Saturday night is likely to be the evening that defines Georges St. Pierre's career.
At the age of 26, he will either become the youngest two-time major world champion in MMA history and end the night as something of a national hero in his native Canada, or he'll forever be known as the guy with all the talent in the world, but have the label as being the guy who cracks when put under pressure.
There will never be another first UFC event in Canada, and for St. Pierre, it's at the Bell Centre in his current hometown of Montreal.
The match couldn't possibly be bigger.
You have the hometown guy going for the world title and for revenge against the guy who beat him in the first round one year ago.
There has already been a partial taste of the atmosphere expected Saturday, as thousands of Canadians waving flags descended upon Las Vegas for his last two fights. Some have followed him since he became Canadian welterweight champion while fighting for the local Montreal-based promotion at the age of 21. Others jumped on the bandwagon when he became one of UFC's biggest stars over the past few years.
"I trained to fight an army, not a single person," said St. Pierre, who comes into the fight with a 15-2 record. "I've been sparring every week with very high-caliber fighters. If an army can't break me, one person can't do it. I'm very well prepared. I've never been so sharp in my life."
The fight is hugely important for UFC as well. After experiencing great success the past two years, the old guard that drove the success, people like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture and Ken Shamrock, are either leaving or gone.
Matt Hughes had no answer for St. Pierre. Chuck Liddell is 38. For the UFC, 2008 has to be about creating new people the public will pay to see in pay-per-view main events. Anderson Silva hasn't yet gotten over the hump as a big draw. Brock Lesnar has, but is unproven as a fighter and long-term attraction. In order for the UFC to continue its growth, St. Pierre and either Quinton Jackson or Forrest Griffin need to become the new money players.
If it wasn't for the match with Matt Serra a year ago in Houston, where he was an 8-to-1 favorite and got steamrolled in the first round, St. Pierre would be heavily considered the best fighter in the sport today. Even though he doesn't hold the championship, he's ranked No. 2 pound-for-pound by Yahoo! Sports. He rebounded from the Serra loss looking even more dominant than ever with wins over Josh Koscheck and Matt Hughes. First, he beat an NCAA champion wrestler by outwrestling him. He followed by practically toying with one of the best MMA-style wrestlers in the history of the sport, also beating him with wrestling.
The strategy of going directly at the opponent's strength and beating appears the ultimate in confidence and has impressed fans, who react to St. Pierre as second to only Liddell as the company's biggest star. But skeptics will say after being knocked out by Serra, that it shows he's gun-shy standing and that's why he immediately takes the matches to the ground. Does he have the mental toughness to go with his undeniable athletic superiority?
St. Pierre scoffs at the criticism, noting he had a specific battle plan for Koscheck and Hughes. He believes there was no way Koscheck or Hughes – and now Serra – could match his overall conditioning. The idea was to go out early and set a fast pace, forcing his opponent to try to keep up with him. Failing that, they'll get tired, and at that point, St. Pierre can use his own balance to keep the fight standing and then go for the kill.
"I do have a specific strategy," said St. Pierre, who said he believes he is a better fighter than Serra in every single aspect, whether it be stand-up, ground, wrestling or conditioning. "I've been studying him a lot. I'm going to fight him in a way that nobody has fought him before. He's going to be surprised, and it's going to be a different story."
There are some misconceptions about St. Pierre. Most people seeing this fight see the well-dressed GQ-looking St. Pierre and think of him as someone who grew up rich and cultured in classical Montreal, as opposed to Serra, who comes across as the kid next door who played stickball in the streets of Long Island.
In reality, St. Pierre grew up poor in the small farming town of Ste. Isidore, Quebec, about 15 minutes outside Montreal. But he comes across as the opposite of what the stereotype would be of a man who used fighting to take him out of the lower economic class.
And while he says he loves fighting, "Fighting is not my life, it's my job."
While never close friends, St. Pierre and Serra had a healthy respect for one another as both had trained jiu-jitsu out of Renzo Gracie's Academy in Manhattan.
But since their fight on April 7, 2007, in Houston, there has been a war of words. Serra felt disrespected when St. Pierre brought up personal problems leading up to his loss, and said that he came in with a knee injury. Leading to the fight, St. Pierre had a teenage cousin he was close with die in an auto accident, and his father, who trained him from childhood in Kyokushin karate, had serious health issues. Plus, he freely admits that at 25, he was falling victim to the downside of being a world champion.
Serra verbally shot back at all the things St. Pierre said, calling him "Frenchy," making fun of French Canadians who drink red wine and love hockey.
St. Pierre wasn't thrilled, saying he felt Serra crossed the line of good taste, but said that has no bearing on the fight.
"He can say whatever he wants, it's not going to get into my head," he said. "I'm going to hit him as hard as I can either way."
Since Serra was a student of Gracie long before St. Pierre, their fight last year caused St. Pierre to have to look elsewhere for training. In recent months he's trained both in Denver, for the altitude, and in Albuquerque, with Greg Jackson's camp that is filled with tough guys like Rashad Evans and Keith Jardine, who are bigger than him and test him in Iron Man drills. St. Pierre goes five rounds with a fresh man each round. While some reports say nobody can take him down or get the better of him in practice, St. Pierre scoffs at those stories.
He noted that when he's in round five going against someone fresh, they can take him down or impose their will standing. He noted that Jackson has impressed on him how important that training is, because if you're not put in situations when you are losing, you won't do well in the fight if things aren't going your way.
"I get taken down in training," he noted. "When I'm tired and you have a fresh guy, you don't always get the best of it. Greg Jackson said you have to train for every situation and deal with adversity. I don't want to be a big fish in a small pond."