Breaking Down GSP’s Olympic Dream
Georges St-Pierre’s announcement that he would consider taking a hiatus from MMA to attempt to qualify for the 2012 Olympics as a Canadian wrestler has set both the MMA and wrestling communities abuzz. Is he serious? How good of wrestler is he? Can he make the national team? If he does, can he qualify for the Olympics? What weight will he wrestle? These are questions that internet cowboys and legitimate experts alike have been asking since the story first broke.
As an MMA fighter coming from a strong Canadian wrestling background, I have a double interest in this developing story as well as a unique insight into the process and likelihood of qualifying for the national team and Olympics. There is a lot of misinformation about the whole situation that needs to be put to rest. I hope to clarify this by giving an informed account of what St-Pierre will face on his Olympic path, if he does in fact choose that path.
To start, I would like to say that I do not know GSP, have never trained with him and, in fact, have never met him. If you are looking for personal anecdotes or an account of how he fares against world class wrestlers, I do not have either. What I do have is a strong knowledge of the Olympic qualification process (something that has been butchered and bastardized in more than one on-line MMA forum), an understanding of the differences between pure freestyle wrestling and MMA wrestling and some friends and acquaintances that train with GSP at the Montreal Wrestling Club.
The task of qualifying for the Olympics is a daunting one for any nationally ranked wrestler, let alone an MMA fighter-turned-wrestler. GSP has the added obstacle of trying to make up for a significant experience deficit in wrestling and will also be dealing with intense scrutiny not normally seen by wrestlers. On the other hand, St-Pierre will also enjoy a few interesting advantages over other wrestles trying to qualify for the Olympic Games. If GSP decides to take this Olympic sized plunge it will be interesting to see how the advantages and disadvantages balance out.
Wrestling for MMA is very Different than Freestyle Wrestling
The most obvious disadvantage facing Ste. Pierre is that he is not a wrestler by trade. Even though there are many transferable skills, wrestling for MMA is very different than freestyle wrestling, a fact that should be obvious even to casual fans. The differences though, are probably much greater than most casual fans understand. To start with, shooting a double leg on an MMA fighter is much easier than on a wrestler based purely on the way they stand. MMA fighters stand straight up with their hands protecting their faces. This stance is much easier to attack than trying to take down wrestlers who have defensive (crouching) stances with their hands and head protecting their legs. If you stand up like an MMA fighter during a wrestling match you might as well gift wrap a takedown with a bow tie and hand it to your opponent. MMA fighters also do not have to deal with handfighting. Handfighting is the constant battle to control your opponents’ hands, head and stance in wrestling. To people who do not understand the intracacies of wrestling, handfighting is boring; it does not look like much is going on, when in fact it is an essential part of creating angles, set ups and opportunities to attack. In MMA, takedowns are usually shot from a distance, something that will get you stuffed against national level wrestlers. When wrestling in the stand up position, St-Pierre will also have to learn to deal with the out of bounds rule. This rule gives one point to any wrestler who can push their opponent out of bounds on the feet and involves a different skill set than scoring takedowns.
While he will have to make some adjustments to wrestling on the feet, they will not be nearly as difficult to deal with as adapting to ground, or ‘par terre’ wrestling. In freestyle wrestling, the ultimate goal is to put your opponent on his back and pin him. This differs greatly from MMA where being on your back is not always a disadvantage. Freestyle wrestlers will automatically go to their stomachs when getting taken down, while the MMA fighter rarely wants to give up his back. The goal of the wrestler in the top position is to turn their opponent so that their back is exposed to the mat. ‘Turning’ your opponent this way is worth two points with another bonus point available for holding your opponent’s back towards the mat for three seconds. This is a significant amount of points considering takedowns in freestyle wrestling usually score one point, occasionally score three points and rarely score five points. Par terre wrestling is very technical from both the top and bottom position. It is also the area GSP will have to make up the most ground since the goals are the exact opposite of MMA or Jiu Jitsu. Par Terre wrestling is often the difference between an excellent wrestler and a truly world class wrestler.
