Georges St-Pierre, Johny Hendricks and the Oversimplification of MMA

James MacDonaldFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2013

Courtesy of Esther Lin
Courtesy of Esther Lin

So, UFC 158 is now in the books. Many long-lingering questions were answered, but perhaps even more were raised. Specifically, one of the post-event themes on Twitter was whether or not Georges St-Pierre had betrayed a certain creeping frailty, despite the dominance of his win over Nick Diaz.

And in light of Johny Hendricks’ impressive victory over Carlos Condit, some are beginning to seriously consider the possibility that the two-time national champion wrestler from Oklahoma State is the man to dethrone the long-reigning welterweight king.

It’s not necessarily easy to find fault with the reasoning of those who think that Hendricks has the style to overcome GSP. On paper, he appears to possess all the requisite tools to get the job done.

Storied amateur wresting career? Check. One-punch knockout power? Check. Aggressive in-your-face style? Check.

Given that GSP’s whiskers have proved to be less than robust in the past, it’s no wonder that fans and media are giving “Big Rigg” a real shot at snatching the crown.

But, while I can understand the reasoning, I’m a little more sceptical of Hendricks’ chances.

Often when people break down matchups, it tends to be a superficial assessment of each fighter’s strengths and weaknesses. In reality, many fights are so much more complex than what can be addressed on paper.

Granted, GSP is so repetitively brilliant and boasts such a dominant skill set that we can usually predict his fights within a margin of error that makes quantum mechanics seem deficient. Then again, he is an exception to many rules.

It is overly simplistic to look at Hendricks’ collegiate wrestling career and assume that he will be able to stop GSP’s takedowns. Haven’t we been here before at least twice?

Josh Koscheck possesses amateur wrestling credentials comparable to those of Hendricks. Was he able to keep the fight standing against GSP? Not really. When St-Pierre wanted to take the fight to the ground, more often than not he did—in both encounters.

The first thing this should tell you is that a background in amateur wrestling is no guarantee that one will become a great MMA wrestler. Indeed, many wrestlers never truly learn how to successfully apply their wrestling experience to mixed martial arts.

Luke Thomas recently had an interesting discussion with Chael Sonnen on wrestling in MMA, in which Sonnen claimed that there are very few techniques in amateur wrestling that can be applied to the cage.

This partially explains why someone like Jake Rosholt—a three-time national champion—has had limited success in mixed martial arts. It also explains why Georges St-Pierre has become the most prohibitively dominant grappler in the sport by relying on a mere fraction of the amateur wrestling techniques that are available.

In a straight amateur wrestling bout, Johny Hendricks would almost certainly school Rick Story. But when they fought inside the Octagon in 2010, “Big Rigg” found himself being dumped to the mat on more than one occasion.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that St-Pierre will double-leg Hendricks whenever he feels like it. The Oklahoman may very well be able to keep the fight on the feet. He might even take the champion down a couple of times.

But even if Hendricks is able to turn the fight into a kickboxing contest, people tend to forget that GSP is a fantastic striker. He is far from the one-dimensional grappler some paint him to be. More than that, he is an expert at minimising damage when exchanging on the feet—though he does mark-up easier than most.

It would be bold to assume that Hendricks will be able to consistently close the distance and land his, admittedly, almost comically powerful left hand. As we have witnessed time and time again, St-Pierre is able to use his athleticism to spring in and out of range, using his jab to control the tempo of the fight.

While Hendricks is a powerful puncher, he is not a well-rounded striker. One could argue that Carlos Condit exposed a number of holes in Johny’s stand-up game at UFC 158.

Specifically, last night’s co-main event demonstrated that the 29-year-old is vulnerable when forced onto the back foot. That is something the champion could certainly exploit, given that one of his major strengths is his ability to control the centre of the cage and remain on the front foot, with the threat of his wrestling persistently looming.  

I am not attempting to minimise Hendricks as a contender. If anyone can dethrone GSP, no one is better equipped to get the job done. The point being made is that we have a tendency to oversimplify mixed martial arts.

MMA is a complex sport that is much more than the sum of its constituent parts. It is easy to lose sight of that fact in our efforts to make the sport accessible to the casual fan.