MONTREAL -- Few people understand the path that Georges St-Pierre has traveled like Patrick Cote. Like, GSP, the UFC middleweight shredded his ACL and meniscus and needed the ligaments surgically reconstructed. Like the champ, Cote went through the lengthy, rigorous and painful rehabilitation process. Like the world-ranked pound-for-pound welterweight, Cote was on the shelf for 19 months and heard the same words of warning about what his first fight back would be like.
He didn't believe them.
It was a mistake. Despite all the mental and physical preparation that went into the effort to return, Cote still found himself overwhelmed by the first few minutes back in the cage, something that came as a shock to a savvy veteran who'd been involved in fight sports for a decade.
Even though he'd heard all the stories about ring rust, it was a phenomenon he didn't believe in until he experienced it first-hand.
"You always think you’re over that," he said on Wednesday. "In training you feel great. You feel 100 percent, you’re ready to go. [You think] It happens to everybody else except me. When the bell rings, you receive the first kick with no shin guard, you receive the first punch with four-ounce gloves instead of 16, and that’s the real thing. Now you try to adjust. 'Next time I’m going to avoid that, move ahead.' Bang. Next one, next one. After one minute, you receive 10 punches and didn’t land one. But the longer the fight goes, you adjust."
Cote, who will face Alessio Sakara at Saturday's UFC 154, said the most dangerous stretch for St-Pierre will come in the opening minutes, when the action moves faster than he's experienced for well over a year.
It's a phenomenon that many fighters believe in and others deny -- usually until they undergo an in-cage epiphany.
Why does this happen? In Cote's estimation, you can be mentally sharp and physically back to 100 percent, but that's as much as you can control. The rest must simply be experienced. While you can spar hundreds of rounds in preparation, the reality of the training room is that your teammates aren't trying to hurt you, they're trying to prepare you. Once you get in the cage, the fighters standing opposite you has a very different goal and a very different timetable for achieving his mission.
Cote, who memorably injured his knee in a title match against Anderson Silva, eventually lost his return match against Alan Belcher, and though he doesn't fully attribute the defeat to ring rust, he acknowledges that the slow start was difficult to overcome.
"When I came back at UFC 113, the first minute was fast, really fast," he said. "It’s going to happen. Georges’ instinct is going to come back and he’s going to try to take Condit down, which I think he’s going to be able to do. But if I was Condit, for the first two minutes of the first round, I’d put pressure -- a lot of pressure -- and make a brawl and be careful about the takedown. But if the fight goes longer -- the second or third, or longer than that, I think Georges is going to win."
Cote, who is quite friendly with his fellow Quebecois, also knows the reverse is possible. Condit, he admits, is a championship-level fighter with the skills to end St-Pierre's illustrious reign, and if he comes with an early barrage while GSP is still adapting to the fight's speed, St-Pierre could find himself another victim of the silent killer, ring rust.
"Condit is no joke," he said. "Everyone’s talking about Georges and [Anderson] Silva or something like that. Let me tell you something: Condit can spoil that. He can. He can shock 23,000 people only with one punch. But I think Georges is more technical and probably the wrestling is going to make the difference in this fight."