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The Rear Naked Column 04.29.11: St-Pierre vs. Shields Breakdown
Posted by Samer Kadi on 04.29.2011

When Josh Koscheck defeated Paul Daley to become the number one contender for the welterweight title, talks of "nothing but rematches" awaiting longtime champion Georges St-Pierre looked to be accurate. After all, the likes of Jon Fitch, Thiago Alves and Koscheck himself had all been thoroughly dominated by St-Pierre on previous occasions, creating a bit of a stale title scene in a very deep welterweight division. Enter Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields, whose contract with his former employer had expired following his surprising domination of Dan Henderson. Shields, who has long expressed his desire to square off against St-Pierre, would sign with the UFC to give the welterweight title scene a much needed shakeup.

Despite earning his title shot with an uninspiring win over Martin Kampmann, Shields remains one of the most accomplished fighters St-Pierre has ever had to deal with, which is particularly impressive given the murderer's row of opponents the Canadian has went through inside the Octagon. The Cesar Gracie product is riding a fifteen fight winning streak which dates back to 2005 and spreads across two weight-classes, defeating the likes of Carlos Condit, Yushin Okami, Paul Daley, Robbie Lawler, Jason Miller and Dan Henderson along the way. Any questions surrounding Shields' worthiness of a title shot should be shot down then and there, but does he possess the tools to topple one of the sport's pound-for-pound kings?

Before Shields gets to showcase his grappling skills, he will have to deal with GSP's striking. That aspect perhaps represents the biggest disparity between both fighters, as St-Pierre possesses arguably the most diverse striking in the division, while Shields' standup skills remain rudimentary. He primarily relies on body kicks, particularly with his lead leg, as he realizes that throwing any punches could well leave an opening for counters. It is a smart approach which helps conceal his limitations on the feet, but Shields tends to struggle to control distance. That is especially worrying against someone like St-Pierre, as not will Shields need to set up takedowns properly and get within range to shoot in, but the Canadian also happens to understand the concept of distance in MMA better than almost any of his peers.

St-Pierre uses the jab as the backbone of his offense on the feet, and does it to devastating results. His near blinding of Josh Koscheck was hardly the first display of jabbing prowess in St-Pierre's career. He used it to great effect in his title-capturing performance against Matt Hughes back in 2006, where he peppered the former champion with jabs and leg kicks before eventually finishing things off with a snapping head kick. The welterweight champion would be smart to emulate that strategy, as he should have little trouble keeping Shields at bay with the jab, while taking advantage of his flatfooted stance to chomp on his legs. And of course, it wouldn't be a GSP fight if he doesn't combine the two together and throw a superman jab/leg kick combo.

The knock on St-Pierre is that while his technical boxing has gotten even better, it seems to have come at the expense of his striking diversity. He was somewhat single-minded in his decimation of Koscheck, where he could have thrown some more head kicks and opened up a little more with combinations. The latter is something GSP has never really been exceptional at, as he relies more on setting up his right cross or in the case of the Koscheck fight, the left hook rather than put together combinations. That said, Shields does not have Koscheck's power, so St-Pierre might get a little more liberal with his striking.

To his credit, Shields has proven to have a good chin as he survived Dan Henderson's furious onslaught and recovered admirably to go on and dominate the fight. Nonetheless, he needs to be wary of St-Pierre's right cross, which remains his most powerful punch. Not only does GSP set it up nicely with the jab, but he also uses it to counter very well as he often catches opponents when they get lazy. Fitch paid a dear price early on in their fight after a sloppy leg kick was met with a crushing right cross that essentially ended his hopes in winning the bout. Shields would want to avoid suffering a similar fate.

The important thing for Shields is to keep his composure and not get too desperate by shooting aimlessly and thus tiring himself out if he gets comprehensively out-struck. While he did get away with it against Martin Kampmann, St-Pierre is a different proposition altogether, and poorly set-up single legs aren't going to trouble him. There lies the problem for Shields, who struggles to seamlessly transition from striking to takedowns and often telegraphs his shots. His initial step when going for the single is somewhat weak and lacks the necessary explosiveness to really drive through an opponent. Conversely, Shields is excellent at finishing the takedown. Despite his initial shot leaving a lot to be desired, Shields knows how to drag a fighter to the ground once he gets a hold of the single leg, both against and away from the cage.

