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As title bout nears, neither St-Pierre nor Condit wants pre-fight label as 'champion'

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

MONTREAL -- The stage stood empty, a podium between two chairs that bookended the scene. Beside each was a small table showcasing a leather and gold strap that represents each man's career apex. A UFC welterweight championship belt for Georges St-Pierre, the interim divisional title for Carlos Condit.

If you were to believe the UFC 154 main-event participants, they were unnecessary, unwanted and maybe even undeserved, simple accoutrements used as nothing more than stage ornamentation.

Saturday night may be about deciding No. 1, but apparently, that designation won't come a second before. As the fight nears, neither of the almost universally regarded top two welterweights in the world wants the title of "champion."

For Condit, the stance is somewhat understandable. While his win over Nick Diaz in February technically gave him a piece of the belt, UFC interim title holders have always been considered more of a top-contender-in-waiting than a legitimate champion. And in nearly everyone's eyes, the unquestionable king remains GSP. Even if he hasn't fought in 19 months. Even if he thinks he lost his throne in absentia.

It has gotten so crazy that St-Pierre doesn't only avoid any claim as the champion; he won't even admit to being the division's best fighter.

"For sure it's going to be tough but I don't want nothing less than a title shot and fighting the best man in division in Carlos Condit," he said at a Wednesday press conference. "I didn't want to come back and fight an easier guy. I want to be the top guy and I need to fight the top guy, and I need to thank the UFC for the opportunity, and I'm very happy to be here to fight him."

This is no doubt a mental tactic for St-Pierre, who admitted over the last few months that he lost some of his fire while going through previous title defenses. Maybe during his injuries and subsequent rehabilitation, he thought back to his early days and the hunger that fueled his rise to the top. Maybe he knows deep down that was the best GSP he's ever produced, and he longs to recapture that version of himself.

There's a connotation to the term that we use for champions when we say they are "defending" the belt, and it implies that no offense is necessary to hold on to it, that if you just stave off your foe, you have done enough. That doesn't exist for challengers, who must plant their bull's eye on their prize and then attack it.

So for St-Pierre, the approach is likely also a way to build Condit's threat in his mind. There's a certain sharpness that comes from fear. As St-Pierre likes to say, it's not about the butterflies in your stomach, but about making sure they fly in formation.

While there is plenty to fear in Condit's arsenal -- 26 of his 28 career wins are by finish -- GSP's claim that he's fighting as the underdog challenger falls apart with little scrutiny. Even some of the people who regularly train alongside St-Pierre don't buy into what he's trying to sell.

"Georges is the champion," said Francis Carmont, a Tristar Gym teammate who is also on the UFC 154 card, facing Tom Lawlor. "For all the fans, Georges is the champion. For me, Georges is the best fighter pound-for-pound."

To Condit, who will officially walk into the octagon as the challenger, the assertion that he's the champ instead of GSP borders on the ridiculous.

"This question's been asked quite a few times and we can go back and forth about it, but I see Georges St-Pierre as the champion," he said. "He's been one of the most dominant guys in the welterweight division and one of the best fighters to have ever gotten in the octagon. Until somebody beats him -- until I beat him -- he remains the champion."

That remains the near consensus viewpoint.

St-Pierre has been the champ since April 2008, when coincidentally, he came to the same arena as Saturday night's fight and devastated Matt Serra en route to a second-round TKO to reclaim the belt that he'd lost a year earlier.

So maybe St-Pierre is trying to recapture a feeling or a moment, or maybe he's sincere, reaching the conclusion based upon the doubts he felt while coming back from reconstructive knee surgery. But the world is hardly in agreement. The champion may be more vulnerable than he's been in the past, but the king is still the king until you yank him off the throne and take his crown.

In this city -- his city -- you won't find but a handful of people who see things as he does. Even for the man who wants what St-Pierre has, the view to the top is crystal clear.

"I’m honored to have the chance to compete against Georges," he said. "He's someone that I admired as a fighter for a long time. He’s where I want to be. He's the top guy in the sport, the top guy in the division. He has cemented a legacy as the best welterweight in the world. That’s what I want. All admiration aside, I’m coming to take that from him."

When the press conference was over, St-Pierre and Condit were handed their belts and hoisted them over their respective shoulders for photographers to snap away. When the flashbulbs died down a minute or so later, both men handed the belts back and walked away, leaving the leather and gold straps behind in words and actions.