While there are many technical and strategic issues that GSP will have to address (many that I have left out for fear of boring non-wrestlers into a coma), the issue that may be of greatest importance is a lack of tournament experience. Competing is a skill like any other and competing as a wrestler is a different skill than competing as a fighter. Wrestling several matches against top calibre opponents who have different strengths and weaknesses in one day is miles away from fighting one opponent that you have specifically trained for months in advance. Tournament day nutrition, post match recovery and tournament scouting are all factors that have to be learned and tweaked through experience.
Canada has Deep Divisions in GSP’s Wrestling Weight Classes
A big factor in how far St-Pierre will get in his pursuit of the Olympics will be what weight class he decides to compete at. The Olympic weight classes straddle GSP’s regular 170 lb division. 74 kg (163 lbs) would be a very tough cut for someone who already cuts a lot of weight to get to 170 lbs. 74 kg is also one of the deepest divisons in the country depth wise with wrestlers like 2008 Olympian and NCAA champ Matt Gentry, former Olympian Evan Macdonald and world team member Cleo Ncube. Ncube has been on a tear this year winning three international tournaments and just happens to be GSP’s personal wrestling coach. The other option for St-Pierre would be to go up to 84 kg (185 lbs.) which will definitely leave him undersized against the opposition who will be cutting down from well above this weight. This weight class also features Olympian and world place winner Travis Cross as well as a newly imported Russian immigrant, Tamerlan Tagiev, who is largely unknown but has posted some excellent results in his short time in the country. Whichever weight he chooses to wrestle at, GSP will certainly face some tough customers and a weight disadvantage of one kind or another.
Canada’s Olympic Trials Favour the Current National Champion
I do not doubt that with a year and a half of focused wrestling training GSP could beat some of the wrestlers that I have mentioned. The problem though, is that he would have to beat a lot of them in the same day and back to back. The Olympic Trials operate on a “ladder” system. The top three placers from the National Championships get placed on the ladder. Everyone else must wrestle through a tournament simply to qualify for the ladder. The winner of the tournament gets to wrestle the #3 ranked wrestler on the ladder. The winner of that bout will wrestle the #2 ranked wrestler and that winner will take on the National Champ in a best of three series. Essentially, the defending national champ gets to sit around and watch all day as his competitors pound the living hell out of each other on their way to the championship match. Needless to say, the defending champ has an overwhelming advantage and has won the overwhelming majority of matches in this format. While GSP might be ready to hang with the top dogs by the time the Olympic Trials roll, I am more sceptical that he will be at a high enough level at the time of the National Championships to earn a spot on the ladder.
Canada’s Olympic Trial Winner is not Guaranteed to Compete at Olympics
If GSP manages to overcome all of these significant obstacles and win the Olympic trials, he still is not guaranteed to compete at the Olympics. If every country sent wrestlers to the Olympics, the tournament would take an excruciatingly long time. To keep the tournament a reasonable length, only twenty wrestlers qualify for the Olympics in every weight class. To qualify, a wrestler must win their continental championships (the Pan Am Games in GSP’s case), place in the top eight at the previous year’s world championships or earn enough points at three Olympic qualification tournaments. Simply qualifying for the Olympics is a huge achievement considering Canada is a middle-of-the pack country when it comes to wrestling at the international level. If GSP manages to beat the odds and qualify for the Olympics, he will then be faced with the toughest of the tough. Only the very elite in the world will be at the Olympic Games. In a sport dominated by countries where wrestling is one of the national sports, Canada will be in deep water in any weight class where it manages to qualify. Countries like Russia and all of it’s eastern bloc/former Soviet chums like the Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan generally dominate the wrestling scene with the Turks, Cubans, Americans and Iranians rounding out the top nations in the wrestling world.
GSP is a Talented Athlete with Mental Toughness, a Great Wrestling Club, and Financial Freedom
The tone of this article may seem negative, but I do not think that GSP’s goals are hopeless by any means. My goal was to paint an accurate picture of what GSP and other athletes will face on the road to Olympic qualification. I actually think that St-Pierre has a lot of advantages over other contenders and if he is able to exploit these advantages, he will greatly increase his chances.
