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Carlos Condit returning to UFC 219 to see what the game still has left for him

bloody Carlos Condit
Carlos Condit returns Saturday against Neil Magny at UFC 219.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS — For a time, Carlos Condit thought he was done with the fight game. Or maybe the fight game was done with him. Maybe both were true; it didn’t much matter. The only thing that mattered was that he needed to get out. To get space. To breathe without returning to the same cycle that dominated his entire adult life, two decades of running the same race that always brought him back to the same place, no matter the highs and lows he crossed along the way.

So he disengaged entirely.

After his Aug. 2016 loss to Demian Maia, the quickest loss of a celebrated and extraordinarily violent 16-year run, Condit left MMA in a haze. He didn’t know what the future held for him, only that he craved change. And so it went. As time crawled on, “The Natural Born Killer” disappeared, a name affixed to a ranking that felt less tangible and more whimsical with each passing day. He even stopped watching the sport that consumed his thoughts, if only because he lacked the ability to keep those old urges from flooding back, and once those old urges flooded back, he knew it would only be a matter of time before his cycle began anew.

“I checked out for a little while,” admits Condit. “Initially, it was hard for me to really watch anything without wanting to get back in, and at that point, I hadn’t decided whether I wanted to fight again. I was really on the fence, and watching the fights, it was like, ‘Oh man, I definitely have to do this, I definitely have to start training.’”

So Condit invested his energy elsewhere. He dabbled in medical sales. He started his own nitro coffee company. He worked diligently on himself, the goals and dreams he’d never really taken time to uncover, and spent precious time with his family. And gradually, the gym at Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque melted back into his life through more natural means, rather than any lingering sense of obligation he felt compelled to fulfill. He recommitted himself to the art of jiu-jitsu simply because he wanted to, and before he knew it, by the spring, he was ready to return to the world he knew best; again not because he had to, but because it felt right.

Sure, it took time to get a fight booked. Longer than he expected. Eventually, he sent out a tweet, “because apparently that’s how you get things done,” he says chuckling. But soon enough it was official: Carlos Condit was back. And now Carlos Condit is back.

On Saturday at UFC 219, against welterweight contender Neil Magny, one of the most ruthless, dark-hearted fighters to ever compete in mixed martial arts will be returning to see what the game still has left for him.

And this time, among those who know him best, there are no doubts about the temperature of his flame.

“I think Carlos was able to get a lot of things sorted out in his life personally and professionally,” says Condit’s coach, Brandon Gibson. “I think there’s less turbulence in his life. He’s very focused right now, he’s passionate about what he wants to do, and he’s been able to dabble in other things outside of MMA that I think have brought that much more passion to his work in MMA.

“I think being away from it makes you value it that much more and appreciate it that much more. He told me one time that since he’s been a young boy, he’s been groomed to be a warrior, and he realizes that that’s what he’s best at. That’s what he’s best suited at. Not that he’s not going to not succeed at everything else he does in his life, because that’s just who he is, but I think it made him that much more passionate about what he does.

“I mean, this camp, he’s been coming in, doing all of the extra work. He’s there early. He’s pushing the coaches. He’s pushing the training partners. He’s pushing himself. And then he’s leaving everything on a real positive note, each workout. That’s not something I always saw out of him. I really like where his head’s at and I think his passion and his desire are in the right place for this fight.”

Much has changed since Condit last competed. The roster has grown, evolved, begun the melancholy molting process that signals the end of an old generation. But a few constants still exist, and one figure in particular still manages to reign supreme. Georges St-Pierre, the man with whom Condit traded 362 blows on a distant night more than five years ago, returned from the kind of self-imposed absence Condit understands well to reclaim his throne at UFC 217.

St-Pierre’s victory was the sort of harrowing trial by fire Condit will look to overcome on Saturday, a sink or swim crossroads for an all-time great, and at 33 years old, “The Natural Born Killer” can’t help but see the parallels with how things have played out.

“I’ve always been motivated by Georges,” Condit says. “Actually, a lot of people were counting him out in that fight. I’m like, hold on, remember who we’re talking about. We’re talking about GSP, one of the best athletes in the sport ever, one of the greats.

“I think [St-Pierre’s successful return] speaks to his athleticism, his dedication, the people that he surrounds himself with. And I’d like to think that I have a similar approach — maybe, that you stay in shape, you don’t fall off, you continue to train, you continue to improve even if you’re not actively fighting.

“That’s just the nature of things,” Condit adds, grinning. “Everything is cyclical, right?”

Condit refuses to say what UFC 219 means in the grand scheme of things. It’s likely he himself doesn’t quite know, whether this is the start to something new or a definitive closing passage to a story that’s already been written.

For what it’s worth, Gibson believes Condit still has one good run left in him. The reigning UFC welterweight champion, Tyron Woodley, is a man with whom Condit is intimately familiar, and even Condit admits the prospect of a rematch is something that still makes his blood run hot, something that still brings those old feelings flooding back through his veins.

“I think, 100 percent, he could make a run at it. He could be welterweight champion again if he wants,” Gibson says. “He’s gone in there toe-to-toe with some of the bests, he’s still very young in this game.

“I’m not going to make that decision for him. I want him to happy and he knows what his legacy is, but I think he still has a vision of what he wants to do in the UFC.”

Either way, that is a conversation for a different time. Perhaps after Saturday. Perhaps somewhere down the line in 2018.

For now, Condit is simply one with the moment. No longer the upstart killer, he is the old lion, to steal a phrase from an even older lion, back to run his race as only he knows how. And in a welterweight savanna stacked to the heavens with young predators, names like Till and Usman and Perry and Ponzinibbio who were raised on the savagery of NBK, it’d be unwise to overlook the appetite of the former blood king.

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