MONTREAL - An 18-month-plus layoff. Reconstructive knee surgery. A poor showing last time out. And a very difficult opponent.
Georges St-Pierre enters Saturday's comeback fight at UFC 154 against Carlos (Natural Born Killer) Condit surrounded by questions. Is the UFC welterweight champion ripe for the taking? Or does the Montreal MMA star have too many weapons for Condit?
"It's a very dangerous fight for Georges, a very very dangerous fight," said Montreal middleweight Patrick (The Predator) Cote. "But I think he's prepared."
The oddsmakers would seem to agree, having made St-Pierre a 3-1 favourite.
Condit (28-5) won the interim 170-pound title during St-Pierre's injury layoff, defeating the prickly Nick Diaz in February.
A 10-year pro, the 28-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., is a former WEC champion who has won 13-of-14 fights since June 2006. He has never been knocked out and has only been stopped three times, all by submission.
"Definitely, he's a hard guy," said Martin Kampmann, who was the last person to beat Condit — in 2009. "I don't think GSP's going to be able to finish him. I think (if) GSP wins it, it's going to be by decision but I can definitely see Condit catching GSP with something and finishing the fight."
Condit is durable physically and tough as teak mentally. Plus he has shown signs in recent fights that he is putting it all together.
He demonstrated resilience against Rory MacDonald, enduring a poor start to put away the young Canadian in the dying seconds. He showed his power against Dan (The Outlaw) Hardy and was opportunistic in finishing Dong Hung (Stun Gun) Kim.
Most recently he showed smarts and patience in using distance, kicks and a lot of strikes to blunt the prickly Diaz.
"A lot of people can punch and kick and wrestle and grapple and everything, but now I really feel like we're putting this into a comprehensive strategy and that's what's going to be needed to beat Georges," said Condit.
The six-foot-two fighter has finished an amazing 26 of his 28 wins — 13 by TKO and 13 by submission. He has gone the distance just five times in his career.
Condit's first 17 fights did not make it out of the first round — and Condit won 15 of them.
He was 15 when he got into the sport, finding a gym in the phonebook. He settled on a good one at Jackson's MMA under the tutelage of trainer Greg Jackson.
Jackson has stepped to the side for this fight, since he also has ties with GSP.
Condit is not your normal fighter. His father was chief of staff for former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson. A former union electrician, Condit Sr. got involved in organized labour and ended up in state government.
Carlos Condit toured U.S. bases in Afghanistan with fellow fighters, calling it a "very humbling" experience that put things in perspective.
Despite Condit's formidable arsenal, St-Pierre has more weapons.
He has picked apart wrestlers like Josh Koscheck with the jab. He outwrestled strikers like Dan Hardy. And he ignored B.J. Penn's grappling skills, bullying him on the feet and on the ground.
GSP's wrestling skills allow him to tilt the playing field in his favour.
Despite not having a wrestling background, the Montreal native has turned himself into the best wrestler in MMA with a UFC-leading 77.3 per cent success rate in takedowns. Plus he ranks third in takedown defence (88 per cent).
GSP is also second in significant strike defence (75.6 per cent).
Condit's takedown defence is 46 per cent. A young MacDonald took him down in three-of-eight tries.
"I do feel I'll be able to take him down," said the five-foot-11 St-Pierre.
"I want to dictate the pace and make the fight, fighting my fight and do what I want to do," he added.
Takedowns allow a fighter to keep his opponent guessing. And St-Pierre is a master at passing guard, allowing him to punish his opponents on their back.
Said Condit: "He does have very good standup and he gets you thinking 'Hey, we're having a standup battle' and then as soon as you kind of switch out of takedown defence mode, bam he's in on your legs and he takes you down. He mixes it up very well and his timing is great. I have to be wary of that."
While Condit compliments St-Pierre's ground game and says his pace is relentless, he also believes the Canadian's technique sometimes goes by the boards because he is pushing so much.