The biggest thing that GSP has going for him is the fact that he is a uniquely talented athlete. St-Pierre has obvious physical gifts that have allowed him to excel in MMA. While many of the techniques that GSP uses will have to be changed or modified for freestyle wrestling, he has a unique combination of speed, power and explosiveness that is rarely seen and will serve him well in wrestling. Few can doubt his physical gifts but I believe GSP’s mental toughness, honed through MMA, will be just as much of an asset.
Training out of the Montreal Wrestling club is another advantage that “Rush” will have on his side. It has been said over and over that GSP trains with the Canadian Olympic team. This is simply not true and is a statement that irks a lot of Canadian wrestlers. The Canadian team is made up of wrestlers from various teams around the country who win the Olympic trials. These athletes train with their own teams, not at some imaginary Olympic training center. With that said, the Montreal Wrestling Club is arguably the best team in the country. Victor Zilberman, a former Russian National Team member and world medalist, is the head coach of the MWC. Zilberman has a proven track record of turning out international champions. The MWC practice room is filled with Pan Am champs, world medalists and champions and Olympic medalists. In Montreal, GSP will have access to some of the best technical coaching around and will be pushed every day in practice by some of the best training partners he could ask for.
GSP is definitely in the right place to train for wrestling, he also has another training advantage over some of his competitors. GSP will be one of the only wrestlers chasing the Olympics that will have the financial freedom to be a full time athlete. Even the very best Canadian wrestlers make very little from the sport. A monthly training stipend from the government for international wrestlers is not enough to live on and Canadian wrestlers are usually forced to work day jobs to support their wrestling habit. Even though he has mentioned that the loss of income from not fighting is a negative effect of pursuing the Olympics, I imagine that GSP is in solid enough financial standing to take a leave from MMA for one year. I also imagine that GSP’s sponsors, especially some of the larger ones such as Gatorade and Under Armour, would fully support Rush in this endeavour, giving him some income over the period he spends away from MMA. Along with the freedom to train full time, GSP will also have the time and money to attend more international tournaments than most wrestlers in the next year and a half. Attending these high level tournaments will be instrumental in making up for GSP’s lack of international level wrestling experience.
While qualifying for the Olympics at his weight class is a tough task, GSP has a bit of luck on side in that he does not necessarily have to be the person to do it. Canada can send any athlete it wishes to the Pan Am Championships or other Olympic Qualification tournaments. Once a country qualifies for the Olympics in a specific weight class, that country can then send anyone they choose to fill the spot. This means that GSP does not have to be good enough to beat everyone in Canada until the Olympic trials. Canada has a number of good wrestlers at both 74 kg and 84 kg and any number of them could potentially qualify their weight class for Canada giving GSP a little bit more time to close the gap on his competitors.
Lots of people, both knowledgeable and not, have commented on GSP’s chances of representing Canada in 2012. The truth is that there are so many factors to consider that it’s impossible to say for sure what his chances are. There are a lot of obstacles in GSP’s way but I think it is unwise to count out an athlete with his skill and determination. In talking with athletes who know and train with GSP, the consensus seems to be that, yes, GSP might be a long shot to qualify, but probably not as long a shot as most people believe. St-Pierre will have a chance, how good a chance depends on what he does between now and then.
Critics have said that trying to qualify for the Olympics is a poor career move for GSP. The lost income and missed fight opportunities while in his prime are too much to risk for something that very well might not happen. It has been said that this move would tarnish his legacy. This is something that I simply do not agree with. Challenging himself in a sport where money is not a factor speaks volumes to St-Pierre’s character. This would be something he would do because of his love of the sport, not for fame or money. GSP’s desire to challenge himself at the highest levels, regardless of the sport is something that I truly admire. While GSP might be taking a risk, we need to remember that it is only with great risk that one achieves great rewards. I think that this endeavour, while risky, has the potential to add a fantastic and unique story to GSP’s legacy. Couple that with the fact that GSP’s Olympic quest is sure to bring added exposure to wrestling in Canada, a great sport that is sadly under-recognized, and you can count me among fans who wish GSP the best if he chooses to pursue his Olympic dream.
Brent Fryia contributes to Top MMA News as well as http://mmatlas.blogspot.com/.
All photos courtesy of Eric Gaudreaultfirstname.lastname@example.org)