It has been the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s summer of discontent, with injuries and withdrawals marring a number of promising cards over the past few months. Everything culminated into one giant black cloud of despair on Aug. 23, when a series of events beginning with a Dan Henderson knee injury led to the cancellation of UFC 151.
As a result, it has been a tense week-and-a-half in the MMA world. Fighters were on edge. UFC brass was angry. Fans were just plain frustrated. Over the course of the past 15 months, it is quite possible that welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre has been through a similar gamut of emotions.
Since he last defended his title against Jake Shields in front of a record crowd at the Rogers Centre in Toronto at UFC 129, St. Pierre has been called out, doubted and, as tends to happen to fighters who are shelved for a significant period of time, overlooked. The one thing St. Pierre has not been able to do is fight, which is why the news of his official clearance last week came at just the right time for a reeling organization.
“Yesterday was the final chapter of my Road to Recovery,” St. Pierre wrote Tuesday on Facebook. “I’m now medically cleared to compete in professional mixed martial arts! Big thanks to all my fans for the amazing support during those nine long months of rehab -- couldn’t have done it without you. … Rendez-vous le 17 Novembre, UFC 154, Montreal!”
Yes, a bout between St. Pierre and interim 170-pound titlist Carlos Condit has been targeted for a couple months, but these are uncertain times in the sport, so any good news is welcome. When fighters train for fights by fighting, health is never guaranteed. Things are even dicier when it comes to athletes and their knees.
St. Pierre underwent surgery for a torn anterior-cruciate ligament in December. In stick-and-ball sports, the traditional line of thought says that an athlete needs at least a full year back before he can begin to think about returning to peak form. The Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose tore his ACL during a playoff game in April. Prognostications vary as to the exact date Rose will get back on the hardwood, but is likely that he will be playing at some point during the 2012-13 NBA season. Almost no one with realistic expectations believes Rose will immediately resemble the lightning-quick point guard who captured an MVP award at just 22 years old. And that is OK. The Bulls can reload and look toward the following season, hoping their star makes a full recovery by then.
St. Pierre has no such luxury. If his knee does not allow him to duplicate the explosive shot that made him one of MMA’s best wrestlers -- despite not having a wrestling background -- prior to the injury, he will not get a mulligan. Against a mobile striker such as Condit, who has been rapidly improving with each fight, GSP will need to be as close to 100 percent as possible. History is not on his side. At 31 years old, time is not his ally, either. As UFC 154 approaches, expect more and more questions to arise as to whether St. Pierre is rushing his return.
While his impressive UFC resume dictates he should remain very much alive in the title picture even after a loss, there is a bumper crop of new contenders at welterweight that would beg to differ. The division appears to be far deeper than it was the last time St. Pierre graced the Octagon. Part of the new breed, Rory MacDonald, resides in St. Pierre’s camp. When St. Pierre first won the welterweight title, MacDonald was 17 years old.
Even with all that in mind, it would be a fool’s errand to bet against the champion. After he lost to the lightly regarded Matt Serra in one of the biggest upsets in UFC history, St. Pierre vowed that he would never overlook an opponent again. Critics have become increasingly disenchanted with his methods of victory -- four straight decisions -- but St. Pierre has not lost since.
A consummate professional, St. Pierre wore suits to press conferences when others donned gaudy T-shirts. Not surprisingly, he received blue-chip endorsement deals with the likes of Gatorade and Under Armour. With his warm personality, St. Pierre has long been an admirable ambassador for the sport. His presence on fight cards, despite accusations of a boring style, help drive pay-per-view buys. What does all that have to do with the rehabilitation of a knee? Nothing -- and everything.
If the injury gods are cruel, no amount of preparation and dedication will allow for a vintage GSP. Sometimes that is just the way it works. However, St. Pierre’s attention to detail is obviously impeccable. If anyone can beat an injury timetable, it is this man. I am not saying St. Pierre will definitely make a triumphant return, but I am saying he will do everything he can to ensure the odds are in his favor.
You should be pulling for St. Pierre. If all goes well in his comeback, we can return to daydreaming about an Anderson Silva-St. Pierre mega-match in an oversized football stadium. That is never a bad thing. Or maybe “Rush” tells Johny Hendricks and Co. that he is not impressed with their performance as he decides to launch a campaign against the new blood at welterweight. Or perhaps St. Pierre never returns to dominance. That does not mean his demise is imminent; a GSP at 85 or 90 percent of his former self still takes out the majority of the division.
All of the above are desirable scenarios, if only because St. Pierre makes for a better, stronger, more interesting UFC. At the very least, he allows us relief from our UFC 151 angst, if only for a moment.
Welcome back GSP. Your return came just in time.