LAS VEGAS -- The symbolism was obvious: Georges St-Pierre, the embodiment of mixed martial arts' evolution, grappled on the mats Wednesday during a public workout at the MGM Grand with the man who put the sport on the map, Royce Gracie.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship celebrates its 20th anniversary Saturday with UFC 167, a fight card headlined by longtime welterweight champion St-Pierre against two-time NCAA wrestling champion Johny Hendricks. Gracie was the man who turned what was planned as a one-off 1993 event into a phenomenon; St-Pierre has been champion for five and a half years during the UFC's mainstream breakthrough era.
"Having a chance to work out with him was an incredible honor," said St-Pierre (24-2). "The way he won inspired me as a kid and here I am now, fighting for the title."
With a victory over Hendricks, St-Pierre, who has held the title since a victory in his hometown of Montreal over Matt Serra in April, 2008, could establish several records: It would be his 19th UFC victory, which would put him ahead of former welterweight champ Matt Hughes. It would be his 12th victory in a title fight, which would put him one ahead of former middleweight champ Anderson Silva. And unless the bout finishes in under 40 seconds, he'll surpass B.J. Penn's mark of five hours, three minutes, 51 seconds total Octagon time.
But that's easier said than done. Hendricks (15-1), the 2005 and 2006 NCAA champ at 165 pounds at Oklahoma State, has wrestling to match St-Pierre. The Dallas resident is also considered the welterweight division's most powerful puncher, with knockouts over the likes of Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann to his credit.
"He is a dangerous opponent, maybe the most dangerous I have ever faced," said St-Pierre. "This is a fight I have to take seriously."
Meanwhile, an odd dispute over out-of-competition steroid testing resurfaced Wednesday. In the weeks leading up to the fight, the two fighters postured over the semantics of a potential test. St-Pierre wanted to conduct testing through the private Voluntary Anti-Doping Association. Hendricks noted VADA features St-Pierre on the company website, felt he was being set up and offered to do the testing through the Nevada Athletic Commission instead. St-Pierre demurred, and underwent VADA testing on his own, without Hendricks.
Wednesday, an overly aggressive reporter from the French-language Canadian news outlet RDS goaded Hendricks into an argument over the testing during an interview session.
"Has anyone accused me of steroids?" a heated Hendricks asked. "Has anyone accused me of being on drugs? Hell no. I've been clean my whole entire life."
Neither St-Pierre nor Hendricks has ever failed a drug test during their careers.
Another main-card bout of note Saturday could have implications on St-Pierre's future. His campmate at Montreal's Tri Star Gym, Rory MacDonald, meets Robbie Lawler (21-9, 1 no-contest) in a featured welterweight bout.
With a victory over the respected veteran, MacDonald (15-1) would win his sixth straight fight. He wouldd also climb another notch closer to a shot at his mentor, should St-Pierre win Saturday. But Tri Star trainer Firas Zahabi says the bout will not happen, regardless of outside pressure.
"People tell me, oh, you should have them fight each other," Zahabi said. "I spent so much time, for so many years, to work with them, to have this energy. Why would I betray one of them or turn my interest against one of them?"