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GSP-Alves: Behind the Numbers

Michael DiSanto, UFC - UFC 100 is replete with amazing matchups, none more intriguing than Georges St-Pierre’s third defense of his welterweight title against Muay Thai wrecking machine Thiago Alves.

For years, GSP was anointed the ‘future of the sport.’ That future is now. Since first winning the UFC welterweight championship by scoring a dramatic technical knockout victory over Matt Hughes on November 18, 2006, the affable Canadian has skyrocketed both in terms of his popularity and respect among his peers. Though he lost the title in his first defense, GSP has been a mainstay on every legitimate pound-for-pound ranking.
By Michael DiSanto

UFC 100 is replete with amazing matchups, none more intriguing than Georges St-Pierre’s third defense of his welterweight title against Muay Thai wrecking machine Thiago Alves.

For years, GSP was anointed the ‘future of the sport.’ That future is now. Since first winning the UFC welterweight championship by scoring a dramatic technical knockout victory over Matt Hughes on November 18, 2006, the affable Canadian has skyrocketed both in terms of his popularity and respect among his peers. Though he lost the title in his first defense, GSP has been a mainstay on every legitimate pound-for-pound ranking.

One year after losing the belt, GSP avenged his technical knockout loss to Matt Serra with one of the finest efforts of his career, dishing out a thorough beating to the then-champion for nearly two full rounds before the referee stepped in to mercifully wave off the action.

Fifteen months and two equally dominant title defenses later, GSP looks to raise further question as to who is the UFC’s true pound-for-pound king, Anderson Silva or himself. He has even stated that he is willing to move up to middleweight and challenge for Silva’s 185-lb title to settle that debate once and for all, assuming that he is given the proper time to add and adjust to the additional weight.

All that goes out the window if he doesn’t score an impressive victory over Alves on Saturday night. And to make matters more interesting, Alves might be the most difficult matchup from a style perspective that GSP has faced in his five-plus year UFC career. If he isn’t fully prepared and focused on this fight, he could be in for a very short, painful evening.

Rather than spending the next 1,500 words describing the intricacies of each man’s game plan, I’m going to change it up in response to an email that asked how the pair matched up based on the numbers.

PHYSICAL SIZE

Standing 5’10, GSP is a tall welterweight with broad shoulders, a very small midsection and long limbs. He is extremely lean, though he does not carry any unnecessary muscle borne from heavy weight training. He also doesn’t cut extreme amounts of weight, walking around at or just above 185 lbs and adding about a dozen or so pounds after weigh ins. As a result, he maintains good flexibility and is able to fight at a brisk pace for long durations without fatigue.

Alves has a quite different makeup. For starters, he is shorter than the champion. Yet, his walking around weight is probably a dozen pounds higher than GSP’s thanks to a powerfully built physique that more closely resembles that of an NFL running back than a mixed martial artist. Alves’ ability to cut down to the 170-lb limit and then rehydrate up to around 190 lbs gives him a weight advantage in almost every fight. He also enjoys a strength advantage over most. That makes him perfectly situated for fast starts and explosive bursts during fights.

What does all that mean? GSP hasn’t been overpowered by anyone, including Jon Fitch, who is as big and strong as any welterweight in the world. Thus, it is unlikely that Alves will be able to bully him around the cage with his superior strength and weight. Their respective physiques won’t be an issue in the fight, other than raising questions about Alves’ ability to fight for five full rounds, since guys with large, full muscles tend to run out of gas more quickly than guys with longer, lean muscles, all else being equal. More on that in a moment.

AGE

GSP celebrated his 28th birthday back on May 19. He is just now entering his mixed martial arts prime, which generally begins in the late 20s and extends into the mid 30s. He has almost a decade of peak physical performance ahead of him, assuming that he continues competing without accumulating much in the way all-out wars.

Alves will turn 26 on October 3. The challenger has already entered his fighting prime, based on his well muscled physique and his reliance on speed and explosive power. Guys with his build and style tend to peak from their mid 20s and continue performing at their best until their early 30s.

Age won’t be a factor in this fight.

EXPERIENCE

On the surface, the two fighters appear to have similar Octagon experience, with GSP competing 14 times in the UFC versus 11 for Alves. A three-fight difference doesn’t seem material, until one looks behind those numbers.

GSP, who is 12-2 in his 14 UFC fights, has competed against the best of the best during his time in the UFC. Eight of those 14 fights came against current or former champions—three fights against Matt Hughes, two against B.J. Penn and Matt Serra and one against Sean Sherk. GSP is an impressive 6-2 in those bouts. In addition, his six bout remaining bouts were against the best of the rest. Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck and Frank Trigg were ranked in the top three at the time they faced GSP, and Karo Parisyan is a perennial top 10 guy. GSP is a perfect 4-0 against those fighters.

