The last time Georges St-Pierre fought, the UFC pulled out all the stops to promote a potential fight between St-Pierre and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. In the later rounds of the fight, Silva was shown watching as St-Pierre was fighting Carlos Condit. As soon as the fight was over, Joe Rogan asked St-Pierre about the prospect of facing Silva. The fans wanted to see the fight, the UFC wanted to see the fight, and presumably Anderson Silva wanted to see the fight.
Unfortunately for all of those parties, the one man who seemed least interested in the fight was St-Pierre. With St-Pierre instead electing to defend his welterweight title, it was assumed that St-Pierre’s opponent would be Johny Hendricks, who had defeated Martin Kampmann by knockout in the co-main event of the last UFC show to feature St-Pierre. Instead, St-Pierre and the UFC threw fans a curveball by giving the next title shot to Nick Diaz, a fighter who not only lost to Condit in his last fight, but was also suspended for the previous year by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for testing positive for marijuana metabolites.
At first glance, it seems that not only does Diaz not deserve a title shot, but that Diaz matches up very poorly with St-Pierre. Diaz has had a reputation of struggling against wrestlers, dating back to his three-fight losing streak against Diego Sanchez, Joe Riggs, and Sean Sherk in 2005 and 2006. In St-Pierre, Diaz will be fighting arguably the best wrestler in MMA history, a fighter who seems well-equipped to shut down Diaz’s offense. But contrary to what you might expect, I feel that Diaz is a more dangerous challenger than people are giving him credit for.
Diaz has the most dangerous guard St-Pierre has ever faced
One thing that makes Diaz a unique opponent is his Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Diaz is a black belt under Cesar Gracie, and while he typically wins fights by breaking down his opponents with striking volume, Diaz is also a constant threat to win with slick submission attacks on the ground. Along with having very good BJJ, Diaz has a great deal of flexibility. This flexibility makes Diaz very dangerous off his back, as he doesn’t need a lot of space to pivot and attempt an armbar or triangle choke. Against Takanori Gomi in particular, Diaz showcased this flexibility by immediately locking up a gogoplata a moment after Gomi took him down. If you’ve never seen the Diaz-Gomi fight before, I highly recommend watching it:
It’s not just flexibility that makes Diaz dangerous on the ground – it’s flexibility paired with high-level technique. A good example of Diaz’s strength in BJJ can be found analyzing his armbar. When he executes an armbar off his back, Diaz almost always does a good job of locking up one of his opponent’s arms while controlling his posture. Diaz then hooks one arm around his opponent’s leg while swiveling to attempt the armbar. By hooking his opponent’s leg, Diaz restricts his opponent from being able to turn into, and thus negate, the submission attempt. This type of high-level technique increases the effectiveness of Diaz’s submissions and is a big part of why Diaz is a threat to St-Pierre off his back.
This is an important detail that Carlos Condit simply neglected in his fight against St-Pierre. In that fight, Condit showcased an active guard, and often looked to attempt an armbar on St-Pierre. However, Condit never was able to control one of St-Pierre’s legs, and so when he swiveled his hips for an armbar attempt, St-Pierre simply turned into Condit to thwart the attempt. When Diaz is on his back against St-Pierre, I anticipate that he’ll look for submissions, particularly the armbar. When he does, watch for Diaz to control one of St-Pierre’s legs first, and perhaps come much closer than Condit did to actually locking up the arm.
In my opinion, Diaz has a more dangerous guard than any St-Pierre has faced. B.J. Penn might have better pure Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu than Diaz, but Penn is not known for having an aggressive guard game in MMA. Condit was active in looking for submissions, but lacked the technical wizardry to ever truly threaten to finish St-Pierre with a submission hold. With his aggression, flexibility, and technical proficiency, Diaz can threaten St-Pierre on the ground in ways no fighter has been able to before.
