I’m Scared: GSP Gets Back in the Octagon

In a large room on the second floor of the Montreal Science Centre rest a pair of championship belts. One—belonging to Carlos Condit, UFC’s interim welterweight champ—is shiny and bright and less than a year old. The other—Georges St-Pierre’s—is worn and faded after six consecutive title defences dating back to 2008. Just past noon on this sunny September day, the belts’ two owners arrive. St-Pierre walks into the room first, wearing a navy suit and blue dress shirt. Condit follows immediately after, sporting a darker suit and a trimmed beard. Each wears a steely gaze. But it’s not long before St-Pierre’s game face dissolves into his trademark grin. He’s soon holding court with the media in both French and English. And when he announces that he feels like the challenger heading into his upcoming battle with Condit, many in the crowd, which includes a few hundred fans, erupt. “Condit has the belt and I need to take it from him.”
Truth is, it’s St-Pierre’s belt the two will be gunning for in Montreal on Nov. 17. But the fact St-Pierre feels like he has something to prove shouldn’t come as a total shock. It will have been 565 days since the welterweight’s last fight, a win over Jake Shields, and there are all sorts of questions surrounding his comeback from a torn ACL. Will his knee hold up? Has he lost some of that intimidation factor? Will he suffer from “ring rust” after 18 months away from the octagon? And can he regain his stature as the face of the UFC, at a time when the organization needs him most?
In an exclusive interview several weeks before the press conference, St-Pierre addressed the issue of getting back in the ring head-on: “I’m scared.”
It’s not something you hear fighters say. It goes against the tough-guy persona so many of them adopt. St-Pierre isn’t frightened about fighting Condit. Or about getting hurt by the six-foot-two, 170-lb. Albuquerque, N.M. native. His nervousness stems from a fear of failing in front of millions of supporters. He doesn’t want to embarrass himself, or have all the hard work it took to get back be for nothing.
What sparked this anxiousness took place only a few kilometres away at St-Pierre’s gym, Tristar. That’s where he heard a pop during training nearly a year ago. He didn’t know the injury was an ACL tear at first. “I thought it was a hamstring,” he says. “It didn’t have any inflammation.” He even flew to Las Vegas shortly thereafter to help former light heavyweight champ Vitor Belfort train. But something seemed off. Upon returning to Montreal, St-Pierre had an MRI done. “The doctor called me a few hours after,” he says. “He said, ‘Stop training, stop training! Don’t do anything—you have no ACL. It’s dangerous; you can tear your whole knee apart!’” he says. For a month, he’d been rehabbing like “a maniac” from another injury—he’d hurt his other knee several months earlier, resulting in the postponement of his original fight with Condit. “I was devastated,” says St-Pierre.
In the early going, the layoff was a lonely period. “The first week you don’t sleep well at night,” says St-Pierre, who spent it holed up in Los Angeles awaiting surgery from renowned orthopedic surgeon Neal ElAttrache. St-Pierre knew going under the knife could put his career in jeopardy but “once he analyzed it, there was no hesitation,” ElAttrache says. The surgery took place Dec. 13th—St-Pierre tweeted a photo of himself smiling and shaking hands with his doctor following the operation.
In the months that followed, the UFC’s most bankable star remained front and centre. As a fighter who appeals to a broad base of men and women, hard-core and non-hard-core fans who appreciate his fighting acumen and his charm, he means too much to the organization to disappear entirely. (He’s one of only a few fighters with a contract that includes a cut of the pay-per-view revenue.) St-Pierre flew to Sweden in April for UFC on Fuel TV. He provided health updates on Twitter. He attended UFC 145 in Atlanta to corner fellow welterweight Rory MacDonald. And he kept a video journal, releasing new clips on the Internet regularly. In one, a shirtless, ripped St-Pierre hurtles down the track, shrugging off criticism from his trainer that he needs someone alongside him at all times in the event he suffers a setback. “My knee feels good, man. I don’t feel any pain,” St-Pierre says. In another clip, he shows off his balance, quickly swivelling his hips and legs back and forth on a training ball in the gym, a force of energy even on one good leg.
