April 29, 2011

What could Jake Shields have done, amid all the rigorous preparations leading up to his stadium-sized challenge at Saturday night's UFC 129, to put himself in the best position to beat Georges St-Pierre? He could have sent one of his teammates to the welterweight champion's training camp.

Not to spy. That kind of intrigue happens only on reality TV shows like The Ultimate Fighter.

No, Shields could have enlisted his great friend and training partner Nick Diaz to pay a visit to TriStar Gym in Montreal or any one of the various dens of sweaty stench where the 29-year-old St-Pierre tones his prodigious fight game and Adonis physique. Diaz could have walked up to St-Pierre holding a video of his Strikeforce welterweight title defense against Paul Daley earlier this month and invited him to watch. The two champs then could have sat together and observed Diaz abstaining from the safety of his brilliant ground game, where he had a gargantuan advantage, and instead living dangerously by trading punches with the thunder-fisted Brit. Diaz might have even evoked a "sacreblue!" from GSP as they viewed the explosive finish of his first-round TKO.

Then Diaz could have looked St-Pierre in the eyes and, speaking as one multitalented, well-rounded fighter to another, told him how satisfying it felt to beat a man at his own game.

Maybe GSP would have sat there thinking, "Aha! This is my chance to test my grappling against the best submission wrestler in the sport! I am going to fight Jake Shields on the mat!" Maybe he would have taken the bait.

Boy, would that have made Saturday's main event quite the fight, perhaps not the kind of slugfest that'd get 55,000 hearts pounding at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, but a fight Shields could win.

Instead, strap yourself in for what shapes up as a battle of wills, with one man desperate to take the fight where he needs it to be for him to be competitive, the other coolly in command of where and how the fight is fought. That latter competitor is St-Pierre, who always fights on his own terms.

Had Diaz made that training camp visit north of the border, it probably would have been a wasted trip in the old Honda. St-Pierre doesn't approach a fight the way the combustible fighter from Stockton, Calif., does. He finds his challenge not by seeing how close to his opponent's most destructive weapon he can stick out his chin. Unlike Diaz, he's not interested in finding out how much fight his opponent has in him. GSP's plan always is to not allow his opponent to even put up a fight.

Shields has astounding skills in submission wrestling. We might see no sign of them Saturday.

This is not meant to diminish Shields as a fighter. When he steps into the cage set up in the outfield of the domed ballpark, he will do so having won 15 straight bouts, a streak dating to 2004. A fighter who has not lost in 2,328 days is no walkover.

St-Pierre has acknowledged as much. He's heaped much respect on Shields, praising him as his most dangerous opponent yet. That is the way of the warrior. That is the way of the martial artist. That is also a major departure from the vibe leading up to St-Pierre's last two fights, against Josh Koscheck and Dan Hardy. It might be that GSP was loath to praise either of those trash talkers. Or it might be that he really does recognize Shields as a stiffer challenge.

But that challenge, like all MMA bouts, starts with the fighters on their feet, and St-Pierre has the tools to keep the fight there. Can Shields get his hands on GSP for long enough to force a change in venue? If history tells us something, Shields is going to take punishment every time he ventures within striking distance. Check with Koscheck or the surgeon who fixed his orbital bone after St-Pierre battered the right eye of big-mouth Kos for five rounds.

And let's not dismiss the possibility that GSP, who has shown himself to be among the best wrestlers in MMA, might be better than Shields on the mat as well. He's faster and more athletic, and his explosiveness might offset any strength advantage Shields has from having competed -- and having won a Strikeforce championship -- at middleweight. St. Pierre might have what it takes to beat Shields at his own game.

Don't hold your breath waiting for him to prove it.

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.

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