Chris Lytle's submission victory last night at UFC on Versus 5 over Dan Hardy is strong evidence that Georges St. Pierre's performance against Hardy at UFC 111 was not only lamentable, but risk averse. GSP's performance was sufficient to earn a win, but it made Hardy look more formidable than he actually is.
Let me be clear about a few arguments I am not making:
- Chris Lytle is a better fighter than Georges St. Pierre.
- Georges St. Pierre should fight like Chris Lytle.
- Dan Hardy is an easy opponent to beat.
- Georges St. Pierre needs to be reckless to finish opposition.
Here's what I am saying: given St. Pierre's tremendous ability and the relative risk of moving beyond the safe confines of almost pure positional control on top of Hardy, GSP's refusal to engage in substantive ground and pound to facilitate submission attempts unnecessarily avoided risk. In fact, it may have even elevated it. Ruthlessness and efficiency in MMA are rewarded with closure. In a sport with so many variables that introduce chaotic possibility (and in St. Pierre's own career as well; Matt Serra, anyone?), getting the finish precludes a lot of bad outcomes. That is to say, if you choke Dan Hardy out in one of the first three rounds, you don't have to worry about him knocking you out in rounds four and five.
It's impossible to deny there is a strain of conservatism to St. Pierre's attack in his recent fights. I don't mean risk management, although there's that, too. I mean risk aversion: avoidance of risk past the point where the calculation of cost vs. benefit determines offense is still acceptable. I'll give an example.
Against Dan Hardy at UFC 111, St. Pierre was able to take down and essentially hold down Hardy at will (at least from within Hardy's guard, not necessarily off the back). Many St. Pierre supporters rightly noted GSP had no obligation to stand with Hardy in kickboxing range, which would be an unnecessary acceptance of risk given other alternatives. What they don't note, however, is that St. Pierre failed to execute much ground and pound on a man who was thoroughly controlled underneath. St. Pierre did attempt two near finishes with submissions and deserves credit for such. However, failing to posture and soften Hardy in top position during a 25-minute fight given a) his near complete control of Hardy on the ground and ability to get him to the ground, b) St. Pierre's underrated, thrashing ground-and-pound skills and c) the remote possibility St. Pierre would be physically damaged or submitted in any way on top either in half or full guard indicates clear risk aversion. There's risk in standing toe-to-toe with Hardy, but very little in working on top where Hardy's guard is very little threat, his ability to get up is near nonexistent and the Brit's ability to throw punches from a grounded position nearly eliminate potential for damage.
Why does it matter if a fighter is risk averse? Absent any larger context it doesn't, particularly if that fighter is winning. When evaluating performance, winning sits above all other variables. However, it is when we try to suggest winning alone is both the necessary and sufficient condition for measurement of greatness we run into problems. That's particularly true when placing elite fighters' records next to one another. When the value of winning in the records is arguably equivalent, we look to what else constitutes achievement.
What is it that we praise about elite fighters or legendary careers and performances? We applaud skill, the level of accomplishment, athletic bravery, domination of opposition and perhaps a few other values. Comprehensive analysis of achievement in fight sport, then, isn't arithmetic of win/lose columns. We are not permitted to sign hosannas in the highest to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira for his sacrifice on the alter of athletic glory and yet remain mum in the face of purposeful offensive impotence. That's particularly true when the risk (which is defined both by GSP's and Hardy's abilities in a given context) did not outweigh additional effort.
This isn't about assuaging casual fan boredom; it's about acknowledging the myriad factors that constitute prize fighting achievement. It's also an acknowledgement that what separate the truly elite are minor gradients.
No one is questioning St. Pierre's position in the top three or even two of the pound-for-pound list. His placement in the history of achievement in MMA is not under review. What I am suggesting, however, is that St. Pierre's clearly inferior peers' stunning record of accomplishment over a shared opponent undermines the notion that all winning performances mean the same thing or can be evaluated the same way.
Georges St. Pierre was right after UFC 111. He told us what people didn't understand about his inability to do more to hurt or stop Dan Hardy was that we didn't know how good Dan Hardy actually was. Three fights later against three opponents who do not posses nearly the skills of GSP, we most certainly do. We also know when we pretend there isn't anything problematic about an improper evaluation of risk, we devalue how achievement is measured. It's also how we end up creating a bubble around a fighter's career.