UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre is finally returning to the Octagon this weekend after a 19-month hiatus. GSP hasn’t fought since defeating overrated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu expert Jakes Shields in April, 2011, because of a knee injury he suffered while training for his fight with Shields’ teammate, and fellow Jiu-Jitsu expert, Nick Diaz later that year. Since then, the welterweight division and the UFC have scrambled to fill the hole left by the dominant French-Canadian. The UFC nudged younger champions like light heavyweight Jon “Bones” Jones and featherweight Jose Aldo up the pound-for-pound rankings, atop of which they now stand. They also threw an interim championship belt around the waist of welterweight Carlos Condit, the man who had stepped in to fight Diaz after St. Pierre got injured.
There’s rarely a need for two belts, in fighting and in fashion, so the two champions have agreed to meet this Saturday at UFC 154 in St. Pierre’s hometown of Montreal to sort things out. For many MMA fans, the fight is a dream, a struggle between two cerebral fighters who rely as much on strategy and game-planning as they do physical confrontation. For others, the fight represents everything wrong with modern-day mixed martial arts, which they say is a watered-down sport where so-called fighters are rewarded for relying as much on strategy and game-planning as on physical confrontation. There’s a battle going on right now for the soul of MMA, and you’ve got the strategists on one side and the “just-bleed” contingent on the other. In the middle sit most of us, fans who require knockouts and submissions to keep our blood up, but who also see the value in thinking one’s way to victory, rather than trying to measure the hardness of one’s skull against another’s fist.
Georges St, Pierre is a game-plan fighter all the way. As a result, many MMA fans have developed what could be called begrudging affection for him. Efficiency may inspire respect, but rarely love. St. Pierre is blessed with uncanny athletic ability and an encyclopedic mind for martial arts techniques, but he’s always under fire for playing fights safe, for doing just enough to win but not enough to dazzle. Though he’s been a dominant champion since 2008, St. Pierre hasn’t actually finished a fight since early 2009. By using his athleticism to avoid his opponents’ attacks, and his wrestling ability to get them down and hold them there, GSP has been able to avoid confrontation and the risk of damage that comes with it, critics says, and therefore keep his chiseled features unblemished for a long and promising career as an endorsement model. Recognizing the criticism, St. Pierre has sworn to finish Condit on Saturday, but he’s sworn that before.
As for Condit, he rarely met criticism for game-planning until his title-winning fight with Nick Diaz last February, when he played it safe and smart by slipping away from Diaz’s boxing attacks before he could get caught and pounded against the cage—a fate that has been the end of most of Diaz’s opponents. Diaz, being Diaz, trash-talked Condit for most of the fight to goad him into striking exchanges. He even slapped him in the face at one point—the ultimate insult—to no effect. All night long, Condit attacked Diaz and then promptly moved out of danger. After the judges called the fight for Condit, Nick Diaz—who will likely never get accused of thinking his way out of a brawl—threatened retirement. And those who saw the fight as a win for Diaz saw it as a loss for MMA. They accused Condit of mistaking running for strategizing, and damaging the sport in the process. Others, myself among them, saw a guy rightly avoiding a fistfight with the best fist-fighter in the welterweight division.
Many people assign the credit and/or the blame for the strategic trend to Greg Jackson, the trainer who is as famous for quoting Zen philosophers and decorating his office with framed pictures of Abraham Lincoln and Genghis Khan as he is for turning fighters like Jones into UFC champions. For years, Jackson, the most successful trainer in the sport, has been accused of turning once-exciting fighters into safety-first strategists who wear their opponents down rather than knocking or choking them out. The facts don’t back that theory up—Jones is one of the most brutal finishers in the sport--but facts don’t mean much when they run up against reputation.
The GSP/Condit fight will likely re-raise again all the old questions about the Jackson approach to mixed martial arts: Does it lend itself to smart fights or boring ones? Does it make the sport more accessible or water it down? Does it exemplify the best of mixed martial arts (which is?) or miss the point of competitive fighting entirely?
Both St. Pierre and Condit are longtime students of Jackson’s, and though he won’t be in either of their corners Saturday, his game-plan-heavy approach is in their blood. Neither will be looking for a brawl, neither will be throwing caution to the wind, neither will forget himself in the heat of the moment and fight with real abandon or malice. The fight will most likely be tense and technical— even elegant—a precise fight, potentially perfect to introduce curious-but-skeptical novices to the sport. But for some MMA fans, a fight between Georges St. Pierre and Carlos Condit could end up being a harbinger of the sport’s safe, blood-free, decision-filled future.