Without Georges St-Pierre, the Ultimate Fighting Championship has been missing something.
The UFC's versatile welterweight champion hasn't fought since April 2011 because he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during training in December.
He underwent an extensive rehabilitation under well-known sports medicine surgeon Neal S. ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles.
The entertaining Canadian fighter's absence is about to end. On Nov. 17, he'll defend his belt against interim champion Carlos Condit in Montreal.
Victory by St-Pierre, 31, could lead to something greater, a possible long-awaited bout between St-Pierre and longtime middleweight champion Anderson Silva.
Nineteen months is a long layoff. How are you feeling?
"One hundred percent, better than ever, fired up. Every day for a long time — six months — it was just me in a Los Angeles hotel room near the airport, rehabbing for Dr. ElAttrache. No one else, just me focusing. I studied paleontology. I know everything there is to know about paleontology. A lot of exercise and me being nervous about getting back to 100 percent."
Can you talk about what it's like for such an elite athlete, a Type A personality, to deal mentally with such a serious injury?
"I tried my best to just keep the focus on my rehab, whatever I was supposed to do that day. To tell you the truth, the UFC took really good care of me. I know not every fighter has this kind of opportunity. They might have had this injury and be finished. But I feel like I had the royal treatment. The way I was treated … yes, going through rehab and dealing with an injury is tough, but I felt like there were worse things in life to deal with. And look at me now. I can't complain about that."
Can you describe those quiet hours alone? What was running through your mind? Appreciation and pride for what you've accomplished in life? Doubt about the future?
"I don't look back on things. That's why I love what I do. It's all about moving forward, getting better. Going from rehab back to training, it was tough. I had to climb Mt. Everest again, you know? I hit a wall many times, but I knew in my heart I still had the tools I needed to do what I wanted to do. I had people around me too, always telling me what I was dealing with was part of a normal process. Looking forward, I want to do more, be better than I've been. You get that set in your mind, and when you're coming back from an injury, you push hard. All the time, I'd hear people around me saying, 'relax, relax.' That's why they kept me here in rehab. They didn't want me to go home and do things myself."
How do you know the knee has healed?
"Because I can do it all again, and do it better than before. It's been difficult, this adversity. But it's like what they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. I know I followed the time frame and let my body heal. I feel 100 percent comfortable."
Have you been hit on the knee in sparring? Twisted it?
"I never put myself in jeopardy in training. I was very conservative."
Yet, you'll be facing a guy in Condit who loves leg whips.
"Oh, yeah, no problem. I'm ready. I've been studying him like I do in every fight. I don't care what he's going to do. I'm ready. I know he's very smart, very durable. A good technical striker who can be unorthodox, and a good ground guy. I do believe he's the best fighter I've ever faced, but that's fighting. You face a tough, different problem every time you fight."
You're the same Georges St-Pierre?
"Yes, I'll be that guy. I'm at my best right now, better than my best."
There's great buzz now that with a victory over Condit, the UFC will make a fight between you and Anderson Silva. Are you ready for that fight now?
"People want to make money, the most they can on pay-per-view buys. I'm ready for all the top guys, and some of them are in my division, Jon Fitch, Martin Kampmann. They want to fight me too. I cannot split myself in half or in threes. Right now, I'm not ready for any other guy than Carlos Condit. I don't know what's going to happen. I don't think about it."
While you were gone, the landscape has changed. Jon Jones is dominating at light-heavyweight. Anderson convincingly beat Chael Sonnen. If you had to rank the top three fighters in the UFC now in order, who are they?
"No. 1 is Frankie Edgar; he's the best pound-for-pound fighter we have."
Wait, he's not even a champion.
"He lost his fight to Benson Henderson only according to the judges. He was much stronger than Henderson."
OK, who else is in the top three?
"Jon Jones is No. 2, Anderson Silva's No. 3."
"I haven't fought in a long time. I'm out of it. After Carlos Condit, maybe I'll be back."