These men have one foot out the door. An accident of fate saw Michael Bisping snatch the middleweight title in 2016 and he has held it to ransom, in search of a fight to cash out with, ever since. Georges St. Pierre's motivation is less clear. It could be that he still aches from the way that he left. It could be that he desperately needs the cash. Most likely, he is falling at that final hurdle that comes out of nowhere to flatten those very few chances of a 'happy ending' that we get in combat sports. Leaving the game on top is rare, but staying on the sidelines while others recall you in nostalgic terms and insist that you probably still have it is almost unheard of.
Four years ago, Georges St. Pierre in the superfight for the middleweight title would have been the biggest story in combat sports. Fans had been clamoring for St. Pierre to go up and test himself against Anderson Silva for years. In fact the 'summer of super fights'—a period of wild speculation which delivered a grand total of zero such contests—seemed to begin with that match up in mind. Here we are, four years after St. Pierre’s last bout and the wish of a St. Pierre middleweight title shot has been granted, but apparently some wishers were not careful enough with their wording. Instead of Anderson Silva, St. Pierre will be pitting himself against the new middleweight champion, Michael Bisping.
Very few thought that Michael Bisping would ever be a world champion. In fact, most had already painted Bisping into the role of ‘best fighter to never win a UFC title’. But Bisping wasn’t content for his legacy to be that piece of niche trivia. After a spirited fight against Anderson Silva, wherein Bisping showed all the wiles he had learned under Jason Parillo and a heap of grit to boot, the Brit found himself dumped into a title fight on short notice. The story has it that Bisping walked off a movie set and into the cage on two weeks’ warning. After securing his knockout victory Bisping could be heard shouting to the camera “easiest fight of my life!” It didn’t change many minds though.
The shadow of Anderson Silva looms over this match up and over Bisping himself. Since Silva’s incredible run as middleweight champion, the crown has quickly slipped from each head that pops up to take it. Chris Weidman, the Silva Slayer, managed a couple of defences but was ousted by Luke Rockhold in emphatic fashion. Seeing the ease with which Rockhold dispatched Weidman, and how he had run through Bisping and Lyoto Machida to get the title shot, it seemed as if Rockhold might be the champ to challenge Silva’s accolades. Then Michael Bisping drew him forward and knocked him out inside a round, throwing everything into chaos.
That is perhaps Bisping’s greatest sin: he is as far from Anderson Silva as you could imagine. The champion is supposed to defy the chaos of fighting and provide some order. There's the champ, then there is everyone else. No one—not even Bisping's most emphatic fans—can pretend he has looked unbeatable. In his last fight he ducked the real contenders to take a squash match against a forty-six year old Dan Henderson and he damn near lost that one. Now Robert Whittaker has cleared out the fighters that Bisping was avoiding, and Bisping is ducking him in turn for a fight with a retired welterweight. He is holding the belt to ransom and when he does fight he isn’t impressive.
Bisping doesn’t typically show one punch knockout power, he doesn’t have crushing top control or slick submissions, but he does have one quality which is irreplaceable when crafting a master fighter: he can get the stuffing beaten out of him and still remember what he is supposed to be doing. He makes mistakes, he gets riled up and drawn out of his game, but Bisping’s story is one of constantly reining himself in. Let’s examine his style and his path to the title in video form:
Georges St. Pierre is a pretty divisive fighter too. It is not that he is an obnoxious trash talker or an unpleasant personality—far from it, he actually may be the gentleman of this sport—but he certainly didn’t win any fans with the three years of teased returns. Georges checked his baggage on the way out the door, when he went into self-imposed exile, but it’ll be waiting for him as soon as he steps back in that cage. In the three centuries that men have been throwing fists in the prize ring, there have always been two kinds of fighters: there are real fighters and there are mechanical men. John L. Sullivan was a fighter, Jim Corbett was a boxer. Jack Dempsey was an lion, Gene Tunney was an automaton. Georges was the greatest fighter in the world, but he was called an 'athlete' with a sideways glance, or even a point fighter.
Anderson Silva was a masterful tactician in the cage, no doubt, but he had killer instinct. If you showed a moment’s hesitation or made a slight over commitment he would murder you where you stood. Georges never had that. If you fought Georges St. Pierre you were booked in to twenty-five minutes of being absolutely dominated—no more, no less. It was as though St. Pierre’s contract mandated twenty-five minutes, and it was maddening to watch because he never took a break. St. Pierre beat his man from pillar to post and never stopped hitting him, but for some reason he just couldn’t get the finishes. Georges beat better fighters than Anderson, he fought them everywhere and bested them through every phase of the game, and yet the people always seemed to love Anderson more.
