It wasn't an easy year on Georges St-Pierre's road to recovery, though it's doubtful anyone will get much indication of that when the intensely private fighter returns to the cage this Saturday.
The 31-year-old UFC welterweight champion, who bowed out of competition in October 2011 to undergo anterior cruciate ligament reconstructive surgery that December, returns to the octagon this Saturday at UFC 154 in Montreal following a long 19-month absence. The popular French-Canadian fighter will have little room for error -- he faces UFC interim titleholder Carlos Condit (28-5), a studied 28-year-old dynamo who has the goods to catch St-Pierre (22-2) if given the opening.
However, the calculated St-Pierre isn't one to provide his opponents opportunities. He knows better than anyone how crucial a fighter's mental state can be (his two career losses to Matt Hughes and Matt Serra didn't come from a lack of physical preparedness), which is why he's tried not to dwell on the low points of his surgery and rehabilitation, despite the media's best efforts.
"People talk about [the rehab] like it's a big thing, but I was very privileged," said St-Pierre. "I had five-star treatment, a very good doctor, the best rehab people taking care of me. For me, I grew up with no money, so I felt very privileged and I don't think I should complain."
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Indeed, Zuffa LLC, the company that promotes the UFC, spared no expense in making sure their prized star athlete was well looked after. Renowned orthopedic surgeon Neal S. ElAttrache M.D., of the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic in Los Angeles, performed the procedures, which also included repair to St-Pierre's torn meniscus. Dr. ElAttrache is a specialist in this area for professional athletes; he was Tom Brady's choice when the New England Patriots quarterback underwent knee surgery in 2009 and currently serves as the team physician for the L.A. Dodgers and an orthopedic consultant to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, St. Louis Rams, L.A. Lakers, L.A. Kings and the PGA Tour, according to the clinic's website.
St-Pierre said he spent the first half of 2012 in Los Angeles to complete his initial rehabilitation at the Kerlan-Jobe Clinic under ElAttrache's direction.
"It was the winter and Montreal was very cold. I didn't want to take the chance to slip on the ice," said St-Pierre, a native of St-Isidore, Quebec, three hours outside Montreal. "The healthcare is better in the U.S.; it had all the treatment I needed."
The initial days after surgery were the most difficult, admitted St-Pierre, as they brought immobility and sleepless, drug-induced nights -- not a comfortable period for a lifelong athlete who climbed up and down the stairs of his childhood home on his hands as a young boy.
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"It was a very hard time," said St-Pierre. "I was by myself in a foreign city and I was stoned on painkillers. When the [surgery] medication wears off, you have to take the painkillers. It was crazy painful and you cannot sleep."
At first, there was little to do in St-Pierre's Los Angeles hotel room but watch television and order room service, while his family and close friends were 3,000 miles away in Quebec.
"For one week, I could do nothing," said St-Pierre, "but after that, I was able to drive. I found a way to place my cast so I could drive myself to the rehab place."
Every day, St-Pierre drove his rental car to the clinic for three hours of concentrated rehabilitation alongside NFL players, track and field stars, and MLB regulars (St-Pierre refrained from naming them). Friendships sprouted out of their shared commiseration, and St-Pierre said many of them spent time outside of rehab together.
"I tried to do different things every day," said St-Pierre. On some days he visited the local museums or libraries: paleontology became his latest obsession, he said. On other days, he went to the movie theater or visited on-and-off boxing trainer Freddie Roach at his colorful Wild Card gym.
As the UFC embarked on the first year of its ambitious broadcast partnership with the Fox Sports Media Group, St-Pierre said he didn't watch many of the live fight events. He followed the fighters he considers his friends, like countryman Rory MacDonald, former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and middleweight contender Chris Weidman.
Instead, the pragmatic St-Pierre kept a diary of sorts, writing about his life, his family, his romantic relationships and his own fight career. The latter subject is the only one he'd elaborate on.
"I was overtraining, so I had to find ways to get more results while doing less," shared the fighting perfectionist. "I found a solution. I wrote it all down, how I could better organize my life."
When he returned to Montreal, St-Pierre began to enact these changes he'd drafted in his lonely Los Angeles hotel room. However, like his private life, St-Pierre doesn't like to divulge many details. He only hinted that these alterations included broadening his instruction outside the Tri-Star gym, one of his usual training haunts.
In a lot of ways, St-Pierre is the closest to a modern-day professional athlete that one could find in mixed martial arts. While other fighters recognize the necessity to share personal aspects of their lives to garner fan support in a still-developing sport, St-Pierre realized a long time ago that he could be an exception to this rule. He's approached his fight career the way an elite NFL or NBA athlete might do it. He was one of the first fighters to wear a suit to the arena on fight night and he chooses his words at the podium thoughtfully, but carefully. He understands that what he says and does outside the cage can be just as impactful as what he does inside of it.
But he's also worked hard to create comfortable boundaries -- being one of the world's three top-ranked fighters has earned him the right to keep some parts of his life to himself.
"I keep my life very private," said St-Pierre, who only lags behind middleweight champ Anderson Silva in consecutive UFC title defenses. "My life is very open because I'm a public figure, but the people that are with me I keep very close. I protect my family and their privacy."
That's not to say that St-Pierre is aloof or unlikable. On the contrary, he's one of the most revered athletes out of Canada today, the first fighter to earn big-money sponsorships from companies like Under Armour and Gatorade, and a role model to many.
He's humble when it comes to talking about his own career and talents, demonstrated by the admirable gesture he made in claiming that interim titleholder Condit is the true champion and he the challenger entering Saturday's fight. In private circles, he speaks enthusiastically about his interests outside fighting, like animal psychology, and takes a genuine interest in others.
St-Pierre has matured dramatically beyond the 22-year-old, 6-0 fighter who openly beat himself up at the post-fight press conference for not putting on a better show for the fans after his successful debut against Karo Parisyan at UFC 46 in January 2004. If St-Pierre has any doubts or criticisms about himself these days, he approaches and processes them in a constructive manner that might benefit his growth, not stunt or hinder him.
There's no doubt the last year has affected the fighter who'll make his awaited return to competition this weekend at a time when the UFC and MMA could use a positive leader, but dwelling on negative thoughts has little purpose in a professional athlete's life. St-Pierre made that mistake twice in his career and vowed to never do it again.
Still, that doesn't make him less human. Of his experience, St-Pierre offered this one telling thought.
"You realize that health is the most important thing in life," he said of his 19-month purgatory. "You can have wealth and everything else, but if you don't have the health, it is a big problem."