Alves, who is 9-2 in his 11 UFC fights, has only competed against one former champion. Granted, he thoroughly dominated Hughes 13 months ago, but he has never faced another championship-level fighter. Of his remaining 10 bouts, three came against top-ranked guys – Fitch, Koscheck and Parysian. Alves mauled Koschek and Parisyan, but he got pounded out in two rounds by Fitch three years ago.

This will also be GSP’s seventh title fight, just another day at the office. By contrast, Saturday will be Alves’ first championship affair. That fact raises questions of whether the challenger will need to deal with excess nerves or needless adrenalin spikes, both of which can quickly drain a man’s gas tank and otherwise cause him to hesitate during competition.

Speaking of championship fights, those just happen to be two rounds longer than normal UFC bouts. In addition to preparing for seven 25-minute bouts, GSP has actually fought well into the fourth round once (a TKO win over Penn back in January) and the full five-round distance once (a bludgeoning of Fitch five months before stopping Penn). Not to mention the fact that GSP won his four non-title fights that went the distance. Suffices to say, conditioning is a major strength for the champion, including his conditioning for championship fights.

The world has no idea whether Alves can fight beyond 15 minutes. He looked great in his two UFC bouts that went to the judges’ cards, winning both. But he has never had to fight beyond 15 minutes in the UFC. And this is the first time that he has had to prepare for a 25-minute championship bout. That could be a very real factor in the fight, if he is unable to score a knockout during before the championship rounds.

In sum, GSP holds a comfortable edge in Octagon experience no matter how one wants to slice and dice it.

CURRENT TREND

An often overlooked factor in fights is a fighter’s confidence levels. All fighters talk like they carry unwavering confidence into every bout, but that is absurd. Fighters are human—granted, they are a special breed of human, but they are human nonetheless. Thus, they deal with the same self-doubt that the average person deals with during life. One thing that helps curtail self-doubt is a history of positive performances. In other words, the longer it has been since a fighter has lost, the more likely it is that he has forgotten the experience.

GSP is riding a five-fight winning streak. It started at UFC 74 back on August 25, 2007. During that almost-two-year stretch, GSP has beaten Koscheck, Hughes, Serra, Fitch and Penn. It is the second five-fight winning streak of GSP’s UFC career.

Alves is in the midst of an even more impressive seven-fight winning streak. The amazing run began at UFC 62 on October 10, 2006. His victims during that stretch include John Alessio, Tony DeSouza, Kuniyoshi Hironaka, Chris Lytle, Parisyan, Hughes and Koscheck. It is the longest winning streak of Alves’ UFC career.

Again, not much of an advantage, though an important additional factor about Alves’ streak is that his most recent bout lasted the full 15 minutes, whereas his previous six bouts ended by technical knockout or knockout inside the distance. Alves looked particularly fresh at the end of his fight with Koscheck. That will help his confidence regarding the possibility of fighting beyond the third round against GSP.

CURRENT LAYOFF

GSP hasn’t competed since defeating Penn on January 31, 2009. That is a stretch of 192 days, making it the second longest layoff of his UFC career. The champion went on 259-day hiatus after scoring a controversial split-decision win over Penn at UFC 58. He returned with one of the better efforts of his career, defeating Hughes at UFC 65 to begin his first welterweight title reign.

Alves has been away from action even longer. He has been out of action for 259 days since defeating Koscheck at UFC 90 on October 25, 2008, matching GSP’s career high. That bout was a title eliminator, and Alves’ management team opted to keep their fighter on the sideline until GSP was available, rather than risking a loss in a “keep busy” bout. The layoff is a scant five days shorter than his career long of 263 days that began after knocking out DeSouza with knee strikes at UFC 66 on December 30, 2006. He showed little Octagon rust upon his return, stopping Hironaka with strikes at 4:04 of the second round at UFC Fight Night 11 on September 18, 2007.

Despite Alves’ ability to return in top form after a 263-day layoff, it is difficult to argue that he is not at least partially disadvantaged being away from competition more than three months longer than the champion. The American Top Team is famous for its training regimen, so Alves certainly got in amazing sparring during that time, but nothing can simulate preparing for a bout or the actual fight itself. Mix that in with the fact that this is Alves’ first five-round fight and his tendency to walk around at or above 200 lbs in between fights. It seems likely that the layoff will play a factor, at least early in the bout until Alves shakes off the rust.

