MONTREAL – Several times on Wednesday, Georges St-Pierre uttered the words that few of his colleagues would ever dare say: I'm scared.
At least five times, perhaps more, he repeated it. Sooner or later, one had to take the UFC welterweight champion at his word and believe that, yes, he is afraid before a fight.
St-Pierre will return to mixed martial arts competition on Saturday for the first time in nearly 19 months when he defends his title against interim champion Carlos Condit before more than 20,000 rabid fans in the main event of UFC 154 at the Bell Centre.
As he makes his walk down the aisle, he will be, as usual, afraid. The butterflies, he conceded, will be out in full force.
"The key," he said, making light of his nervousness, "is to make sure the butterflies fly in formation."
But no matter how afraid he might be, no matter how much the butterflies may dance in his stomach, St-Pierre can't possibly be as fearful as he was when he first learned he'd torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
What made St-Pierre one of the greatest mixed martial arts fighters who ever lived was his sheer athleticism, specifically the explosion he would get from his legs when he shot for a takedown.
Those takedowns rely heavily on healthy knees.
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Suddenly, St-Pierre was confronting the reality that he might never be the same. The success rate for the surgery required to fix his injury was 95 percent, his doctor told him, and that provided some level of comfort.
But it's a long, grueling process and, despite the odds, there are no guarantees. He'd likely make it back to competition, but what he didn't know was whether he'd be exactly the same as he had been. He'd been performing at superhuman levels and was suddenly staring at athletic mortality.
The sport has become extraordinarily competitive and at the elite level, there is very little that separates the top guys. If he had to make any concessions to his knee, if he had lost any of the explosiveness or agility or quickness he once had, the Georges St-Pierre that MMA fans had come to adore during a nearly decade-long string of brilliance might cease to exist.
To St-Pierre, that would be unacceptable. He called himself "a proud person," and isn't the kind of athlete who would be satisfied just being one of the guys.
"I want to be the best," he said.
He'd grown used to being elite and put extraordinary demands on himself to remain so. He traveled the world in search of the finest coaches, the best training partners and wisest techniques.
He tortured himself, physically and mentally, to get to a point where he seemed nearly invincible.
"Georges pays the price to be great," coach Firas Zahabi said.
He was coming off an easy win over Jake Shields at UFC 129, a bout that drew an astonishing 55,000 fans to the Rogers Centre in Toronto, setting a North American attendance record for combat sports.
He was at his physical peak, and had been making wonderful fighters look amateurish. He outwrestled one of the UFC's finest wrestlers, dismantling Jon Fitch at UFC 87. He manhandled B.J. Penn at UFC 94. He toyed with Thiago Alves at UFC 100.
He'd nearly torn Dan Hardy's arms from their sockets at UFC 111, then easily outboxed Josh Koscheck at UFC 124.
That all led to the Shields fight, which many believed would be the toughest of his life. Shields, though, barely registered any offense at all as St-Pierre essentially toyed with him and won going away.
Inside, though, he wasn't a happy man. The demands of his job had taken a toll. Where once he'd been an engaging, charismatic man who smiled easily, he'd become dour and sullen and did most things by rote.
St-Pierre is so professional, though, that the unhappy side of him rarely showed. UFC president Dana White said he'd never been aware that St-Pierre was losing some of his love for the game.
"He's such a great kid," White said. "I wish I had 300 others just like him. I'd have a lot fewer headaches, trust me. But he's saying he had lost his passion and wasn't happy and all this, but I could never tell. That's the kind of guy he is."
He rediscovered that passion, though, as he was going through the arduous process of repairing his right knee.
You never know what you have until you lose it and, faced with the prospect of losing his greatness, St-Pierre threw himself into his rehabilitation with typical fervor.
But because he came so close to losing everything, he attacked it in a different way. All the grueling, torturous workouts designed to strengthen and stabilize his knee suddenly became enjoyable. He didn't focus on the pain or the frustration, but rather on that being a means to the end.
That end, of course, was climbing back to the top.
"I found the fire again," St-Pierre said. "I have a new fire, and I appreciate what I have more now. I'm more pumped than I ever have been."
Part of his eagerness stems from the confidence of his doctors. The UFC arranged for him to be examined by Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles.
ElAttrache is the same doctor who operated on Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's similarly injured knee in 2008.
After doing exhaustive research about the surgery, St-Pierre underwent the reconstructive procedure on Dec. 13. It wasn't until the end of August that ElAttrache finally cleared him to compete. And when White first saw him, he couldn't believe it.
"Look how he handled his rehab," White said. "He did some crazy [expletive], and it wasn't easy, but he did every single thing his people asked him to do. And I'll tell you the truth, he looks better than he ever did."
Still, White’s a firm believer in ring rust and St-Pierre hasn't competed since dismantling Shields on April 30, 2011.
He's coming back not against a lower-level guy in which he can go through the motions to get his timing back with minimal risk. Rather, he's returning against a guy at the very top of the heap with a similar record and reputation.
Of all the things that he's done in his career, beating Condit after 19 months off and following reconstructive knee surgery might top the list.
"If he comes off that layoff, off that surgery and he can beat Condit, that would be a massive milestone for him," White said.
"Carlos Condit is plain nasty, man. Beat him any time and it's a huge deal. Beat him after that long time away and after a major knee surgery, wow, I can't even express how significant that would be."
St-Pierre desperately wants that win, to remind those who may have forgotten during his absence just good he truly is.
The rhythm has returned to his life. The things that he had come to despise – the interviews, the cameras, the life in a fishbowl – aren't so much a bother.
He's smiling and happy and, yes, afraid. But more than anything, he’s eager to get back to doing what he loves.
"This means so much to me," he said. "I went through all the things that I did to get to this point. I'm back and I couldn't be happier."
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