A quick cash grab doesn't seem like St. Pierre's motivation. He teased his return for a long time and took years to work out the details. It suggests that there is something of the old, obsessive GSP left in him. The one who still stings from the way he went out, and the one who could be spurred to new heights by the taunting of Nick Diaz and Josh Koscheck. St. Pierre’s nemesis, B.J. Penn said before their second bout: there are too many athletes in this sport and not enough fighters. Penn has had a disastrous drop off in his fortunes, but what about St. Pierre? St. Pierre and Michael Bisping are both old dogs in this sport—but Bisping has been in there, taking the beatings and getting sharper for the last four years, while St. Pierre has been recovering from a dozen back-to-back camps for five round fights. Is it better for the old dog to stay active and be ground down in the process, or conserve what he has left? Let us examine Georges St. Pierre’s frustratingly well rounded game in video form:
The first concern when facing Georges St. Pierre should be not getting drawn into exchanges on his terms. St. Pierre will punch just to get you to punch back, and then he’s in on your hips and you have no hope of stopping him. You need only look at the opening round of the Johny Hendricks fight to see that. Hendricks’ wrestling pedigree meant nothing when he came out and swung his left hand at St. Pierre.
Once he got back up, however, Hendricks played more cautious and St. Pierre was forced to pick up single legs and push to the fence where he could do nothing useful in the clinch. Michael Bisping isn’t a two time NCAA Division I champion like Hendricks, but he’s proven great at stuffing takedowns and clinch work when he knows what he is working against. And what's more, luckily for Bisping, the middleweight champ has spent the last few years developing an excellent jab.
Jabbing with the jabber is always a nice idea. A good jabber can get lazy with their rear hand and St. Pierre often dangles his down by his chest. Ken Norton wasn’t anything like the jabber that Muhammad Ali was, but by jabbing every time Ali tried to, and remembering to keep his palm up or get his head off line, Norton gave Ali fits. If the palm gets locked in place, ready to catch the jab, the long hook that Bisping uses in every fight is the perfect tool for the job.
St. Pierre is very good at feinting, changing levels and coming up to jab, or playing with the cadence of his movements to make himself harder to time. That creativity and unpredictability can be reduced if Bisping goes on the front foot and pressures him to the fence, just as he did against Anderson Silva. St. Pierre as a fighter is about jabs, kicks and takedown attempts. Putting him along the fence kills a lot of the tactics and movements that he uses to hide those. When placed along the fence by men like Alves and Koscheck, St. Pierre would extend one arm or keep the forearm high and circle out ready to shield blows to the head.
Jon Fitch put in a couple of good body shots on him in these situations but it never seemed like a major part of his gameplan and he was considerably behind on the scorecards by that point anyway. Bisping has worked the body nicely in flurries against Mayhem Miller and Cung Lee. Placing St. Pierre in no-retreat positions and focusing on his mid-riff as he circles out with his hands high seems like a tactic with few downsides in this bout.
This brings us to what might be the decider of this fight: St. Pierre's gas tank. Michael Bisping's finishes are almost always the result of tiring opponents out over rounds and upping the pace as they begin to fade. St. Pierre was known as a distance fighter - but that was in the pre-USADA era. Obviously, that is not to level accusations at St. Pierre, but there was an obvious drop off in a number of high ranking fighters after a few months of enhanced testing. Furthermore, he might have stayed in excellent shape throughout his hiatus, but there is a big difference between being four years removed from a five round fight, and a few months removed from one as Bisping is.
As mentioned in our St. Pierre video segment, denying him the cross face and control of the head is a big deal when on the bottom. Generally Bisping has been very good at keeping the cross face at bay, against Tim Kennedy he largely avoided it for an entire fight but Kennedy was able to force the pass with lemon juicer / wrestler style passes, low on the legs and hips.
There is no denying that Bisping had a hard old time with Tim Kennedy, but in that fight many of Kennedy's takedowns had to be finished from the clinch, and on the hips, along the fence. These are positions from which St. Pierre does not normally work as effectively. Kennedy is also an enormous middleweight, where St. Pierre is coming up a weight class. Against a more accomplished wrestler, closer to his own size in Chael Sonnen, Bisping was able to offer a lot of surprises particularly in holding his own along the fence. In a great Technique Talk column with Luke Thomas, Sonnen noted:
"If the gentleman was to put his head on you, it shuts down all of your offense, and they just made it illegal to do. I know I fought a guy named Michael Bisping, couldn't wrestle a lick, but he put that head where I grew up my entire life that being illegal to do, and it completely shut me down for an entire round until I could figure it out."
Bisping's has a strong emphasis on head placement in grappling exchanges, both his own and the opponent's. When on the bottom he will constantly push the head and try to break the alignment of the spine in order to hinder passing and striking, and try to scramble up.
Ultimately, Bisping's job should be not to worry about avoiding takedowns, but about being ready for them. St. Pierre's success came from hiding takedowns and being met with little resistance, he is much less successful trying to force them on opponent's. Walking him towards the cage with the jab and feints, and dropping in the right hand only cautiously might be a good start. Body work should be a priority, but kicks are probably off the table for the early going. Low kicks might be worthwhile but it is interesting to compare the inside low kick of Bisping with that of St. Pierre. St. Pierre's is essentially the jab of his lower body but he can step up into it, or throw it straight of his stance when the opponent is advancing. When the opponent is advancing though, St. Pierre will check their forward motion with a hand to prevent the opponent advancing as he kicks. Through Bisping's UFC career he has conceded numerous takedowns simply due to giving the opponent his leg on a poorly executed inside low kick.
