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The Blueprint: St-Pierre vs Fitch

Michael DiSanto, UFC - At the moment, there is little doubt that they are the top two welterweights in the world.

Georges St-Pierre, the division’s dominant, charismatic champion, is the only top 10 welterweight who can boast victory over every man he has ever faced. Jon Fitch, the reserved, laid-back challenger, hasn’t lost a bout in nearly six years. On Saturday, August 9, the pair will square off for GSP’s UFC Welterweight Championship in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
By Michael DiSanto

At the moment, there is little doubt that they are the top two welterweights in the world.

Georges St-Pierre, the division’s dominant, charismatic champion, is the only top 10 welterweight who can boast victory over every man he has ever faced. Jon Fitch, the reserved, laid-back challenger, hasn’t lost a bout in nearly six years. On Saturday, August 9, the pair will square off for GSP’s UFC Welterweight Championship in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What will unfold once the Octagon door closes behind them is anybody’s guess. When two athletes of this caliber compete, it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome. Nevertheless, each man’s blueprint for success is clear.

This fight hinges on one very basic question: who will dominate in the wrestling realm?

That may seem like an overly simplistic question angle from which to analyze such a compelling matchup between two extremely well-rounded fighters. But, alas, wrestling is far more than just takedowns and ground control. It also includes anti-wrestling – in other words, takedown defense and scrambling.

The man who dominates in the wrestling realm, therefore, will be able to dictate whether the fight occurs on the feet or on the ground; if the latter, whether he is on the top or bottom. And those questions will decide the outcome of the fight because neither of these guys, despite their well-versed jiu jitsu, has ever shown the ability to win from his back, and that won’t change on August 9.

On the surface, many fans might rush to judgment when breaking down GSP’s and Fitch’s respective wrestling skills. Fitch, after all, had a successful collegiate wrestling career, competing for four years in the Big Ten as part of the Purdue University, earning the honor of team captain during his senior year. He also trains on a daily basis with the single-most dominant wrestler in the UFC across all weight classes, Josh Koscheck, which keeps his wrestling game extremely sharp.

GSP, by contrast, has no competitive wrestling in his background. Despite training with the Canadian Olympic wrestling team for the past few years, he did not compete in high school, let alone college. So, there is little doubt that Fitch would walk through GSP without much effort, if the pair locked up for three two-minute periods of freestyle wrestling.

Nevertheless, wrestling in a freestyle match and wrestling inside the Octagon are two very different beasts. In fact, they might as well be two different sports. When competing in freestyle wrestling, one doesn’t need to concern himself with overcommitting on a takedown attempt because rear-naked chokes and knees are illegal. One need not need to concern himself with exposing a limb for an arm or leg lock. And, most importantly, one doesn’t need to concern himself with getting punched or kicked in the face or body when trying to close the distance for a takedown or clinch.

All of those factors combine to alter what it means to dominate in the wrestling realm when two world-class fighters meet inside the Octagon. It is the athlete who best uses his other mixed martial arts skills to accentuate his wrestling that finds the most wrestling success.

GSP proved that in his bouts with elite wrestlers Matt Hughes, Frank Trigg, Sean Sherk and Koscheck, each of whom would crush GSP in a freestyle wrestling bout. Yet, GSP outwrestled each of them, winning the battles of takedowns and ground control. And, if Fitch doesn’t learn from their mistakes, he will lose those battles as well, which means he will ultimately lose the fight.

For Fitch, that means he must use his striking effectively to transition into takedowns. He does that beautifully in the gym, pumping the jab and firing very hard leg kicks to keep his opponent off balance. Then, he mixes combinations, more often than not leading with the jab, where he finishes with a left kick to the body and then shoots for a takedown.

When Fitch does that, he is extremely effective at getting the fight to the canvas, where he can use his exceptional size and strength (the guy is an enormous welterweight) and his solid wrestling ability to keep his opponent down while grinding away round after round on the judges’ cards. He did just that to a very game Chris Wilson late in the third round of his most recent bout at UFC 82 to guarantee victory.

With just over two minutes remaining in the fight, Fitch threw a good, snapping jab followed by a right hand thrown as he stepped inside and shot for a quick double-leg takedown as his opponent covered up to avoid more incoming fire. Fitch quickly consummated the takedown and did what he does best – kept Wilson on the ground and pounded away until the round ended.

