GSP led Marquardt down right path

Follow the leader: When Georges St. Pierre, left, told Nate Marquardt to drop weight, he listened. Sherdog.com

A lot of eyes will be glued to Nate Marquardt on Sunday night when he makes his UFC welterweight debut in Pittsburgh.

Observers want to see if Marquardt maintains his speed and power. They will pay close attention to his cardio, especially if the fight with fast-rising Rick Story goes beyond Round 2.

These are fair concerns, those normally raised when a fighter moves down one weight class, as Marquardt is doing in dropping from middleweight to welterweight. But raising such issues gets a little tricky when applied to Marquardt -- unlike other mixed martial artists who have recently dropped to lighter divisions, Marquardt isn't actually cutting weight.

For the first time since joining UFC nearly six years ago, the perennial middleweight contender will compete in his natural weight class. Marquardt (31-10-2) has never been a true middleweight; welterweight is where he should have been all along.

A well-rounded fighter, Marquardt is proficient in jiu-jitsu, wrestling, boxing and kickboxing. You name the discipline and chances are he can reveal a trade secret or two. It's this deep knowledge of mixed martial arts that allowed Marquardt to take on and defeat most guys who were significantly larger than him. The success he's had at 185 pounds coupled with the uncertainty that fighting at 170 might have on his performance triggered hesitation when thoughts of changing weight classes arose.

One day, however, a close buddy and training partner offered up some advice. That pal told Marquardt he should seriously consider fighting guys his own size. Marquardt listened and walked away convinced the time was ripe to make a career change. That's when it occurred to Marquardt to stop bulking to fight middleweights.

"Georges St. Pierre has been the champion [at welterweight] and thought I should consider it as an option," Marquardt told ESPN.com. "He was the one who brought it up to me that I should consider dropping down.

"I feel this has been my best camp. I'm still eating the right fruits, the best fruits. I'm just eating a little bit less. I'm still getting enough fuel for my workouts; I'm still feeling 100 percent. I'm able to work out harder and I feel better between practices."

Eating properly and maintaining energy is all dandy, but it will mean little if Marquardt's performance suffers. What about his speed and strength? These issues have raised the curiosity of many MMA followers.

Everyone will get a first-hand look Sunday night, but the person most responsible for making sure Marquardt fully prepared to fight believes the focus is misdirected.

Trainer Trevor Wittman says the issue shouldn't be how competing at 170 will negatively impact Marquardt, but just how much better he will perform at his natural weight. Wittman believes fans are in for a treat.

"Being a boxing coach, I'm seeing his punches turn all the way through," Wittman told ESPN.com. "In the past, he'd throw a punch and would be very stiff in the shoulders. Now his hooks are rotating to the point where he can almost hit himself in the back shoulder. His flexibility is better.

"I see a whole different dude. And he's keeping his strength. It's really [due to] getting rid of the water weight."

Expectations were high for Marquardt at 185; they're even higher for him at welterweight. An impressive win over Story is sure to earn him consideration for a shot at the title. But being offered a chance at the welterweight crown will put Marquardt in an awkward situation. He wants to be champion but might have to go through the friend who encouraged him to join the division.

St. Pierre is the 170-pound titleholder and shows no sign of loosening his grip on the belt. He's scheduled to defend against former Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz on Oct. 29 in Las Vegas.

If St. Pierre is successful against Diaz, his close friend [Marquardt] might be next on the menu.

"A lot of people understand the way I feel about it," Wittman said. "I'm always [in favor of] having friends fight each other and training partners fight each other.

"In this game we want to find out who is the best in the world. At some point, if one guy is the No. 1 contender and the other is champion, you have to do the right thing and go out there and share that spotlight and show the world what friends can do. This goes back to the time of [boxers] Arturo Gatti and Micky Ward. Those guys were great friends."

But first things first. Wittman isn't going to get caught up in the trap of looking too far ahead. Marquardt has to get by Story, who has no plan of having his win streak end at six.

Story (13-3-0) accepted this fight with Marquardt on very short notice when Anthony Johnson was forced to pull out with a shoulder injury. He also enters this bout a few weeks after registering a unanimous decision over Thiago Alves on May 28.

Some call taking this fight against Marquardt a huge risk, but Story begs to differ. He considers this an opportunity too good to turn down and is confident of victory.

Forget all this talk of two friends vying for the welterweight title in the near future. Story also has his eye on a title shot soon and is more than ready to make it happen, starting with a win Sunday night.

"I bounced back [from the fight with Alves] in about a week," Story said recently. "I was training on Wednesday [after the fight]. I'm good.

"I don't look at this fight as a risk. If they'd come at me with another of the top guys in the division at 170, in the same timeframe, I would have accepted [the fight]."

Franklin McNeil covers MMA and boxing for ESPN.com. He also appears regularly on "MMA Live," which airs on ESPN2. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/Franklin_McNeil.