The Ultimate Fighting Championship on Saturday will finally stage the next fight of one of the organization's top three stars when welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre defends his belt against Dan Hardy before a sellout crowd in Newark, N.J.
St-Pierre, along with popular heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar (severe intestinal infection) and middleweight champion Anderson Silva (elbow surgery), has been out since July after undergoing medical procedures to address a groin injury and bone chips in an elbow. With some of their big stars sidelined, UFC needed to offer replacement fights slotted as main events.
UFC 111 also includes a heavyweight title qualifier pitting former champion Frank Mir vs. hard-hitting Shane Carwin, and an elite welterweight match between Ben Saunders and Jon Fitch. Thiago Alves, who was scheduled to oppose Fitch, didn't receive medical clearance to fight.
"I could've come back a little sooner, but I was waiting for a contender to emerge," St-Pierre said in a telephone interview. "I think this guy's the most dangerous guy I've fought."
St-Pierre is a 9-to-1 favorite in Las Vegas sports books.
"I've never been so sharp," St-Pierre (19-2) said.
The mohawked, brash Hardy (23-6) landed the title shot in November by scoring a unanimous decision over Mike Swick. Hardy is 4-0 in UFC matches, and is predicting an upset over St-Pierre.
"Losing is not an option to him," St-Pierre said of Hardy. "He'll never give up, and he's a lot more skilled than he gets credit for. He does talk, but nobody gets in my head. I actually have a hard time understanding him, so I don't know what he's saying a lot of times."
"This kid [Hardy] has knockout power in both hands, with great kicks and knees," UFC President Dana White said. "He's a big 170-pounder like GSP. He deadlifts 450 pounds, jump-squats 225… But if GSP goes to the ground, Hardy's strength will be interesting. Yes, GSP is the favorite, but not [9-to-1]."
Nevertheless, St-Pierre could be only one victory shy of cleaning out the welterweight division. His popularity is seen in the Prudential Center sellout, and in his national television ads for Under Armour.
The logical next fight could be a showdown of champions with St-Pierre against Silva, should the "Spider" defeat Demian Maia, as expected, next month in Abu Dhabi.
"Anything can happen, he's got to get through Hardy first," is all White would say. "Silva is just so naturally big."
It would be the mixed-martial-arts version of Pacquiao-Mayweather, however.
"I'm a big fan of Manny Pacquiao," St-Pierre said. "I'm not as good as him. I haven't reached his popularity. But I'm motivated to win again and be even better than I've been."