Like a Fortune 500 corporation, St-Pierre has the best of everything when it comes to coaches and training. In addition to normal MMA training, his workouts range from gymnastics to sprinting with top track runners.
He has used sports psychologists and talked plenty about the mental side of the game this week.
Turns out simpler is better.
"I'm going to go there this time and not think too much," he said. "Let my instincts and my reflexes take care of it because that's how you fight better. ... If you think too much, you overanalyze.
"I want to go there and let it flow."
Condit says he spent most of his camp fine-tuning his game rather than worrying about St-Pierre's. He has been working with Caio Terra, a five-time no-gi jiu jiu-jitsu world champion to tighten up his ground game.
"I feel like I just have the ability to threaten with finishes from any position, whether we're standing, whether the fight's on the ground," said Condit. "I try to finish from my back if I get out there which I think is a big difference from some of the contenders he's fought in the past."
St-Pierre (22-2) has revamped his training camp, bringing people to him rather than going to them. He says it has made training more fun and reinvigorated him.
"I had the mentality that more is better but I realize it's wrong," he said. "Smarter is always better."
Four other fighters from Montreal's Tristar gym are on this card and they report a hive of activity in recent months, with the training at the highest possible level thanks to the influx of talent.
"There were tons of guys in from out of town," said lightweight Mike Ricci, who is a member of Season 16 of "The Ultimate Fighter" reality TV show. "Everyone was just so sharp ... The gym was just full, talent coming out of everywhere."
That's important for the 31-year-old St-Pierre, who in the past has fought only as well as his training went. A good camp and he is flying when he enters the cage. A poor one (see his title loss to Matt Serra at UFC 69 in 2007) and all bets are off.
He has not made that mistake since.
"I'm a guy who fights smart," said St-Pierre. "I don't use drugs. My body is in good shape. I don't overuse my body. I'm in good shape, the only bad injury I've had is this one.
"It was the worst injury of my career and now I'm back 100 per cent. My knee feels like it never happened."
He can thank the surgeon who operated on Tom Brady and months of mind-numbing rehab for that.
Cote, who has come back from his own knee surgery, says ring rust will be a factor for St-Pierre. The layoff will hurt.
"Ring rust is going to hit him for sure, 100 per cent sure," said Cote. "Everybody thinks that they're over that, it's not true. This thing happened to me in (UFC) 113. I had the same layoff, time out of the Octagon, I had the same injury.
"The first minute's going to be very fast for Georges, he's going to have to be careful and for Condit I think if he wants to win the fight, it's going to be in the first two, three minutes of the first round."
Cote says no matter how hard you work, training is different than fighting.
''When you are in a cage, in a real fight things go 100 times faster than what you think. It's always like that — even if you don't have any ring rust. . . . I think he knows that, people around him know that, he's prepared for that.," he said. "But you know what, if he's getting outboxed or something like that, his instinct is going to come back and he's going to take Condit down.
"That's what Condit has to be careful of. He has to put on a lot of pressure but be careful with the takedown."
St-Pierre has defended his title six times, although his last win by decision over Jake Shields in April 2011 was less than impressive.
The champion called it a bad day at the office, an outing complicated by a blow to the eye that affects his depth perception and a reluctance to engage Shields on the ground because of his grappling skills.
"A little bit lacklustre," Condit said of GSP's performance.
Perhaps most importantly, Condit comes in with nothing to lose and everything to gain. He is the underdog in the champion's backyard.
St-Pierre has to show he is over his injury. As the UFC's biggest pay-per-view draw, he knows his employer is watching him closely, with a lucrative superfight with middleweight champion Anderson Silva hanging in the air.
He also has been criticized for not finishing fights. In a sport that values spectacular endings, five decisions in six title defences is considered cautious rather than sexy.
Still, most like his chances Saturday.
"I'm a big fan of Georges, I train with Georges," said lightweight Mark Bocek. "But with that being said, I think Georges has more tools. A fight is a fight but my money's on Georges."
Added middleweight Tom Lawlor: "I'm picking St-Pierre. I'm thinking he's just going to be able to control Condit."