The most decorated welterweight fighter in the history of the UFC will make his long-awaited return to the Octagon in three weeks at UFC 154. After being out of action for nearly 17 months, Georges St. Pierre will square off with current interim champion Carlos Condit in a bout to unify the welterweight divisional title on Nov. 17 in Montreal.
As one of the sport's pound-for-pound best, the expectation surrounding GSP's comeback is high. Over the past four years, he has been one of the organization's most dominant champions. During that time, the Tri-Star product successfully defended his title on six occasions as he claimed victory over the best his division had to offer. But as he prepares to face what is possibly his most dangerous opponent to date in Condit, the weight class he once reigned over has taken on a different look, and a pack of fresh contenders are eager to get their shot.
A Year on the Mend
Following his victory over Jake Shields at UFC 129 in April 2011, St. Pierre appeared to have finally cleaned out the 170-pound division. Short of recycling another previously defeated opponent, there did not appear to be a fresh challenge on the horizon. But when the UFC announced Strikeforce champion Nick Diaz would be making a permanent move into the organization, suddenly St. Pierre had everything he had been looking for.
The fight with Diaz was a matchup several years in the making and came with the buzz and aura only big fights can provide. Fans were set to see the unbreakable and methodical approach of St. Pierre versus the fiery scrap of Stockton, California's bad boy. They were scheduled to handle business at UFC 137, but unfortunately, it became a battle the MMA world would fail to see as a chaotic series of events forced the UFC to remove Diaz from the fight.
The situation would be an omen of things to come. Shortly after replacing Diaz with Condit, St. Pierre's camp announced the champion had injured his knee and was forced to withdraw from the fight. "The Natural Born Killer" decided to hold on to his title shot and wait for St. Pierre's return, but following Diaz's impressive victory over former two-divisional champion B.J. Penn at UFC 137, the UFC decided to rebook St.Pierre vs. Diaz for UFC 143 in February.
As 2011 came to a close, the injury bug would bite once again. St. Pierre suffered damage to the ACL in his right knee. The severity of the injury would require surgery in addition to a lengthy recovery and rehabilitation period. This put the champion out of the bout with Diaz, and he moved to the sidelines where he was forced to watch the division he had dominated suddenly catch fire.
The Long Road Back & Questions to Be Answered
While the 31-year-old superstar is one of the most athletically gifted fighters on the planet, coming back from reconstructive surgery is a grueling process. Time, dedication, and patience all factor into the recovery period, and St. Pierre appears to have taken the right approach to the process. One setback or hurried decision can have disastrous results, but with his rehabilitation and return coming on the schedule he projected post-surgery, a measured and calculated recovery appears to have paid off.
St. Pierre appears confident his knee is back to 100 percent, but that will remain to be seen until he steps into the Octagon next month against Condit. His ability to change levels and close distance, then use speed and power wrestling to put his opponents on their backs have been key in his dominant reign as champion and will be crucial as his career goes forward.
St. Pierre can put his opponent wherever he chooses, and this has made some of the top welterweight fighters in the world appear to have zero business in the cage with him. GSP's ability to impose his will is obvious, but his subtle mastery of taking away his opponent's biggest strength has been key to his success. For strikers like Thiago Alves and Dan Hardy who rely on heavy hands, St. Pierre attacked their legs and consistently dumped them on their backs. After a few trips to the canvas, both were questioning every strike they threw, and when that became a factor, the notch was already sitting in the win column for the Montreal-based fighter.
In matchups where he's faced an equally strong wrestler, St. Pierre has used striking to get the job done. He picked apart notorious grinders Jon Fitch and Josh Koscheck in the stand-up department by utilizing timing and speed, and both cases resulted in lopsided victories.
His ability to meticulously execute a game plan and make adjustments on the fly have been the keys to his success inside the Octagon. This will be particularly important when facing a fighter such as Condit, who comes equipped with a diverse skill set and has the uncanny ability to remain dangerous at every point of the fight. Coming off a long layoff and facing a high-caliber opponent in Condit will certainly be a huge test.
During his time away from the Octagon, St. Pierre also revealed his motivation had been lacking in recent years. After garnering high praise and acclaim for steamrolling everyone the UFC could place across from him, St. Pierre's love for the sport admittedly waned in the process.
For a fighter who prides himself on preparation and performance, a lapse in passion presents a difficult problem. In order to remedy this, St. Pierre has reignited his drive by putting his focus on reclaiming the belt he has coveted for years. In his mind, Condit's title rules the division and he wants nothing more than to regain his position atop the weight class.
The Next Chapter Begins
After 10 years in the sport, winning the welterweight strap multiple times and a record number of title defenses in the 170-pound weight class; it seems crazy to think the most definitive portion of St. Pierre's career is set to get underway. Over his career. he has been one of the most dominant fighters to ever strap on the 4 oz. gloves, but the road ahead has the potential to produce the caliber of challenges that could define his legacy as a mixed martial artist.
While St. Pierre has been nearly flawless with every showing under the UFC banner, the level of competition he is preparing to face has changed. The sport continues to evolve and the upper tier of the welterweight division is filled with versatile opposition. Fighters like Condit, Diaz, Martin Kampmann and Johny Hendricks, all present multi-faceted skill sets and have proven knockout ability. Where he once cleaned out the top contenders in the weight class, now there are dangerous matchups lined up at the gates.
When you add a potential bout with pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva into the mix, the challenges awaiting St. Pierre are deeper than ever before. For a fighter who has stepped into the spotlight time after time, dispatched every threat to his title and etched himself into the history books, what comes next has the potential to decide where St. Pierre stands on the list of all-time greats when his storied career is said and done.