Jeremy Lambert: Strikeforce might be all but dead and Ronda Rousey might be heading to the UFC, but the biggest story this week is the return of Georges St. Pierre. It’s been 19 long months since the greatest welterweight of all-time graced the cage, but that comes to an end this weekend when St. Pierre takes on top contender Carlos Condit.
This isn’t your typical GSP fight though where we all expect him to dominate in boring fashion. Not only has the champ been out of action for a year and a half, he’s coming off an ACL injury, which is something that has ended the careers of many athletes. Condit is a tough competitor on any night, but on a night where there is uncertainty surrounding the welterweight king, Condit has a very real chance at taking the throne.
The return of GSP not only puts the welterweight picture back in focus and boosts the PPV buyrates, it also lifts the spirits of my partner, who has spent every night since the announcement of St. Pierre’s injury just praying that his hero would come back and fail to finish fights once again.
Samer Kadi: In a tough year marred by injuries, disappointing ratings, and underwhelming buy-rates, the return of the UFC’s top superstar is a much-needed boost, and a potential game changer. Georges St-Pierre’s return goes beyond the expected strong buy-rate for UFC 154: It is a momentum builder for a company that desperately needs one.
Part of what made 2010 the UFC’s most successful year on PPV to date was their ability to put together a string of near can’t-miss PPV’s. Starting with UFC 111 in March of that year – incidentally headlined by St-Pierre – the UFC saw eight consecutive PPV buy-rates eclipse the half million mark. Interest was at an all-time high, scarcity in main eventers was nowhere near the issue it is today, cards were stacked, and high profile injuries were less frequent.
St-Pierre’s return could trigger the beginning of a similar spell for the UFC, as UFC 154 precedes an absolutely stellar UFC on FOX card, a highly anticipated heavyweight title rematch at UFC 155, and an equally stacked UFC 156 on Super Bowl weekend. While those cards may appear unrelated to St-Pierre’s return to action, GSP’s comeback will undoubtedly help get the ball rolling, and give many a reason to be excited again.
Jeremy Lambert: There’s no doubt that the return of GSP will help spark the UFC. He’s unquestionably the biggest draw in the sport today, easily doing 500,000 buys every time he fights and recently putting together a string 800,000+ PPV buys. Considering that people have been clamoring for his return, it’s hard not to think that this PPV will be another huge success for GSP and the UFC.
The company has obviously pushed his return very hard, dedicating an entire promo to it, but the rest of their marketing has felt a little flat. With Carlos Condit being the interim champion, they’ve of course done the whole “Champion vs. Champion” scheme, but that’s been completely killed by both men as GSP doesn’t consider himself the champion due to his layoff and Condit doesn’t consider himself the champion due to not having defeated St. Pierre. Neither man is big on trash talking either, leaving the three part Primetime series focusing mainly on the preparation of both men, which can get repetitive.
The worst piece of marketing actually came during the weeks leading up to the US presidential election though, as the UFC tried to push people to “Vote for Condit or St. Pierre” complete with American and Canadian flags. This kind of topical marketing may have worked for a different fight (i.e. one that involved 2 US fighters who had been taking verbal shots at each other) but given the opponents, and the fact that they’re going to fight to see who the better is man is, trying to cash in on the election just felt forced and lame.
The biggest thing this fight has going for it, besides it being St. Pierre’s return, is that it’s the most intriguing main event since August. And while competitive and equal fights don’t always translate to buyrates, it certainly boosts things compared to one-sided fights, especially when a star is involved.
Samer Kadi: The main problem with the promotion for this bout has been that outside of rightly hyping it up as St-Pierre’s comeback fight, the UFC seemed unsure as to how to approach it. They couldn’t really promote St-Pierre as the unbeatable dominant champion due to the long layoff and question marks surrounding his injury, so they went with the “something to prove” narrative, playing off St-Pierre’s remarks about not feeling like a champion and having a chip on his shoulder. However, it is questionable whether it had the effect they were hoping for. Likewise, they seemed hesitant as to whether to hype up Condit as the hungry challenger or the man who took over in St-Pierre’s absence.
The main reason behind the tricky promotional campaign for this GSP fight in particular is without a doubt, the welterweight champion’s injury. Come fight night, both the UFC and St-Pierre will have to worry about far more than the effect of the injury on their marketing strategies. Instead, it is St-Pierre’s performance, and therefore, his title reign, that could well be in jeopardy.
“Athletic freak” or not, an ACL injury this serious is just not something an athlete should rush back from. And while St-Pierre has assured the world that he is “physically at 100%”, one can’t help but wonder whether his return is a little premature. St-Pierre’s eagerness to get back in the cage coupled with the UFC’s need to have him on the Montreal card may just have played a factor in his decision to return to action. His own coach, Firas Zahabi, has went on the record admitting that he would have liked for GSP to rehab for a little longer and return in 2013.
An eighteen months layoff alone is a major handicap for a returning fighter. When coupled with a serious surgery and a possible rushed comeback, the hazards are suddenly much more ominous.