Although that exchange typifies Fitch’s standup game in practice, he inexplicably leaves his striking prowess back in the locker room more often than not. The Purdue alumnus has a very bad tendency during fights to trigger combinations with a haphazard right hand or left hook thrown with the absence of malice and running in behind that punch while flailing arm punches. That technique, unless the person employing it is a young Vitor Belfort, does little more than annoy average fighters and create huge openings for counters or takedowns against great fighters because he is in no position to sprawl and is wide open for right hands down the middle.

Fitch needs find a way to bring the same clean, fluid striking skills he shows in practice into the Octagon. He needs to set up takedowns by committing to his strikes and maintaining good foot position so that he can throw them with meaning. He needs to mix up those combinations, ending with left kicks to the body, left hooks upstairs and takedown attempts. If he does those things, he will be the first guy to dominate GSP in the takedown arena because the champion defends takedowns by setting the distance with strikes and then relying on his cat-like reflexes and tremendous balance to keep the fight on the feet. Landing strikes will force GSP to keep his arms up in defense, which makes it difficult for him to sink underhooks during a sprawl and prevent a takedown.

And I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: the key to beating GSP is to put him on his back, which is the least effective position for him. If Fitch can put GSP on his back, he should be able to keep him there and win rounds. If he can do that repeatedly, he wins the fight, period.

Of course, Fitch wants to stay far, far away from engaging in a pure kickboxing bout with GSP. He must focus on striking in quick, brief bursts to set up takedowns, because if he stays in the pocket too long against GSP, he is going to get knocked out, probably a TKO after getting knocked down and pounded out.

The UFC Welterweight Champion is an extremely versatile striker. He is a Kyokushin karate expert. Unlike many of the more traditional martial arts, which focus on beautiful form and technique, Kyokushin is a full-contact martial art designed for actual street combat. The end result is that GSP possesses both boxer-like hands and elite kicks that he fires with excellent speed and power.

The best part, however, is that he blends those skills seamlessly with his wrestling, and that is what makes him such a dangerous fighter. As a result, opponents cannot fully commit to defending either one, which leaves them vulnerable to both.

The key to winning the fight for GSP, therefore, is to maintain the distance and control and dictate the exchanges. It is that simple because his entire game flows from his ability to control the distance and dictate the standup exchanges. GSP controls the distance by mixing quick jabs, double jabs and one-two combinations with leg kicks and front kicks. And he consistently dictates the standup exchanges by making sure that stays out of reach until he is ready to fire, and then circling out or readjusting his angle after unleashing a series of strikes so that he is less likely to get caught with a haymaker counter.

If does that, Fitch won’t be able to take him down. Why can I say that with such confidence? Hughes couldn’t. Trigg couldn’t. And, most importantly, Koscheck couldn’t.

Each of those welterweights is a better pure wrestler than Fitch. Yet, none were able to impose their wrestling in the bout because they were not successful in blending it with strikes. Thus, there is no reason to believe that GSP will be any less successful against Fitch – again, assuming he controls the exchanges on the feet – because from there he can pick apart his opponent or use his elite MMA wrestling to put Fitch on his back, and just like with GSP, Fitch’s least effective position is on his back.

Barring a homerun strike from either man, which can instantly alter the outcome of any UFC bout, the blueprint for victory is very straightforward for both men on August 9. Fitch needs to use strikes to set up takedowns and quickly get GSP to the ground where he can grind out a decision or capitalize on a desperate mistake by sinking in a submission hold. If he is unable to get the fight to the ground, he loses to GSP, unless he can somehow land a miracle strike.

GSP needs to dictate the fight with his standup by getting off first and staying on the outside. If he does that, he will be able basically do whatever he wants during the fight – keep the action on the feet and pick apart his inferior striking foe for five rounds or transition from strikes into takedowns and beat Fitch up on the ground.

Because GSP has more ways to win the fight, this seems like matchup that he should win more often than not. But does anyone truly want to count out a guy who has never tasted defeat inside the Octagon?

I don’t, which is why I cannot wait to watch this one.
Sunday, October 26
3AM
CEST
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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