The problem however, is that not only does St-Pierre possess some of the best takedown defense in the business, but Shields' inability to control distance will leave him with miles to cover when wanting to shoot in. Josh Koscheck struggled mightily to get anywhere near St-Pierre, as the champion stuck a jab in his face every time he attempted to close distance. And while Koscheck did take St-Pierre down at one point, the AKA standout is a superior wrestler to Shields with more diverse takedowns and better athleticism. Speaking of which, St-Pierre's athleticism will also be a difference maker against the challenger. The difference in speed will likely be evident from the early going, be it when it comes to landing jabs, changing levels, shooting in, or defending takedowns.

Should St-Pierre decide to shoot in, he should have little trouble taking his opponent down, as Shields is hardly known for his sprawl. The real question however, is if Shields would willingly give up the takedown and is content to be on his back. Since he will likely have trouble taking St-Pierre down himself, Shields should ostensibly settle for being on his back if GSP decides to put him there. However, for all of Shields' grappling acumen, he is predominantly a top position grappler. From the bottom, he lacks the dynamic hips of someone like say, Demian Maia to present a serious submission threat, meaning Shields will have to focus on sweeping. St-Pierre's guard passing is as sharp as it gets, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for Shields. For all the talk of GSP "fighting it safe", he does take some risks on the ground which at times forces him to give up dominant positions. His mount control isn't on par with the rest of his grappling and his back control in particular is poor by his standards. Should St-Pierre take Shields' back, the American should use that opportunity to shake him off, reverse, and get top position, as the likes of Fitch, Alves and Hardy all landed on top of GSP due to some shaky back control by the welterweight champion.

If Shields does indeed take top position, be it by sweeping, reversing or taking GSP down, the fight will get far more interesting. Like St-Pierre, Shields possesses some impressive guard passing himself, but more importantly, Shields is excellent at maintaining position. His control from full mount is particularly frustrating for his opponents, and while his ground-and-pound isn't devastating by any means, he does pose a serious submission threat from that position.

His guillotine is especially lethal, as Shields' grip is suffocating excuse the pun so much so that he choked out Nick Thompson with one arm from full mount. For his part, while St-Pierre isn't very offensive off of his back, he is excellent at avoiding damage by using the butterfly guard and regaining his feet. Even if Shields somehow gets top position, he will have a hard time keeping St-Pierre down. After all, Shields didn't exactly put a wrestling clinic against Martin Kampmann, couldn't hold him down for an entire round, and didn't come agonizingly close to landing a submission either.

And yet, as St-Pierre's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu trainer John Danaher highlighted on the Primetime show, Shields' guillotine is a grappler's equivalent of a knockout punch. Fighters with good guillotines have the benefit of being able to lock it up quickly and from virtually any position (think Urijah Faber), and they don't necessarily need to establish a dominant position to do it. While St-Pierre is unlikely to leave his neck exposed during a takedown attempt, Shields could well capitalize on a scrambling opportunity on the ground to get a hold of GSP's neck and sink the choke in. Keep in mind, Shields somehow managed to choke Robbie Lawler with that hold when both fighters where in the clinch against the fence. Guillotines, like leg locks (which are something Shields would be smart to work on), require relatively little setup and can catch the opponent by surprise as their setup is quicker and isn't as obvious as say, that of an armbar.

Still, Shields' chances depend on his ability to lock in one particular submission; one that St-Pierre will be more than aware of. The matchup is a very difficult one for the challenger, as not only will he get out-struck, but he is likely not going to have an easy time taking his opponent down and will in turn start to tire, which is one aspect that has been somewhat ignored. Shields' cardio isn't the best, and while people can point out to the Dan Henderson fight, they would be neglecting the fact that he was in control for the majority of that bout. When he starts shooting in to no avail while simultaneously getting lit up on the feet, Shields will fade. The Martin Kampmann bout was hardly the first example of such an occurrence, as Shields looked pretty winded in his win over Paul Daley as well.

Look for GSP to stick his jab out in the early going before opening up on a fatigued Jake Shields in the later rounds. Whether he finishes him or not remains to be seen, but with a gun to my head, I suspect he will.

REMINDER: Be sure to check out the latest edition of 411's Ground and Pound radio. Special guest Jeremy Lambert joined Mark Radulich, Scott Kuczkowski , Jeffrey Harris, and yours truly to preview UFC 129. Listen to the show and give us feedback. We'll be back next Sunday at 11 AM Eastern Time to look back at UFC 129, and we expect your calls and e-mails.

Listen to internet radio with Mark Radulich on Blog Talk Radio

That will do it for another week of "The Rear Naked Column". As always, feedback is greatly appreciated. You can send in your comments, e-mails (at the address below), or you can follow me on twitter right here for all things MMA, video games, sports, and other nonsense.


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