Jeremy Lambert: Condit is a dangerous fighter. He has knockout power, he’s active in all areas, and he’s extremely tough to finish. Under normal circumstances he’d be a tough match-up for St. Pierre. But under the current circumstances, which involves a lot of doubt surrounding GSP given his injury and layoff, Condit all of a sudden has a real chance at walking out of Canada as the legitimate welterweight champion.
Condit’s main weakness has always been his takedown defense, which would normally fit right into St. Pierre’s strength, but how effective will GSP be given his injury? He’s a guy that has always relied a lot on his explosiveness and timing. The ACL repair could really limit his first step and the layoff could throw off his timing. GSP is a systematic fighter who rarely veers from his game plan and limits his mistakes. If he’s ever going to make a mistake in a fight, it will be this Saturday. And not only does Condit have the killer instinct to put someone away if they make a mistakes, he’s also the type of guy who isn’t afraid to take a risk, meaning that St. Pierre can’t get lazy or have a lapse.
If Condit is going to get to St. Pierre, chances are that he’ll do it early. No matter how much work GSP has put in at the gym, nothing can simulate a real fight situation. GSP will be very mistake prone early, kind of like Cain Velasquez against Junior dos Santos. Once GSP gets into his famed rhythm though, he’s nearly impossible to stop.
Samer Kadi: Part of what made Georges St-Pierre one of the best wrestlers in the sport is his unique athleticism, cat-like quickness and uncanny sense of timing. Moreover, the reason GSP is one of the absolute greatest fighters the sport has ever seen is his ability to force his opponents to fight on his terms. If he wanted to jab his foe for twenty-five minute or put him on his back at will, St-Pierre usually had his wish. This sort of dominance came as a direct result of a perfectionist attitude that propelled St-Pierre to be in top physical and mental condition for every bout.
However, when St-Pierre tore his groin in the Thiago Alves fight and got poked in the eye against Jake Shields, he seemed to have slightly lost his composure, and didn’t look like his confident self inside the cage. And while that is completely understandable, it opens up some questions about how he would react if his knee isn’t perfectly responsive. Training in the gym is one thing, but St-Pierre’s physical shape can only be judged once he steps inside the Octagon.
Under normal circumstances, St-Pierre’s wrestling should be able to expose Condit’s less than stellar takedown defense. But MMA is a game of inches, where the slightest factor can make a huge difference. If St-Pierre’s timing is a little off, and his shot has a little less explosiveness to it, we might be looking at a completely different reality.
Condit is a cerebral fighter who controls distance well, and possesses a wide striking arsenal. He should be a little careful in his usage of kicks as he doesn’t want to leave himself a sitting duck for any takedowns. In fact, for the first few minutes or so, Condit would be smart not to give St-Pierre much to work with, and in fact try to be relatively inactive. As St-Pierre attempts to shake off his rust, he will likely be a bit hesitant to go into auto-pilot mode and implement his game, and will instead be looking to see what Condit has to offer and react accordingly. As such, “The Natural Born Killer” will be better served to try not to give too much away, force St-Pierre to take the initiative, and capitalize on any rust-induced mistakes the champion might commit early on, before switching things up following the opening 5-7 minutes of the bout.
Most importantly for Condit, he has to avoid an early confidence-building takedown from the champion, who will be much more prone to making mistakes on the feet. Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see whether St-Pierre will have the confidence to use his jab and leg kicks to control the distance, set up the takedown, and switch levels. Historically, he has been able to do so with remarkable ease and fluidity. In fact, the mere threat of the takedown has allowed GSP to dominate so many of his opponents on the feet.
Condit’s biggest advantage over St-Pierre is his ability to end the fight at any given moment. Since joining Greg Jackson’s gym, his striking has significantly improved from a technical perspective, and his power has followed suit accordingly. For his part, St-Pierre is notorious for failing to put opponents away, which grants the challenger a bigger margin for error.
In addition, St-Pierre will have to be a little less liberal in his decision to initiate the clinch, as Condit’s lanky frame makes him especially dangerous from close-quarters, where his knees can be quite lethal. Therefore, the champion has to be in firm control if he is to close the distance and clinch-up, and ensure that his opponent’s back is against the fence, where the threat of dropping levels and pushing for a single will be enough to prevent Condit from getting too aggressive, and instead oblige in a battle for underhooks, something St-Pierre absolutely excels at.
Despite possessing an extremely active guard that is difficult to pass, Condit cannot afford to spend too much time on his back, as not only will that help GSP settle down, but it will also fail to test his cardio, which despite normally verging on the inhuman, could suffer as a result of the long layoff. That is why Condit needs to be able to scramble up if he gets taken down, hold his own in the clinch, or stop takedowns altogether in order to force St-Pierre to work extra hard and spend additional energy.
Normally this fight would be looked at as an intriguing challenge for St-Pierre from an opponent who presents a much more interesting stylistic match-up than most of the champion’s previous victims, but one he is ultimately expected to topple with predictable dominance. However, the circumstances leading up to the fight make it a genuine toss-up, in a bout that could potentially spell the end of a legendary title reign.