Better to open up with right hands to the body. A good right to the body involves a level change and dropping the right hand - both of which give the fighter a head start if his opponent is desperate to time a level change and shoot for their hips. The higher the pace, the better for Bisping.
For Georges St. Pierre, staying out in the open should be a priority. The more one studies his set ups for double legs, the more one realises that he is essentially Lyoto Machida, but the Machida reverse punch is switched out for a wrestler's shot. Getting fighters moving forward and committing their weight impatiently, then stepping into them as they get in the habit of their man giving ground. All of the feints and double steps that St. Pierre uses to slap in that stinging jab require space and fighters are less likely to run their hips over the top of him if he's stuck against the fence.
Should St. Pierre find himself along the fence with Bisping applying the pressure he has the three standard options - shoot, circle or fight. Circling out is normally the easiest and best method of dealing with being placed along the fence because it takes the fighter away from that limiting situation and starts him over back out in the wilderness. That is what we have already discussed, and banging the body or the legs as a fighter does that is a great way to start slowing them down.
Shooting with one's back to the fence is a risky business. Especially as Bisping will likely be waiting on that an that alone. With his back to the fence it might be better to see St. Pierre bite down on his mouthpiece and throw the right hand he is so uninterested in throwing when the fight is going his way. Tyron Woodley is of course famous for shooting successfully off the fence and he does that by having the stiff right hand there as a constant threat.
If he can find space to work, low kick might be a great option for St. Pierre. Thales Leites, Luke Rockhold, Cung Le and others have shown that Bisping can be an easy mark for low kicks - rarely checking them and often simply taking them and trying to return with the jab, which is rarely a fair trade. Never a big hitter, St. Pierre has routinely buckled stances with his low kicks, particularly the running right low kick which he sets up with the superman jab. So much of a scientific, jab-led boxing game is in the feet and knees, a little swelling around the legs can throw a significant spanner in the works.
This fight perhaps sums up the bizarre nature of every St. Pierre fight. He is remembered as a conservative point fighter. A man who won decisions and took few risks. Yet St. Pierre's game only works to its best effect in the moments that he can make his opponent forget that. The instant that St. Pierre can depart from the methodical, rangy jab and convince his opponent that it's time to trade, his takedowns come effortlessly.
As Bisping is the man with all the recent five round experience and St. Pierre is the man with the ring rust, aiming for a finish would be unusual but it might be St. Pierre's best bet in this fight. Much has been coming out of St. Pierre's camp about his grappling, with guys like Garry Tonon saying that he might well submit Bisping, but often in St. Pierre's fights his attempts to finish have actually given his opponent a breather. Thiago Alves, Nick Diaz and others gave up their back to St. Pierre and rather than stay on top at all costs in order to keep hitting - as you will see from men like Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez - St. Pierre took back control and allowed his opponent to lay on top of him, fighting his hands and not worrying about the considerable damage that he always does when he can flatten his man. You can't keep an opponent in a panic if he has both your hands and you can't hit him. Henry Akins wrote an article called 'Why the Back Position isn't as Good as Most People Think' which stressed the difference between having someone's back and remaining on top in mixed martial arts. The fact that St. Pierre has taken a ton of backs but not finished a rear naked choke since 2005 will attest to the limited nature of this supposedly end-all position.
One wild card in this bout might be the leg entanglement game. With Tonon and other Danaher squad members, as well as Ryan Hall visiting Tristar to train extensively in the years since St. Pierre's retirement, the leg lock game has been well represented at their practices. When Rory MacDonald struggled to get a good shot at Stephen Thompson's hips, he surprised Thompson with a couple of Imanari rolls. While often seen as a Hail Mary sort of move, this writer cannot recall the last man who tried to play the leg lock game with Michael Bisping. Surprising the opponent is rarely a bad thing in a fight.
In wrapping up this fight discussion let us consider that if this is a cash grab, Georges St. Pierre has picked a hell of a difficult way to do it. Going up fifteen pounds for the first time, against an opponent known for his gas tank, pace, and takedown defense - when you win fights on your gas tank, pace and takedowns - is testing oneself in a lot of different ways. And that is without even considering his hiatus. In the fight game it is easy for time to get distorted in your head; it still feels like just yesterday that St. Pierre fought Hendricks. St. Pierre actually left in November 2013, just after Bisping had fought Alan Belcher, having made the move to train with Jason Parillo full time in 2012. In the four years since then Michael Bisping has continued to improve even as his athletic prime fades. It is fashionable to write off Michael Bisping because he is such an abrasive character and has looked anything but unbeatable, but it seems like for St. Pierre to pull this off will be a tremendous feat.
UFC 217 takes place at Madison Square Garden tomorrow night. Return to The Fight Primer in the days after the event for the full recap.