In the weeks leading up to his climactic showdown with Johny Hendricks at UFC 167, Georges St-Pierre's usual fight promotion has taken a rather concerned, anxious turn. If you pay attention closely and truly evaluate the context of his message, you might notice a different undertone emanating from the UFC's heralded welterweight champion.
Sure, he's still the polished and presentable French Canadian whom fans so adore. He's admirably respectful of Hendricks' skill set and pedigree.
But I'm not here to dissect the diplomatic traits we've come to expect from "Rush." Nor am I here to point out that he's as likely to remain cordial as he is to wear a three-piece suit during the post-fight press conference.
St-Pierre's code of honor is as close to a truism as we get in MMA.
Far more interesting are the specifics of his recent delivery, no matter how nuanced.
In the opening segment of the first prime-time special dedicated to the fight, St-Pierres doesn't even flinch as he professes to be "completely obsessed" with Johny Hendricks. His emphasis on obsession is ever so slightly scornful and antagonistic, almost as if he's trying to convince viewers of the fact.
Well, he had better be nothing short of it.
Since suffering a sole unanimous decision loss to Rick Story in late 2010, Hendricks has amassed an impressive 15-1 record; equally as important, eight of those 15 wins have come by way of knockout. Perhaps that's why he's billed as the perfect storm to cause a bit of chaos at this stage of St-Pierre's title reign.
Hendricks is an accomplished wrestler with the ability to consistently finish fights. Coincidentally, not finishing fights is something St-Pierre continues to be criticized for.
Do you recall the last time he finished a fight inside of 25 minutes? Don't be alarmed if you don't—many of the complaints directed at his title reign point out how long it's truly been.
Put simply, GSP has gotten a decision against every opponent since his fourth-round TKO of B.J. Penn in January 2009.
Don't get me wrong, the six decision victories that followed his defeat of Penn are nothing to scoff at; the champ out-pointed, out-struck, out-grappled and thoroughly outsmarted welterweights like Josh Koscheck, Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit.
He's the kingpin in a division rife with some of the fiercest fighters competing under the UFC banner, and that alone deserves considerable praise. Factor in his penchant for executing pitch-perfect game plans that expose any and all flaws an opponent might have, and you're left with a champion who deserves his official rank as the No. 2 pound-for-pound fighter in the UFC.
Of course, we must then consider how his nearly 2,200-day title reign doesn't seat him firmly atop that pound-for-pound ranking. Given his résumé and athleticism—and Anderson Silva's recent downfall—how does he fall a step below light heavyweight champion Jon Jones?
And here again, we're left inescapably focusing on finishing rates; nearly half of St-Pierre's career victories have come by decision.
Jones? Less than quarter.
And it doesn't end there—most of the other champions fail to earn a submission or knockout victory in only a third of their bouts.
In mixed martial arts, fans often consider fighters to be only as good—and sometimes as valuable—as their last performance. The volatile nature of the upper echelon of divisional ranks, filled with champions and top contenders, adds complexity on top of rudimentary win-loss records.
In the sport's current state, fighters are expected to show supreme adaptability in any given situation. More importantly, they're expected to win dominantly, and preferably with a referee yanking them away from a downed opponent.
St-Pierre is the living manifestation of a well-rounded athlete, but without exclamatory finishes in half a decade, he continues to be battered by questions regarding his particular brand of dominance.
It's no surprise, then, that GSP is often cast aside in highlight reels focused on fight-finishing standing guillotine chokes from Jones and flashy spinning back kicks from Renan Barao.
Though not a champion, Hendricks is equally capable creating fireworks in the cage. When his engine starts firing on all cylinders, the point of impact at the end of his rapidly approaching arm acts as less of a fist and more of a stun gun.
Worse yet for the champion, the forces behind the UFC's fight promotion aren't even trying to be sly about their pitch for this championship fight; one of the lead video promos features an undeniable emphasis on Hendricks' knockout ability laying dormant in either fist. St-Pierre manages to make a quick appearance with a dated 2005 submission over Frank Trigg and a 2008 head-kick knockdown of Jon Fitch.
The spotlight is shining brightly and distinctly on UFC 167's championship contender, a fighter with a potentially violent mixture of wrestling and stopping power.
Let me be clear—I'm not proposing that St-Pierre is either worried or unprepared. It'd be foolish to even argue such a case. On the contrary, in Hendricks, he's been granted a prime opportunity to assert his dominance over a fighter billed as the "biggest threat of his career."
Given that he's approaching his 33rd birthday, the window of opportunity for him to assert his dominance and cement his legacy is closing.
In the above pre-fight interview, St-Pierre couldn't be more direct: "I'm the best in the world, and I have to prove it again to everybody."
When it boils down to grabbing the attention of casual fans, Hendricks steals the show and St-Pierre knows it.
Each and every interview with the champion resonates the theme that he's mindful of Hendricks' power but never fearful of it. If that is truly the case, he should summon the confidence instilled by his 26-fight experience paired with his nearly six-year title reign in order to put a stamp on UFC 167.
He became the UFC's top pay-per-view draw by blending the right mix of suave sophistication, relentless preparation, undeniable athleticism and domination over his weight division.
When he stands across the cage from Hendricks—a man with the ability to end his night prematurely at any given moment—St-Pierre must string his movements together in a manner just short of physical artistry. He needs to bring fans to the edges of their seats, and then manage to do something to Hendricks that'll yank them up in the air.
In spite of his role as the UFC's poster boy of choice, St-Pierre has work yet to do. He needs to rekindle the type of violence that earned him the moniker "Rush."
At UFC 167, he must prove that he's more than merely the UFC's most noteworthy welterweight champion—he needs to remind everyone that, when he strings together all the right pieces, he's the closest thing to a perfect fighter we've ever seen.