For much of UFC welterweight Georges St-Pierre's career, the two biggest questions surrounding him have been a) can anybody stop this guy at 170 pounds? and b) pound-for-pound, is he the world's best fighter?
In the past year, however, the conversation has changed. Knee injuries and reconstructive surgery have kept the 31-year-old Montrealer out of the octagon since he last defended his title against Jake Shields in April 2011.
As St-Pierre prepares to face interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit on Saturday at the Bell Centre, the pressing question now is whether he can once again be the supremely athletic, dominant force he was before.
St-Pierre believes the answer is yes, saying the recovery from the most severe injury of his pro career has gone as well as it could have. But losing a year in his physical prime has been a major hurdle to him as an athlete and his ambition to cement his legacy.
St-Pierre watched from the sidelines as fellow champions Jose Aldo (featherweight), Jon (Bones) Jones (light-heavyweight) and Anderson Silva (middleweight) — the man he is most often measured against when it comes to these greatest-ever debates — have run through their recent competition and added spectacular finishes to their highlight reels. Despite a sterling 22-2 record, St-Pierre hasn't ended a fight via knockout, technical knockout or submission in nearly three years.
"I have found a new fire that I didn't have before," St-Pierre told reporters this week, adding that the injury made him further appreciate how much he has to lose if he were to be dethroned.
Defeating Condit, 28, is the first step in getting himself back into the conversation of world's best. Condit, a former WEC champion, showed impressive quickness, stamina and diverse striking in his unanimous decision victory over Nick Diaz earlier this year. And we know he has power in those hands as demonstrated in a brutal KO of former welterweight challenger Dan Hardy in 2010 — something St-Pierre failed to do.
However, the weakest part of Condit's game — wrestling — plays directly into St-Pierre's hands as a master takedown artist and Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. In recent fights against accomplished grapplers Shields and Josh Koschek, St-Pierre appeared more interested in keeping the fight standing. But it would be surprising for him, in this case, not to return to the ground-and-pound tactics that largely propelled him to the top of his class. And despite Condit's kickboxing prowess, he holds no clear advantage in this realm as St-Pierre, despite his lack of KOs, is statistically one of the most accurate strikers in UFC history, according to FightMetric.com.
Game of Thrones
Indeed, most MMA analysts predict a GSP victory, likely by decision or submission, presuming the knee holds up and he's able to shake off the ring rust. What could happen next is much more intriguing. UFC president Dana White appears finally willing to make the long-awaited super fight between St-Pierre and Silva a reality, provided GSP wins this Saturday. In fact, White said he expects Silva to be cageside in Montreal to see for himself if St-Pierre is back to full strength.
The prospect of the undefeated-in-the-UFC middleweight king taking on St-Pierre would have electrified MMA fans two years ago. But the lustre of that fantasy matchup has dulled somewhat, largely due to St-Pierre's time away, Silva's continued dominance and the meteoric rise of Jones. The 6-foot-4 light-heavyweight champion presents a much bigger physical challenge for Silva, who has competed in the light-heavyweight division and knocked out heavier opponents with ease.
Still, a fight of this magnitude would be the biggest in company history, especially if St-Pierre can deliver a finish and announce his comeback with an exclamation mark.
For his part, St-Pierre has refused to join in the speculation, remaining firmly focused on Condit, who he respects as a "thinking [man's] fighter" and who is talented enough to pull off an upset.
With the shadow of Silva looming large and coupled with the fact that they're throwing down in St-Pierre's backyard, Condit claims all the pressure falls on his opponent. He, on the other hand, has nothing to lose and would love to play the role of spoiler.
"I see Georges St-Pierre as the champion," he said. "Until somebody beats him — until I beat him — he remains the champion."
St-Pierre admits that, even after all these years, he still gets nervous before stepping into the octagon and this 19-month layoff certainly won't help. But the ever-cerebral fighter says he'll make the butterflies work in his favour.
"The key is to make those butterflies fly in formation," he said, smiling.
Others to watch at UFC 154
As is par for the course with UFC events on Canadian soil, Saturday's card features several homegrown fighters. Here are some intriguing bouts:
On the preliminary card, Montreal-based Patrick (The Predator) Cote looks to rebound from a loss to Cung Le this past July when he faces UFC veteran Alessio Sakara, who has lost his last two matches. Both middleweights love to fire away and both possess knockout power. Don't expect this fight to last too long.
On the main card, Mark Hominick of Thamesford, Ont., takes on Pablo Garza. Both men are in dire need of a win to stay relevant in the featherweight division. Garza can definitely do some damage in the clinch with his knees or pull off a slick submission. Hominick may opt to keep Garza's length at bay with his solid boxing skills and could grind out a much-needed victory by outscoring him or controlling him on the ground.
In the co-main event, Johny Hendricks out of Texas aims to continue his hot streak against Danish fighter Martin Kampmann in a match that could determine the next welterweight title contender. Hendricks is a beast of a wrestler. But he has shown spectacular knockout power, too. Kampmann is an elite kickboxer who also has strong takedown defence. Hendrix likes to go hard right out of the gate. But if Kampmann can avoid the initial flurry and work his counter striking, this fight could prove to be an exciting back-and-forth contest.