UFC will return to Toronto after three-year absence

UFC President Dana White. (Jeff Chiu/AP)

The UFC is returning to Toronto after an absence of more than three years.

The mixed martial arts promoter announced Friday that UFC 206 is scheduled for Dec. 10 at the Air Canada Centre. There was no immediate word on the headline bout but the timing would work for the return of former welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, who has not fought since November 2013.

The 35-year-old from Montreal took a hiatus from the sport after a narrow split-decision title defence over Johny (Big Rigg) Hendricks at UFC 167. St-Pierre said at the time he needed time away from the spotlight, but kept training.

In recent days, he was rumoured to be interested in a shot at middleweight champion Michael Bisping and reportedly exchanged texts with newly crowned welterweight title-holder Tyron (The Chosen One) Woodley. But UFC president Dana White subsequently set up a rematch between Bisping and Dan Henderson and said that Woodley’s first title defence would be against No. 1 contender Stephen (Wonderboy) Thompson.

While away from the sport, St-Pierre (25-2) had to undergo surgery after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament during a wrestling session. He was operated on by Los Angeles-based surgeon Neal ElAttrache, who looked after NFL star Tom Brady’s knee in 2009 and also repaired St-Pierre’s first ACL injury in December 2011.

The December show will be the fifth in Toronto. The last UFC card in Toronto was UFC 165 on Sept. 21, 2013, when Jon (Bones) Jones defended his light-heavyweight title against Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson in an epic bout. Their UFC 178 rematch was originally slated for September 2015 in Toronto but was moved to Las Vegas.

“It’s the fourth time we’ve gone to the Air Canada Centre,” said Tom Wright, executive vice-president and general manager for UFC operations in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. “Over those four events that we’ve held here, Toronto has actually hosted seven title bouts which I think bodes really well. We don’t know who the main event’s going to be but there’s lots of speculation as to who it might be. We’ll have to wait and see.”

St-Pierre has already taken the first step to facilitating his return by applying for inclusion in the United States Anti-Doping Agency testing program. He has to have been in the program for four months before being eligible to fight.

The USADA four-month policy was waived when Brock Lesnar returned to the sport for UFC 200 on July 9. After the fight, it was disclosed that the former heavyweight champion tested positive on an out-of-competition sample June 28.

St-Pierre has long been an outspoken critic of doping in sport.

“We’re very excited at the prospect of Georges coming back,” said Wright, who called him the “absolute ambassador” for MMA around the world.

“I don’t know whether or not he’s going to be on that card in Toronto … He’ll make the decision on his own terms,” he added. “He took a sabbatical on his own terms. And if he decides to come back, I think it would be great for the sport, it’d be great for certainly mixed martial arts in Canada and I think a lot of people would love to see him.”

One of the sport’s major draws in the past, St-Pierre likely does not need the money from fighting. But he likes it when the competitive juices flow.

He told the MMA Hour in June that the clock was ticking on his return.

“I’m not getting any younger,” he said. “I’m in the peak of my career and if there is a shot, there is another goal, another run, I better do it and do it quick, because it is time to do it now.”

St-Pierre has travelled the world during his hiatus, most recently touring Israel and swimming in the Dead Sea.

“Vacation’s over, now back to work at the gym!” he tweeted Aug. 16.

Fellow Montreal welterweight Rory MacDonald, Canada’s next highest-profile fighter, still has yet to sign a new contract with the UFC.

The Toronto show will be the UFC’s third in Canada in 2016, following televised cards in Ottawa in June and Vancouver on Aug. 27.

It will also be the UFC’s 22nd show in Canada. Other cities to host cards are Calgary, Halifax, Montreal, Quebec City, Saskatoon and Winnipeg.

Canada was the fourth country to host a UFC event after the U.S., England and Northern Ireland and used to be billed as one of the UFC’s top markets.

In 2008, when the UFC debuted in Canada at UFC 83 in Montreal, the UFC held 20 shows in three countries — the U.S. (16), England (3), and Canada (1).

But UFC shows are rarer north of the border these days as the UFC expands around the globe. The UFC held 41 events in 2015 with stops in Australia (2), Brazil (5), Sweden (1), Canada (2), Germany (1), Ireland (1), Japan (1), Mexico (2), the Philippines (1), Poland (1), Scotland (1), South Korea (1) and the U.S. (22)

Tickets for the Toronto show go on sale to the public Oct. 6.

Friday’s announcement came the same day of the closing date of the UFC’s US$4-billion sale to a group of investors led by WME-IMG.

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