TRAINING CAMPS

If folks want to start debating the merits of Jackson’s MMA versus the American Top Team, I’m going to grab some popcorn and sit on the sidelines. I’m not sure how anyone can suggest that one camp is a better place to prepare than the other. Greg Jackson has proven over the last several years that he is an MMA savant, finding ways to bring the absolute best out of young fighters looking to take their respective games to the next level.

Of course, Ricardo Liborio doesn’t take a back seat to anyone in the coaching department. He has assembled the deepest pool of talent of any gym in the world, bar none. The Xtreme Couture stable is probably a little hot after reading that statement, but how can anyone argue about the depth of a team that includes Alves, Thiago Silva, Wilson Gouveia, Mike Brown, JZ Cavalcante, Denis Kang, Jorge Santiago, Alessio Sakara, Bobby Lashley, Hector Lombard, Yves Edwards, Marcelo Garcia, Cole Miller, Micah Miller, Jucao Carneiro, among others? Alves rolls with elite BJJ black belts, gets thrown around by an Olympic judoka and spars with some of the most vicious strikers in the game.

Even Jackson’s MMA isn’t that deep. Nonetheless, Jackson’s ability to create the perfect game plan and also his nimbleness during fights to make the appropriate adjustments cancels out the depth of Alves’ training partners. This one is all square.

THE PREDICTION

This fight is a tough one to predict. One of Alves’ two career UFC losses came at the hands of Fitch, a dominant wrestler. Nobody in the welterweight division blends wrestling and striking better than GSP, as evidenced by the fact that he was able to take down both Fitch and Koscheck relatively easily in those two bouts.

Yet, one must be careful not to put too much weight into the Fitch loss. That was just over three years ago. Alves has improved as a fighter and turned into even more of a physical specimen than he was back in those days. His sprawl is better. His ability to scramble back to his feet is better. And the fact remains that while he was losing the fight to Fitch at the time of the stoppage, he was still in the game until he got overly aggressive trying to land a flying punch through Fitch’s guard. Fitch countered with a perfect upkick to the jaw, bringing the fight to an end.

Fitch won. But landing a similar upkick won’t be part of GSP’s game plan. Instead, he will try to control Alves on the ground like Fitch did, opening cuts and sapping the Muay Thai expert of his strength and conditioning with relentless ground and pound.

Similarly, one cannot put too much into the fact that Serra was able to knock out GSP in less than a round. Comparing Serra’s standup skills and striking power to those possessed by Alves is like comparing a AAA All-Star to Albert Pujols—day and night. So if GSP has shown that his chin isn’t the sturdiest in the world, then if Alves can land a big right hand or a left hook on the jaw, temple or just behind the ear, it’s good night.

Nevertheless, GSP showed in the rematch that the punch by Serra was a lottery-winning shot, as he dominated his smaller foe in the rematch. The same can be said for GSP’s two fights with Penn. In their first bout, Penn landed thudding right hands seemingly all night long. If Alves lands those same shots, it’s game over. But GSP isn’t the same standup fighter that he was when he first faced Penn. He proved that in the rematch by taking apart the lightweight champion on the feet with relative ease.

At the end of the day, GSP wants to use a rapid-fire jab and quick one-two combinations to set up the takedown. He knows he must get Alves to the ground and make this a long, drawn-out war. The champion’s odds of winning increase continually as the fight moves from round to round. Alves has never before seen the deep waters of the fourth and fifth rounds. GSP needs to use takedowns and ground-and-pound assaults to drag him into those deep waters and see if he can swim.

Conversely, Alves wants to turn this into a lights-out slugfest. He doesn’t want to live on the end of GSP’s jab all night because that will open the door for takedowns. Thus, he must lead with hard, committed leg kicks before circling away. He needs to rely on the head movement learned from his boxing coach, Howard Davis, to slip GSP’s jab to his own left and counter with explosive left hooks followed by cleanup right hands. If GSP lands a successful takedown, Alves needs to quickly scramble back to his feet before GSP can set his hips and secure the top position. Forget the BJJ game unless GSP makes a silly mistake. Alves can’t afford to lose rounds fighting from his guard.

Who is going to win? My mind tells me that Alves is tailor made for GSP. He will dominate the action with wrestling and ground control. Yet, my gut tells me that Alves is at the apex of his game and is ripe to score the upset—by knockout.

Will my brain prove to be correct, or is my gut the better indicator? Who knows? All I know is that I will be glued to the action on Saturday night.
Saturday, November 8
4PM
NZDT
Sydney, Australia

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