MONTREAL – One only needed to listen to the ear-splitting roar of the crowd at the Bell Centre on Saturday to understand how badly the UFC missed welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre for the past 18 months.
The sport's biggest star had been sidelined with two separate knee injuries, one of which put his career in jeopardy. In his absence, the UFC's smooth path to mainstream acceptance suddenly became very bumpy.
But as St-Pierre skipped down the aisle to the cage for his title bout with Carlos Condit in the main event of UFC 154, it was clear that all was right within the UFC universe once again.
St-Pierre went out and was a better version of himself than he had been before his ACL tear, using his wrestling to control Carlos Condit and win a unanimous decision before a crowd of 17,249. The win put him firmly back into the pound-for-pound conversation and gave UFC president Dana White a series of big-fight options.
Middleweight champion Anderson Silva sat watching at ringside, a reminder of the superfight that so many fans want to see. But in the co-main event, Johny Hendricks made a very loud and very authoritative statement for a welterweight title shot against St-Pierre with a 46-second knockout of Martin Kampmann.
The crowd's only disappointment after the main event was when St-Pierre failed to call out Silva. He said he'd need a vacation and take time to think about it.
To the shock and near-horror of the pro-St-Pierre crowd, Condit nearly finished the bout when he landed a kick to the head in the third round and landed some shots on the ground.
St-Pierre survived, though, and went on to a dominant win. Judges had it 50-45, 50-45 and 49-46.
He was in no mood to consider Silva, or any other fight after it was over. His head was swollen and misshapen, his face was covered with welts and he had stitches to close cuts on his nose and below his left eye.
"Before I put some ice on it, my head was shaped like a football, an American football," St-Pierre said.
[UFC 154 results: GSP shows little ring rust in dominant win over Carlos Condit]
The drama of the moment was lost when St-Pierre failed to demand a fight with Silva. At the post-fight news conference, he spent considerable time talking about the size difference between them.
Silva suggested before the fight that he would be agreeable to coming down to 177 to meet St-Pierre. St-Pierre, though, didn't welcome the Silva talk before the fight and he wasn't too thrilled with it afterward.
"I just came back and I was fighting Carlos Condit and everybody was asking me about Anderson Silva," St-Pierre said. "This is disrespectful to me and disrespectful to my opponent. I have to give more attention to the challenger that I have. The guy is the best in the world and I needed to focus on that opponent and not think about the next step.
"Right now, I just finished my fight, and the same answer, I'm going to say. I need to recompose and think about it. I got hit a lot on the head. I need a break. The thing is, we fight at 177 and I show up at 185. He's maybe 205, 210. I don't know how big he is, maybe he's even 225, 230. He's a big guy."
His return was emotional and he said he was committed to being as good as he could be. He had received plenty of criticism after failing to finish his previous four fights. All of them were decisions in primarily low-risk, low-drama fights.
On Saturday, he again used his wrestling to control the bout, taking Condit down repeatedly and busting him open early. This time, though, rather than simply pin Condit for long stretches, St-Pierre went after him, looking for the finish.
It's not in his nature to go wild, but he fought with more passion than he had in some time.
"I don't care about the critics and what they say," St-Pierre said. "I gave everything I had tonight. I am who I am. I use my body the best that I can. I don't have the knockout power of a Rampage Jackson or the athletic ability of a Jon Jones or the athletic ability of an Anderson Silva or the wrestling of a Chael Sonnen. But I use my body, the tools that I have, the best that I can and it's why I win fights."
He was brilliant against a very willing and courageous challenger. Condit would likely have beaten most welterweights in the world with the way he fought on Saturday, but it wasn't good enough against St-Pierre.
Condit incorporated a lot of kicks into his plan, which nearly worked when he clipped St-Pierre in the head in the third. But throwing kicks at a fighter with St-Pierre's wrestling skills is a risk and St-Pierre took advantage of it several times Saturday.
"Honestly, I felt whether I kicked or whether I didn't, he was probably going to take me down, so I might as well have kicked," Condit said. "And, you know, I almost closed it out with one of them. It was more the timing of the kicks than anything. Game planning for Georges, we were working on timing. If he's shooting in and we kick and catch him with it, well, then, you never know."
There's going to be plenty of speculation over the next few weeks about whether White will be able to make Silva-St-Pierre. It would undoubtedly be the biggest fight in UFC history and likely would crush all gate and pay-per-view marks.
Silva said he wants the fight and flew to Montreal from Brazil to discuss it with White.
Before the bout, he was already beginning to hype the theoretical match ever so slightly.
"Georges has good jiu-jitsu, good grappling and good stand-up," Silva said. "But I have more time in the Octagon."
It would be an incredible spectacle, though Hendricks suddenly made himself a viable contender with his destruction of Kampmann.
In his last three bouts, he's knocked Jon Fitch out in 12 seconds, beaten Josh Koscheck and knocked out Kampmann in 46 seconds.
"I'm a wrestler and I can knock people out," Hendricks said, beaming. "That's pretty sweet."
Even though the majority of the card was substandard, the night turned out sweetly for the UFC.
It has a massive task ahead if it wants to put together a St-Pierre-Silva meeting. A St-Pierre-Hendricks fight is suddenly way more appealing. And Condit acquitted himself so well, he'll remain at or near the top of the division, poised for big fights.
White was in no hurry to force St-Pierre to make a choice.
"He was off 18 months and he'd just been in a war," White said of St-Pierre. "You could tell in that fifth round, he was hurt and he was tired. When a fighter comes back after that long of a layoff and after that type of surgery he had, he [needs time]. He probably feels like he got hit by a bus. I'm not even going to talk to him about it for a couple of weeks."
But White wore still wore a smile most of Saturday, a sure sign that his biggest star was finally back.
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