Having him back on both—and in the octagon—is good news for the UFC. The past year has seen an increase in events but a decrease, some pundits say, in the quality of fights. The organization’s billion-dollar partnership with FOX in 2011 ushered in a new era for UFC president Dana White, and it’s been something of a rocky road. The UFC’s return to Toronto in September didn’t sell out and the pay-per-view buys have also been down across the board in 2012, save for the Anderson Silva–Chael Sonnen fight in July that had nearly a million. A rejuvenated, fit and hungry St-Pierre is a much-needed salve during this year of expansion for the organization. “GSP is just what the doctor ordered for the UFC,” says MMA writer Ariel Helwani. Especially at a time when the welterweight division, though incredibly competitive, lacks a bona fide No. 1, with Condit, Martin Kampmann, Johny Hendricks and Jake Ellenberger all vying to knock St-Pierre off.
St-Pierre says his knee is 100 percent, but there’s a big difference between a successful surgery and a triumphant return. ElAttrache says that most soccer and football players don’t get back to their pre-injury playing shape until their second season. Those in the fight game, who only go to war two or three times a year, don’t have that kind of time. Add to that the fact that St-Pierre is fighting on 31-year-old knees. “We needed to make sure,” says ElAttrache, “that at the point we said, ‘You’re clear to go back and fight,’ he’d accomplished the things we can objectively measure that will minimize the risk of re-injury.”
Welterweight Jon Fitch knows how mentally difficult it can be coming back from a torn ACL. “With a severe injury to a joint, some guys just never get over it,” he says. “They’re worried about the knee and never get their confidence back.”
After speaking to nearly a dozen fighters about St-Pierre, a consistent theme of respect for the UFC’s top dog emerges. But until he steps into the octagon and proves the injury is behind him—that his confidence is a non-issue—other fighters will sense weakness. If St-Pierre has a flaw, it’s mental, says former welterweight champion Matt Hughes. But St-Pierre knows the risks. “I have to fight against myself, against ring rust, against an injury I had, the long layoff,” says St-Pierre, who has a 22-2 career record. “It’s going to be tough.”
And preparing for a wily, unpredictable and well-rounded fighter in Condit—who loves to use leg kicks to set up punches—will be St-Pierre’s biggest challenge yet. “Condit’s got a huge finishing rate—13 knockouts and 13 submissions—and only two decisions,” says HDNet’s Bas Rutten. Condit, intentionally or not, will be testing St-Pierre’s knee. UFC commentator Mike Goldberg doesn’t believe the interim champ will target the knee, but concedes, “If you think there’s a weakness in your opponent—standup defence or an opening in the guard—you’re going to [go after] that.”
Others point to St-Pierre’s inability to stop an opponent cold. It’s been nearly four years since St-Pierre TKOed B.J. Penn at UFC 94. In his last fight, versus Shields, the criticism reached a crescendo. Even some fellow fighters said St-Pierre looked like he was afraid to lose and criticized him for being too defensive.
Many observers wonder where St-Pierre’s killer instinct has gone. His decisive wins versus Hughes (2007) and Matt Serra (2008) feel like an eternity ago. “I believe the world is hungry for the return of the old St-Pierre,” Goldberg says, “the St-Pierre who was throwing spinning kicks and was aggressive and finishing people—flashy, fun, energetic.” It’s important to note that St-Pierre never ducked a fight. He’s simply adapted to age and an ever-increasing pack of dangerous competitors vying for the belt. “I’m fighting the best guys all the time,” he said. “You cannot always win by beautiful fashion.” And though St-Pierre admits he “lost a little bit of love for the sport” around the time of the Shields fight, the time away from the octagon has reinvigorated him. “I feel better in my own skin.” And he’s confident he’ll rise to the challenge. “It’s not my first rodeo,” St-Pierre says with the swagger of a champion.
But the pressure has never been greater. And it all culminates in one night, five rounds and no more than 25 minutes in the octagon. “I hope he’s going to kick me,” says St-Pierre. “I’m expecting it. You know what? I’m going to kick him back.”
This article originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.