With that having been said, St-Pierre has excellent fundamentals on the ground, and should be able to stay out of danger overall. St-Pierre rarely leaves his arms on the mat, and is very good at advancing from full guard to half guard. While Diaz will certainly be looking for submissions, St-Pierre will be landing strikes, and as long as St-Pierre maintains his top position, he’s a virtual lock to win rounds on the judges’s scorecards. Diaz isn’t going to be the favorite if he’s taken down – not even close – but Diaz has a better chance of submitting St-Pierre off his back than anyone St-Pierre has ever fought.
Is St-Pierre in decline?
The biggest aspect of this fight I feel people haven’t been talking enough about with regards to St-Pierre is that he may be at a declining stage of his career. Don’t get me wrong – St-Pierre can decline as a fighter and still be the best welterweight in the world. The problem is that, in St-Pierre’s two most recent performances, he simply was not nearly as dominant as he’d been in the past. Against Condit, at UFC154, St-Pierre was the clear winner, but Condit produced a lot of offense of his own. Besides the third-round head kick that knocked down and threatened St-Pierre, Condit was able to land a number of strikes standing while maintaining an active guard on the ground. St-Pierre still won the fight with his takedowns, top control, and some nice standing strikes of his own, but it wasn’t a blowout by any means.
At UFC 129, in his fight with Jake Shields, St-Pierre absorbed an alarming number of strikes by his standards. According to Fight Metric’s statistics, St-Pierre was able to out-strike Shields, but only by a margin of 85 significant strikes to 78 for Shields. Fight Metric’s Effectiveness Score, a proprietary measure that scores each fighter’s performance based on every action in a fight, is kinder to St-Pierre, scoring the fight 311-161 in his favor. Still, the fact remains that a non-striker in Shields was able to score quite a few points against the UFC welterweight champion.
Of course, it’s important to consider the fact that St-Pierre suffered a nasty eye poke against Shields, and was coming back from a long injury layoff against Condit. Those are very valid and legitimate excuses to be made for St-Pierre’s relatively lackluster performances in those fights. Presumably, St-Pierre will be able to compete at full strength against Diaz, as he would have likely been able to rid his “cage rust” in his match against Condit. However, if St-Pierre again performs at a level below expectations, it may be a signal that the eye poke and cage rust were merely incidents that masked an overarching decline in St-Pierre’s fighting ability.
The harmony of St-Pierre’s straight punches and takedowns
The most clear and obvious advantage either man has in this fight is St-Pierre’s ability to land takedowns, and Diaz’s relative inability to defend them. While St-Pierre is an exceptional athlete with a tremendous ability to explode into takedown attempts, he is also excellent at using strikes to set up these attempts. With a 76-inch reach, St-Pierre has a long wingspan for a welterweight, and he takes advantage of this by throwing a lot of jabs and straight punches at his opponents. Often, when St-Pierre shoots in for a double-leg takedown attempt, his opponent is covering up, focused on defending a strike that may never come.
To make matters worse for St-Pierre’s opponents, he has an excellent sense of distancing. St-Pierre is able to keep his opponent right at the end of his jab. When his opponent gets frustrated and decides to aggressively move into punching range, that’s when St-Pierre frequently executes a well-timed takedown. This relatively simple approach is one of the most efficient in MMA, as St-Pierre simply does not allow his opponent to place himself in a favorable position. It’s a game of “pick your poison” – either stay at the end of the jab, or find yourself working with your back on the canvas.
Diaz won’t stay on his feet for long
St-Pierre is usually able to control the center of the cage, as a natural result of his ability to land sudden takedowns on his opponents. Where St-Pierre has been most vulnerable is when his opponent is able to move forward into punching range, and attack with combinations. St-Pierre’s defensive striking is hardly a weakness, but he doesn’t have outstanding head movement and can be hit with power strikes on occasion. Such occasions are usually fleeting since St-Pierre will often go straight to the takedown when his opponent moves into range.
One of the things that makes Diaz a unique opponent is his aggression on the feet. Diaz very rarely moves backwards, instead pressing his opponent with a very high volume of strikes to both the head and the body. Diaz’s opponent typically responds in one of two ways – by changing levels and attempting a takedown, or by moving backwards and engaging in a striking war. The former option has generally proven to be more effective, although Condit in particular was able to out-point Diaz by moving backwards and landing well-timed strikes.
