In less than 24 hours over the weekend, spectators were lucky to witness, a handful of times, the most commanding influence on the outcome of big sporting events.
First, Georges St. Pierre systematically beat down B.J. Penn to retain his welterweight strap on Saturday night at UFC 94.
A few hours later, Down Under, Rafael Nadal’s endless tennis battery allowed him to stave off rival Roger Federer for the Australian Open men’s title.
Then, Sunday night, the Steelers reigned supreme over the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII when skillful little wide receiver Santonio Holmes made a breathtaking tip-toe touchdown catch to nullify what seemed like a back-breaking gallop through Pittsburgh’s defense by superfreak Larry Fitzgerald.
All of the aforementioned performers – GSP, Nadal, Holmes and Fitzgerald – possess the main ingredient that often leads to victory in any sporting venue: transcendent athleticism.
Each of those men is, first, a world-class athlete and, second, a fighter, tennis player or football player. Without the precursor of athletic ability, none would have reached elite heights in their chosen disciplines.
No duh, you might say.
Well, I bring this up because of the perceived reluctance to name St. Pierre the best fighter in MMA. Since St. Pierre began dominating his division a couple of years ago, there has been a strange and quiet discussion about his mixed martial arts DNA. The comment echoed (even by Penn) is that “Rush” is more natural athlete than authentic fighter. And it’s expressed in a way to disparage his athletic gifts, as if they make him less deserving of pound-for-pound plaudits.
That type of dialogue isn’t found in any other sport – and it couldn’t be more insignificant regarding St. Pierre.
GSP’s blend of speed, strength and versatility are the same traits at the essence of every sporting idol. And he is proving that those traits should serve as the basic foundation for future MMA prospects.
For example, if I’m looking to mold the next MMA superstars from scratch with a wide-open pool, I’m damn sure picking the best athletes – not necessarily fighters – I can find, then weeding out those who lack the requisite competitive spirit. The evolution of MMA now demands that its top practitioners possess a flexible toolkit to go with a stable mind. And that’s a stripped-down description of GSP.
Brawlers and brutes will always draw, sure, but brawlers and brutes won’t wear the belts.
Athletes will. Athletes like St. Pierre.
Looking across the landscape of professional sports, we see the best athletes in each realm carrying themselves and their teams to the highest levels of success.
In tennis, it is Nadal, who again wore down Federer with his mental and physical power. The Spaniard is simply stronger and better-conditioned than every man on tour. His unmatched ball-chasing and shot-making take his game to a nearly unbeatable level. That realization, more than anything, caused Federer’s post-match blubbering on Sunday.
LeBron James, meanwhile, is the finest athlete in the NBA, according to a recent players’ poll in Sports Illustrated. He also is regarded as the best all-around player in the league and spearheads a rising team. That’s no accident. (Oh, and let’s not neglect Kobe Bryant, who just dropped 61 points at the Garden a few days after reclaiming the Lakers’ scoring onus because of a teammates’ injury.)
The NFL, lastly, is populated with a multitude of marvelous athletes, with fleet, coordinated wide receivers like Randy Moss and Fitzgerald coming to mind first. After all, those two were the most dangerous cogs in the two best offenses that appeared in the last two Super Bowls.
And, speaking of the Super Bowl, did you notice how, when the game was on the line in the final three minutes on Sunday, the Steelers and Cardinals turned to their most athletic players, Holmes and Fitzgerald, to produce the big plays? Not a coincidence.
In MMA, St. Pierre is the glowing example. In a sport built on matchup differences, he can’t be pigeonholed. He can strike, grapple and submit with equal aplomb. He has mastered the task of taking his assets as an athlete and transferring them to his sport. Just ask Penn, who touted himself as the better fighter but was on the unforgiving end of St. Pierre’s fine craftsmanship.
GSP’s athleticism has carried him to the top of the game and helped him tear through a terrific slate of foes, a claim that can’t quite be made by Anderson Silva or Fedor Emelianenko. Those two, though, remain ahead of “Rush” in most pound-for-pound lists, and it’s partly because they are thought of as the more natural fighters.
In my eyes, however, St. Pierre’s inborn gifts shouldn’t cause us to relegate him. They should cause us to celebrate him.