Toronto hosts the UFC on April 30th in a first-ever stadium event that will be the largest (and loudest) North American event in MMA history. UFC 129's main event finds welterweight champion George St. Pierre facing top contender and former Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields.
Shields, promised a title shot while in negotiations with Dana White, enters a UFC 170-pound division effectively cleaned out by the champion. While fans haven't exactly been clamoring to see two elite wrestlers face off in a five-round main event, in the current welterweight landscape, this match up is the only that makes sense.
What We Know
Since reclaiming his belt in 2008 from Matt Serra, George St. Pierre has been a juggernaut at 170 pounds. Dominating victories over the world-class welterweights including Jon Fitch, Thiago Alves, BJ Penn and Josh Koscheck have fueled reasonable speculation about a move to the UFC's middleweight division.
Making St. Pierre's record more impressive is the fact that in five title defenses, the champion hasn't lost a single round on the score cards. For all the bold predictions and best efforts of the UFC's welterweight contenders, not one has been able to find an answer for GSP's superior athleticism or his relentless and well-rounded attack.
Enter Jake Shields, a relative UFC newcomer and veteran problem-solver who has made a career out of exceeding expectations. With superior wrestling, conditioning and jiu-jitsu, the former collegiate wrestling national champion and top grappler has managed to out-work or otherwise submit many of the world's top fighters over the last six years. Shields' 15-fight win streak includes victories over Carlos Condit, Yushin Okami and most recently Dan Henderson.
What the Tapes Don't Show
Arguably the most athletic fighter in the division, St. Pierre wins—and makes it look pretty easy—by taking opponents out of their comfort zones and keeping them there. While he has been criticized recently as "boring" for not finishing more fights, the game plans he chooses to employ are varied and dynamic, and often involve attacking (and beating) opponents at their strengths. The champion's workhorse style doesn't have the instant replay appeal of fighters like Fedor Emelianenko and Anderson Silva, but to date, St. Pierre's smothering offense has proven nearly impossible for any opponent to overcome.
Challenger Jake Shields brings a potentially problematic set of attributes to the table as St. Pierre's opponent. While the champion has handled kick boxers, Muay Thai fighters and wrestlers all with relative ease, he has yet to face anyone with Shields' combination of wrestling, submissions and, most importantly, experience. As champion, Shields has had his chin, conditioning and skills tested, and has always managed to emerge victorious. His proven ability to bounce back, turn the tables and find a way to win is what sets Jake Shields apart from all previous challengers.
Meanwhile, George St. Pierre hasn't lost a single round since regaining his belt. Members of Shields' camp have an explanation for St. Pierre's routine dominance over the division, pointing out that none his opponents have been able to test the champion. Shields' key to victory may be to take a page out of the champion's book and drag him out of his comfort zone into unknown territory.
How The Fight Could Go
Another key to solving St. Pierre may be understanding his philosophy, which treats MMA more like chess than brawling. One after another, St. Pierre's challengers swing for the fences, strike out and eventually crumble under his pressure. For all the explanations and analyses made, St. Pierre has not yet faced an opponent who can match his simple desire to win.
On Saturday night, however, that may change. Many believe Shields' submission skills are what make him such a dangerous contender, but the California native's cast-iron work ethic and "never-say-die" attitude that make him unique. With the heart of a champion and the experience to match, Jake Shields could be the first guy to take GSP into dark water.
Then again, he may not. George St. Pierre may simply be better than everyone else.