In this fight, the most frequent result of Diaz’s aggression is that St-Pierre is going to quickly dump him on the canvas with a takedown. Diaz’s fighting style implies that he’s unafraid of being taken down – because he’s in such close range, he often is simply unable to react in time to even attempt to defend an opponent’s takedown. That’s against wrestlers who aren’t nearly as quick as St-Pierre is. I expect Diaz to do what he normally does, moving forward and looking to land punches early and often. St-Pierre is almost certain to take him down in response, and is unlikely to have much of a struggle in the process.
Diaz wins fights with conditioning
A unique MMA striker, Diaz is extremely effective with his prolific offense. Diaz is well known for moving forward very aggressively, throwing rapid combinations at his opponents. Diaz likes to take the fight to his opponent, going as far at times as to actually shove his opponent against the fence, where he will throw an onslaught of punches at his opponent’s head and body. Diaz also has very fast hands, and is often able to throw straight punches quickly enough that his opponent is unable to effectively defend them, especially in the later stages of the fight.
Diaz has holes in his striking defense. He generally does a good job of keeping his hands up, but seldom showcases effective head movement. Since Diaz is usually the one moving forward, he’s often in range for his opponent to throw powerful counters at him. Diaz also doesn’t defend leg kicks very well – Condit threw dozens of leg kicks at Diaz, and Diaz only bothered to check a couple of them. While Diaz has never shown obvious damage from taking leg kicks, they score points and can be used to help win a decision [as long as you’re not being judged by Cecil Peoples – Jason].
Diaz is at his best when his opponent is exhausted, simply because he won’t be. Diaz is a fighter who is in such good shape that he participates in triathlons in his spare time. As a result, Diaz can maintain his constant barrage of strikes, while his opponent eventually wilts under the pressure. Diaz has often been maligned for not hitting very hard, but even lighter strikes can do serious damage on an exhausted opponent, especially in the barrage form he throws them in. He has 13 career wins by KO/TKO in 34 fights, and at least a couple of Diaz’s eight submission wins can be attributed to his relentless striking and pace as well. If Jake Shields gave St-Pierre a few problems on the feet, it is possible that Diaz will find success there as well, especially as the fight goes on. This is the reason I believe St-Pierre will have little patience for the striking game of Diaz.
Georges St-Pierre is a very cerebral fighter who forces his opponents through his wrestling dominance to fight where they are weak. When St-Pierre faces a striker, such as Condit, Dan Hardy, and Thiago Alves, he repeatedly takes the fight to the ground. When he faces a grappler, like Shields and Josh Koscheck, he decides to keep the fight standing. This is a big part of why St-Pierre is a 5:1 favorite to win this fight – not only does he have arguably the best wrestling in MMA, he uses his wrestling to consistently force his opponent to fight at a disadvantage.
I expect St-Pierre to win this fight more often than not. While Diaz has a very dangerous guard, St-Pierre is excellent at controlling his opponent and landing effective strikes on the ground. As long as St-Pierre does that, he’ll win rounds on the judges’ scorecards. In what I believe will be brief moments standing, St-Pierre should be able to land straight punches as Diaz moves forward and will likely avoid being caught up in the whirlwind of strikes Diaz wants to throw. As long as the St-Pierre sticks to his gameplan – and he usually does – he should consistently win rounds and ultimately win by decision.
Despite that, I believe Nick Diaz is a more dangerous opponent than he’s being given credit for, because unlike many of St-Pierre’s past opponents, Diaz is a threat no matter where the fight goes. Assuming near-prime St-Pierre shows up and does what we expect and consistently outwrestles Diaz, he’ll still have to deal with the very treacherous guard of the challenger and could be in danger of being submitted. If the threat of a submission deters St-Pierre from taking Diaz down, or if Diaz is otherwise able to stymy St-Pierre’s takedowns, the champion may have trouble dealing with such a unique, potent, aggressive striker. If St-Pierre gives any opportunity, Nick Diaz is more than well equipped to capitalize on weakness or mistakes and play spoiler come Saturday night.