? I'm not. As I write this, the money is running about 4-to-1 on St-Pierre, and that's probably right. As the record will tell you, though, it's been a very long time since Shields has lost a fight, and as Serra and all those people who don't make predictions will tell you, champions have lost backed by better odds than that.