Upwards of 55,000 people are expected to cram themselves in Toronto’s Rogers Centre on Saturday for UFC 129. That’ll be a North American attendance record for MMA. The joint sold out just a few minutes after tickets went on sale in February, it’ll be the first major, star-studded show in Ontario since the province sanctioned the sport a few months ago and the crown jewel of it all will be national hero Georges St. Pierre defending his welterweight title against Jake Shields.
So, how big of a bummer will it be if Shields, the guy nobody knows – the guy from San Francisco, for God’s sake – wins the UFC 170-pound title?
Yet, the fight company itself has gone to great lengths to make sure we believe that is a good possibility. Despite the fact Shields comes in as more than a 3-1 underdog, the UFC (and, to his credit, St. Pierre) have said again and again that everyone is underestimating Shields. They’re quick to point to his 15-fight win streak, his domination of Strikeforce’s middleweight division and recent victory over that company’s 205-pound champ, Dan Henderson.
But is anyone buying it? Not really, and that probably says more about St. Pierre’s dominance over the last three-plus years than anything else. In the French Canadian phenom we’re talking about a guy who hasn’t even lost a round since 2007, a guy whose own eight consecutive victories have been almost unthinkably dominant and have come at the expense of the biggest names in the UFC’s welterweight division.
Shields, as good as he is, is simply viewed as too one dimensional to pose a significant threat. He may well turn out to be St. Pierre’s toughest opponent since BJ Penn and/or Jon Fitch, but his strengths play too much into St. Pierre’s own otherworldly skills. The champion is expected to have a marked advantage on the feet and his own takedown prowess and defense are the stuff of legend. It seems inconceivable that Shield can beat St. Pierre at his own game, but that’s exactly what he’ll have to do at UFC 129.
To focus only on Shields’ April, 2010 victory over Henderson is to omit a couple of very important points. First, Henderson nearly knocked Shields out with one of his trademark right hands in the first round and when the smaller fighter proved capable of recovering, Hendo all but gave up. It’s also to conveniently leave out Shields’ totally underwhelming Octagon debut against Martin Kampmann at UFC 121 in October. In that bout, Shields was lucky to skate with a split decision win after a fight that at least as many people thought Kampmann won.
St. Pierre is not likely to show up in the kind of regrettable shape Henderson did, nor are the Canadian judges likely to give Shields the benefit of the doubt he got against Kampmann. All that, coupled with St. Pierre’s ever-improving standup game should be enough to swing most pre-fight opinions in his favor.
The truth is though, we just don’t know. The rub with these dominant Strikeforce fighters like Shields, Nick Diaz and Gilbert Melendez is that they’ve spent so much time dominating lesser competition that it’s impossible to judge how good they really might be. Shields is likely a legitimate Top 3 welterweight and that fact alone makes him a stellar addition to the UFC ranks. But St. Pierre has given every indication of simply being at another level in his recent appearances.
It’s hard to believe he won’t send the Toronto fans home happy this weekend.