UFC 167 Preview and Predictions
Perhaps no elite fighter in the history of MMA has been more affected by his losses than UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St. Pierre. Early in his career GSP was a flashy, multi-faceted risk taker who celebrated his victories with a gleeful backflip. Winning eleven of his first twelve fights, St. Pierre only went to decision twice, with five KO victories and 4 submissions to his credit. He was considered a new breed of fighter, a super-athlete who was dangerous no matter where the fight went, when the majority of the fighters on the UFC's roster were identified by their singular specialty (wrestler, kickboxer, BJJ Black Belt). It seemed like it was inevitable that St. Pierre would be champion and after a jittery performance in his first title fight that ended in a submission loss to Matt Hughes, GSP rebounded with a string of impressive victories that culminated in a complete destruction of Hughes in the rematch and the UFC Welterweight title. What many assumed would be a lengthy title reign was derailed one fight later when Matt Serra scored the biggest upset in UFC history by knocking out St. Pierre in the first round.
From that bout onward, GSP was a different fighter, winning 11 straight fights, but going to the judges scorecards in eight of them including the last six in a row. His dynamism and unpredictability was replaced by a conservative and measured approach designed to keep him in control and out of danger, maintaining his vise grip on the Championship belt that he valued more than anything else. The lesson St. Pierre learned from his armbar loss to Matt Hughes was that he always wanted to control the fight by being in top position, so GSP started training with the Canadian Olympic Wrestling team and in a few short years he developed some the most effective transitions from striking to grappling, in all of MMA, repeatedly taking down NCAA wrestlers and Jiu-Jitsu Black belts in fights and dominating them on the ground. From his knockout loss to Matt Serra he learned that he wanted to be able to avoid damage on the feet, so he worked with legendary boxing trainer Freddie Roach and polished his boxing skills until he had the best jab in the UFC and massively improved footwork and defense.
With these changes to his approach, GSP has dominated one of the sports most talent-rich divisions, but he has conversely received more and more criticism for his conservative style, and he has slowly fallen out of the discussion of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport today in favor of fighters like Jon Jones, Jose Aldo and Anthony Pettis who routinely finish their fights in spectacular fashion. It isn't just the fact that St. Pierre constantly goes the distance in his fights, it is the fact that it seems like he has plenty of opportunities to end the fight by committing to a submission attempt or throwing more power punches when he has an opponent hurt, but GSPseems content to just ride out the rounds without taking any risks. Even when his opponent infuriates him with pre-fight trash talk and St. Pierre promises to give him the worst beating of his career (as he did with Nick Diaz), once the cage door closes St. Pierre reverts to the calculating, emotionless machine that he has become and proceeds with his low risk gameplan. For a man who seems to be obsessed with his championship legacy, GSP's victories are doing more damage to his reputation than a loss ever could.
Enter Johny Hendricks. Hendricks has cut a devastating swath through the UFC's Welterweight division with his thunderous left hand and his incredible strength. As a four time All-American and two time National Champion wrestler at Oklahoma State, Hendricks has the skills to neutralize St. Pierre's takedowns and the type of concussive KO power to threaten him on the feet. Considered by many to be the most dangerous challenger to the title that St. Pierre has faced in years, Hendricks is GSP's polar opposite when it comes to fighting style. When they face off on Saturday night you will see two fighters with completely different agendas. St. Pierre will be trying to keep Hendricks at a safe distance with his jab and take him down when he over commits to his striking, holding him down until the end of the round. Hendricks will apply constant pressure to GSP, backing him up with power punches and and using his grappling and strength when he gets St. Pierre against the cage.
A victory by Johny Hendricks will open up this division and create a plethora of new and interesting match-ups while a win by GSP will cause the division to stagnate with no new obvious title challengers on the horizon other than St. Pierre's training partner Rory MacDonald, who would likely refuse a fight with GSP. There have been multiple reports lately that St. Pierre is considering retirement and this fight will go a long way toward determining how he is remembered. A dynamic victory may cement him as the best Welterweight of all time and put him in the conversation of most dominant Champions in UFC history, while another boring victory will accelerate the downhill momentum of his reputation. If GSP suffers another loss, it will be fascinating to see what lesson he learns this time and how he evolves as a fighter.
Tim Elliott vs. Ali Bagautinov- 125 lbs
Elliott wants to wear out Bagautinov with his pace and constantly back him up, while Bagautinov want to be able to plant his feet and throw vicious punching combinations. I expect Bagautinov to damage Elliott as he tries to close the distance and go for the kill once he sees that Elliot is hurt.
Bagautinov wins via TKO in the 2nd Round.
Josh Koscheck vs. Tyron Woodley- 170 lbs
Koscheck and Woodley are mirror images of each other. Both come from a collegiate wrestling background, are ultra-athletic and have KO power. My biggest concern is that Koscheck has taken a lot of damage in the cage and has a lot of mileage on his body. I think Woodley is a little more durable and a little faster at this point in their careers and that will be the difference.
Woodley wins via Unanimous Decision.
Rory MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler- 170 lbs
Everyone knows Lawler's gameplan: swing for the fences. MacDonald will most likely try to get a hold of Lawlerand use his size and strength take him to the ground where he will work his nasty ground and pound and submission game. If Lawler can hurt him early then he can finish anyone, but very few fighters are smarter and more technically sound than MacDonald and a convincing victory could make him the number 1 contender at 170 lbs.
MacDonald wins via TKO in the 3rd Round.
Rashad Evan vs. Chael Sonnen- 205 lbs
It would appear that these two fighters are trending in opposite directions with Sonnen coming off of the most impressive win of his career by submitting Shogun Rua, while Evans has lost 2 of his last three fights. But looks can be deceiving, and I expect this fight to be fairly one-sided in Evans' favor. Both fighters are excellent wrestlers, but Evans has the advantage in almost every area. He is faster, more technical and he possesses more KO power than Sonnen. If Sonnen can't fight from top position he is doomed, and I think he is doomed.
Evans wins via Unanimous Decision.
Georges St. Pierre vs. Johny Hendricks- Welterweight Championship
This fight is simple: power and aggression against technique and control. Hendricks will get GSP in trouble once or twice, but he will not be able to capitalize. St. Pierre will feed Hendricks a steady diet of stiff jabs and he will duck under his left hook to score a few takedowns. It will be a frustrating fight for Hendricks.
St. Pierre wins via Unanimous Decision.