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St. Pierre leaves more questions than answers

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TORONTO – Georges St. Pierre has looked almost superhuman over the past four years, taking on one top contender after another, and most of the time, challenging and beating them at what they do best. But on the biggest stage of his career, before a sellout of 55,724 fans paying $12,075,000 (U.S.) at the Rogers Centre, the UFC welterweight champion looked human. In a mostly stand-up fight against top contender Jake Shields, he did enough to secure a decision win in the main event of UFC 129. But St. Pierre looked lackluster in the process.

St. Pierre overcame obstructed vision from a punch in the second round, and was able to rock Shields with a couple of power shots in almost every round. But it was not the kind of larger-than-life performance the crowd likely expected from the fighter who has become something of a national hero in his native country.

“His striking was a lot better than I expected,” said St. Pierre at the conclusion of the fight. “I expected to handle him striking and then finish him on the ground.”

St. Pierre apologized to the crowd, saying he wanted a knockout or a submission, as this marked St. Pierre’s fourth consecutive title defense that went all five rounds. But it was the first where he wasn’t completely dominant from start-to-finish. He had to be hospitalized after the fight, not appearing at the post-fight press conference.

“At some points he was getting the better of me, and at times I was getting the better of him,” said Shields (26-5-1), who was in his second UFC fight, and had brought a 15-fight winning streak dating back to 2004 into the event. “Usually I can get people down but GSP has great takedown defense.”

The takedown defense was the most impressive part of St. Pierre’s game. On a couple occasions, Shields caught St. Pierre’s leg when he would throw a kick, and have a high single, but never once was able to complete the takedown, including a couple of escapes that were almost ballet-like in nature.

That made all the difference in the fight, as few gave Shields much of a shot at winning the title unless he was able to take the champion down.

But St. Pierre’s striking game, which destroyed Josh Koscheck so badly in his previous fight that Koscheck is still just barely getting over the injuries, and beat master strikers B.J. Penn and Thiago Alves at their own game, wasn’t as crisp as usual, and was far too predictable.

St. Pierre came with an attack which would usually finish with an overhand right, and also kept throwing spin kicks, which were something new. Shields was hurt a few times by the rights, particularly in the early rounds. But Shields eventually caught on to the pattern and St. Pierre missed badly on a number of punches.

Before being hospitalized, St. Pierre had a mixed reaction to his performance. While he felt it wasn’t a good performance, he did note he was pleased to be able to get the win over such a strong challenger.

UFC president Dana White defended St. Pierre’s performance.

"This guy (Shields) is no joke," said White. "He’s been unbeaten for a very long time. Do I wish there were fireworks and they were standing there blasting each other? All that stuff’s great. But it doesn’t always play out that way. Georges is getting a lot of criticism for not finishing, but he’s fighting the best guys in the world.”

Shields, who came into the fight ranked No. 8 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound list, was never able to hurt the champion, who has been ranked either No. 1 or No. 2 in the rankings for the past few years. Shields connected with some punches and low kicks, and St. Pierre’s face was marked up besides the eye that was swelling shut. Shields was also never in danger of being finished, but was staggered in almost every round at some point, usually when the overhand right landed solid.

St. Pierre (22-2), won his ninth fight in a row, the second-longest winning streak in company history behind Anderson Silva’s 13. His company record for most consecutive rounds won stopped at 33, when judges Richard Bertrand and Nelson “Doc” Hamilton both gave Shields the fourth round, even though St. Pierre scored the fight’s only knockdown, with a kick to the head, in that round. That call was controversial, and both also gave Shields round five, which was close enough that it would have gone either way, scoring the fight 48-47 in favor of St. Pierre. Judge Douglas Crosby gave the fight 50-45, which was the same score Yahoo! Sports had.

St. Pierre’s handlers during the week said that he would be 193 pounds when he went into the cage. That would be an increase over the usual 187-188 pounds St. Pierre fights at after making 170 the night before. The champion appeared bigger across the shoulders. But while the added weight appeared to be all muscle, as St. Pierre maintained his usual next-to-zero body fat percentage, it did not appear to be to his benefit as a fighter. He didn’t appear nearly as fast, nor was his striking as crisp. If anything, this fight appeared to be a warning sign about trying to get up to 200 pounds and then compete as a middleweight.

The reality is St. Pierre’s frame is simply not made to be a modern middleweight. He’s a good enough fighter that he could carry the weight without it being fat, and probably could beat a lot of people in the class. But at the upper echelon, going middleweight would be well above his optimum fighting weight.

The most talked about next fight for St. Pierre would be a dream fight with Anderson Silva. The fight has been talked about for years, and St. Pierre always answers the question stating that he would need to slowly build the muscle mass needed to fight someone who is so much bigger than he is. But Saturday’s fight and the way the added muscle affected him seems to indicate it’s not in his best interest.

The other talked about fight has its own political implications, against Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz, who is Shields’ training partner. Diaz would fare a lot better standing against St. Pierre than Shields did. The question would be whether Diaz has improved his takedown defense to stop someone with St. Pierre’s wrestling ability, as strong takedown guys are the ones that historically have given Diaz the most trouble.

Zuffa, the parent company of UFC, purchased Strikeforce in March. But the Strikeforce fighters are supposed to exclusively appear on Showtime or CBS.

“I imagine I can do whatever I wanted to do,” said White about whether he could or would put that match on next. “We have a contract with Showtime and he’s a Showtime fighter. We’ll have to see how that works out.

“Of course I’d love to see Nick get it,” said Shields. “His style matches up good with St. Pierre. Hopefully his pressure boxing would put more pressure on him (St. Pierre) and do what I couldn’t do.”