MONTREAL – Georges St. Pierre was brilliant Saturday. He closed Josh Koscheck's eye in the first round of their match for the UFC welterweight title in front of 23,152 bloodthirsty fans in the main event of UFC 124 at the Bell Centre. There was little his coaches wanted him to do that he didn't accomplish, running the table by winning all five rounds and racking up a one-sided unanimous decision victory.
By the middle of the third round, Koscheck's face looked like a bag of ground chuck. He had welts up and down his leg from the kicks that St. Pierre was landing.
When the fifth round began, Koscheck's right eye was grotesquely swollen so much that he couldn't see out of it. At that point, as St. Pierre was closing out his eighth consecutive victory, a thought occurred: What would have happened to the opponent if he'd been fighting four full rounds with one eye against champion Anderson Silva and not St. Pierre?
Believe me, it wouldn't have been pretty. And the judges wouldn't have had to render a verdict, either.
With no one left in his division to measure him against, it's only fair to measure St. Pierre against the elite of the elite in the game – men like Silva, the UFC middleweight champion, and Jose Aldo, its dynamic young featherweight champ.
Silva has had more than his share of lackluster performances, but when he gets a chance to finish a fight, there is no more cold, calculating or ruthless finisher in the sport.
But St. Pierre's victory, as technically brilliant as it was Saturday, was little more than a missed opportunity. It was the third fight in a row that St. Pierre has gone the distance, and the fourth in his last five outings. Since regaining the welterweight title by knocking out Matt Serra at UFC 83, St. Pierre has fought 24 of 25 possible rounds. The one fight he finished was against B.J. Penn, a lightweight at the time, when Penn's corner threw in the towel at the end of the fourth.
From the early moments Saturday, St. Pierre was pummeling Koscheck and had him running for cover, unable to see anything coming from his right side. And yet, St. Pierre never came close to knocking him out and really was never close with a submission attempt.
Asked if he were satisfied with yet another victory by decision, St. Pierre didn't equivocate.
"No," he said, sharply. "No. I wanted to finish, with a knockout or a submission. He's very tough. I closed his right eye, so I was doing a lot with the hook and the high left kick to try to knock him out standing up, but he's very good, you know. He's very tough. My punches didn't land on the chin as much, as I wanted to finish him off. It was a good fight, entertaining, but I wanted to finish it. That was my goal."
Of course, there are two guys in there fighting, and Koscheck deserves credit for hanging in and not surrendering. He didn't show up just to collect a paycheck. He took a beating and was still firing haymakers in the waning seconds of the match.
He wasn't good enough to beat St. Pierre – who at 170 pounds is? – but he didn't quit. St. Pierre coach Greg Jackson wasn't buying the argument that St. Pierre came up short by not finishing his trash-talking rival.
"Praise Koscheck for taking punch after punch and kick after kick," Jackson said. "If you get hit with some of those right hands that would knock down a horse, credit goes to Koscheck for withstanding that kind of a beating. His eye was closed because he kept getting hit with left hooks, straight rights. He wasn't able to impose his game plan, because when he would sit down to get his game plan going, he was eating right hands, head kicks. If any credit should go anywhere, it should be to Koscheck's toughness for absorbing an amazing amount of damage."
True enough. But then, think of Silva and think of the killer instinct he shows whenever he senses even the least little bit of an opening. St. Pierre had his openings, but he chose to be wary, to think of defense first, and he was unwilling to take even a little risk.
That will win him a lot of fights and keep him as the champion perhaps for as long as he's interested in holding the belt, but it's hard to make an argument that you're the best fighter in the world when you can't put a one-eyed, beaten-up opponent away.
"Josh Koscheck throws his punches circular, and to beat him, I had to stay on the outside behind my jab," St. Pierre said. "If I would have stood in the pocket with him and started throwing circular, it would have been the same thing as if I took a coin and flipped it and saw who landed first on the target. It was a risk of getting knocked out.
"My game doesn't rely on chance. I don't get bold when I fight. I try to put all the odds on my side. That's why I tried to use my jab and stay on the outside."
Thiago Alves, who lost a five-round decision to St. Pierre at UFC 100, raved about St. Pierre's talent and wasn't willing to be critical of the lack of a finish. He said that sometimes, the openings don't appear.
He said St. Pierre deserved to be praised for his dominance.
"Georges has proven a lot that he's the best in the weight division for a long time," said Alves, who won a unanimous decision over John Howard in an entertaining scrap earlier on the card. "When you're inside of there, it's a little different. Sometimes things don't go the way you want, but he still put in a great performance. He won all five rounds, so I think he did great."
No right-minded person could have watched St. Pierre pick apart Koscheck and not leave thinking he is a magnificent fighting machine.
The best in the world, though, he is not. That honor should once again belong to Silva, the oft-criticized middleweight who showed his ability to close the show at UFC 117 against Chael Sonnen. Sonnen pounded on Silva for 4 1/2 rounds and was on the verge of a monumental upset when Silva seized the moment and locked in a fight-ending triangle choke.
That's the kind of a move that the top fighter in the world makes. Fighters aren't going to get knockouts every time out, nor are they going to be at their best each time.
But St. Pierre was at his best Saturday. No less an authority than Jackson, arguably the sport's finest coach, said as much. Asked how he rated St. Pierre's performance, Jackson didn't hesitate.
"As one of his highest," Jackson said. "Here's the thing you don't understand: Koscheck is not an easy man to beat, first of all. When he's in shape and focused and ready to go, he's the best in the world. There's a reason he's the No. 1 contender. To be beaten, to be dominated like that, I think is the height of martial arts."
The 23,152 fans jammed into the Bell Centre watched a marvelous display of mixed martial arts and saw one of the greatest fighters who ever lived perform.
After yet another fight without a finish, though, it's clear there should be no more debate.
George St. Pierre is very good. Anderson Silva is the best in the world.