- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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Firas Zahabi, longtime head trainer to former UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre, still does not know whether the Canadian will ever fight again.
If St-Pierre does return, however, Zahabi will have no reservations regarding his two surgically repaired knees.
Nearly one year after suffering the second ACL tear of his career, St-Pierre (25-2) is training every day, according to Zahabi. Earlier this month, St-Pierre posted a video to social media that shows him somersaulting into a forward flip in a gymnastics facility. He sticks the landing, in case you're wondering.
The 33-year-old Canadian tore his left ACL in March, three months after he vacated the 170-pound title to take an indefinite leave of absence. In 2011, he tore his right ACL but made a successful return with three title defenses.
Zahabi said the second recovery from ACL surgery has gone extraordinarily well, far better than the first. He has enlisted the help of "mobility guru" Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist out of San Francisco.
"He's helping us get to the root of our problem," Zahabi said. "The problem was faulty mechanics, bad posture, tight muscles, bad range of motion. He teaches more mobility, not by stretching, but by mobility exercises, using the principles of alignment. I wish I had learned this when I first started doing sports."
Zahabi recently spoke to ESPN.com on both St-Pierre's and MacDonald's respective situations.
ESPN.com: What is the latest on St-Pierre's recovery from ACL surgery, and what are the next steps for him?
Zahabi: He's doing amazing. We're training on a regular basis. Not fight training -- training for fun. He should be starting sparring in February. We're not going to rush it. We're going to see how it goes. The first injury, we had the [Carlos] Condit fight come up; the Montreal card was around the corner; we rushed it. We were really on the fence about coming back so quickly. We ended up doing it and we won three fights, but in my opinion, it was too fast. His body wasn't ready yet. Those fights were good, but they were a little messy. This time around, I want him to be 100 percent healthy, performing well -- and then he can decide if he wants to come back.
I think if we had a fight date it would be too stressful on him. He's been burning the candle on both ends for a long time. The man has the world record for most minutes in the Octagon. I think he needs a breather. And I hope he comes back. Listen, I'm the one guy who hopes he comes back more than anyone else. I love GSP as a fan. I know he loves fighting. But let's see how his body holds up. He's 33 years old now.
ESPN.com: Why do you want to see him return so much, as opposed to guaranteeing retirement on top, coming off a win?
Zahabi: The best times in my life were running GSP's camps. It was a great adventure. I really believe he can come back and win. He and Rory -- I believe in my fighters. I think they are the best in the world, and I want to prove it. I'm not thinking they're going to have a setback. I believe they will move forward. I would love to see Georges get his hand raised again. It's an amazing feeling.
ESPN.com: Is he anxious to start sparring again?
Zahabi: He's been doing this since he was six. I don't think he's anxious. Sparring is like riding a bike -- you haven't done it in a year -- so what? You get back on the bike and you ride. It's no big deal. Fighting is another thing. We're talking about millimeters there -- but just sparring? That will be no big deal for him. It will be his millionth round when he comes back to spar.
ESPN.com: Is he watching UFC fights during this time off or is he taking a clean break?
Zahabi: He tunes in. We talk about the fights, sure. He's a UFC fighter. We all watch the fights, regardless of whether our guys are on it or not.
ESPN.com: When he sees a title fight between Lawler and Hendricks, does a part of him still say, 'That's my belt?'
Zahabi: Georges never really cared about the belt. Don't get me wrong; he cared when he won it but for him, it was about beating the guy. That's what it was about. He never spoke to me about the belt, he always spoke to me about the guy he was fighting. 'I've got to beat this guy. If he does this, I'll do that.' I think that's what made him so successful. He always looked at the task ahead and let the rest take care of itself. I've learned that a lot from Georges. Focus on what you can control and I think that's what Rory is doing right now. So he lost a title fight. He didn't cry or whine. All we're talking about right now is Lombard and that gives me confidence.
ESPN.com: Are you more or less confident in St-Pierre's return to the Octagon than you were six months ago?
Zahabi: I feel the same. I hate to give you a boring answer, but I believe he has a lot of competitive juices in him. Once he gets back to sparring and in the flow of things, the bug is going to bite him again. Is he going to do it? Yes or no. But I'm sure of one thing: the bug is going to bit him. He's a competitive human being and you can't just turn that off. He's in phenomenal shape. His physical conditioning is ridiculously good right now.
ESPN.com: What was your take on the UFC pulling back the offer of MacDonald's title shot?
Zahabi: I think the UFC is doing what's best for the fans and I'm OK with that -- but I believe what's best for the fans is to see Rory fight. They want to see Rory fight the champion. It hurts when it happens. I was upset. Not that I was going to cry or anything, but I was like, 'Wow, We've got to go into another fight before the title.' That's life. I think Rory has to petition the fans for a title shot. At the end of the day, the UFC was going to do what fans want. Fans pay for the fights, they but the ticket. Fighters want to get paid, thy have to give fans what they want. Fans drive this sport, that's the bottom line. We have to get the fans on our side.
ESPN.com: Does that affect your approach to MacDonald's fight against Lombard? The title shot will go to either MacDonald or possibly Hendricks, who fights Matt Brown in March.
Zahabi: That goes without saying. They are going to take the guy who is more impressive. I've been living in the sport for a long time. It's not a shocker to me. If someone goes in there and does something incredible in one of these two fights and the fans are moved, that's the guy who is going to get the title shot. It's not an easy life to balance that in a fight. In the end, you have to grow thick skin. On fight night, people ask me what's going to happen, I don't know. Nobody knows.
526dAndrew R. Davis
562dAndrew R. Davis