At 21, MacDonald has yet to hit his stride
The life of a professional fighter is filled with uncertainty. Their successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see. When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begin, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated – the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins. What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place. This is what the climb looks like – told in the fighter's words. This is “The Fighting Life.”
Throughout American sports history, there has been a fascination with the role of a youthful savior. From Cassius Clay to Kobe Bryant, every sport has its particular individuals who have entered a world of men and held their own. These athletes appear to be destined for greatness and as the transition begins, the momentum builds. Ticket sales and critical eyes increase as the spotlight becomes a fixture and a pedestal is created for greatness or epic failure to be seen by millions.
Even in the cases where success is achieved, most often times those trajectories are not without pitfalls. For every Wayne Gretzky there are a handful of busts like Todd Marinovich, athletes who stumbled over their own potential en route to becoming a cautionary tale. The highest expectations carry a tremendous amount of pressure and only a select few have managed to make such a climb while remaining level-headed and balanced.
Fortunately for UFC welterweight wunderkind Rory MacDonald, a balanced approach is his specialty.
Since his emergence onto the sport’s most prominent stage at just 19, MacDonald has been a force. A product of Montreal’s Tristar Gym, MacDonald immediately demanded attention on the strength of impressive performances. Dominant victories over seasoned veterans and a Fight of the Night-worthy showing against a future champion have positioned him as a frontrunner in the next wave of talent mixed martial arts is currently experiencing.
With the days of one-dimensional fighters in the past, MacDonald represents the next generation of athlete who came into the sport taking on the full spectrum of disciplines. This approach has resulted in MacDonald developing a well-rounded skill set at a young age, and these attributes add up to create a championship prospect. UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones may be heralded as “the future of MMA,” but it is a conversation the young Canadian’s name cannot be left out of.
“I feel I’m exactly where I need to be at this stage in my career,” MacDonald told HeavyMMA. “I think my technique and style are ahead of their time. I believe my maturity in this sport has come with confidence built over the years by developing good technique. I’m continuing to progress every day and I’m very happy with where I’m sitting in my career.
“I started training at 14, then had my first fight at 16. My first day of being in the gym, I had an immediate addiction to it. There was just something about training that made it a blast for me. After the first day, I knew fighting was going to be my career. I didn’t know I’d be fighting so early, but I knew it was what I wanted to do and that fighting was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.
“I think the biggest thing is the evolution of the technique and style. I don’t believe there are going to be specialists or one-dimensional fighters much longer. It’s pretty exciting being a young guy in the sport and being one of the first guys who trained MMA as a whole and didn’t have a dominant style in their background. The evolution of MMA will demand every fighter to have a balanced style to where their jiu-jitsu, wrestling and striking are all dangerous. I feel I’m right there.”
With his fighting career under way, MacDonald’s focus fell on developing his skill set. At such a young age, he knew his dedication and desire were enough to begin the pursuit. But if he was going to reach his goals, MacDonald understood it was going to require putting himself in the right environment. In the world of MMA, Montreal’s Tristar gym – home of welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre – is regarded as one of the sport’s best. And after impressing the team’s head coach, Firas Zahabi, MacDonald had found the perfect situation.
“I was impressed with how much desire he had to become a great fighter,” Zahabi said. “He was very young and while he had already been fighting, he wasn’t in the UFC yet. Georges and I took our turns beating him up and smacking him around and he showed a lot of heart. He kept coming back to practice, and we really liked him. He was very diligent. He didn’t just say he wanted to be a fighter – he proved it with his actions.
“A lot of guys talk and say they want to train, but after a couple workouts their minds are changed. Rory was serious about the things he said and it showed in his dedication. He kept tagging along, pushing through, and I was really amazed how tenacious he was with his training. I knew he would go far in his career because of it.”
Training with Zahabi and St-Pierre began to lift MacDonald’s confidence to new levels, and when the UFC called, the time had arrived to put his skills on display. He made his organizational debut in January 2010 against veteran Mike Guymon, and it proved to be an impressive albeit short night of work for the 19-year-old as MacDonald ended the fight with an armbar in the opening frame.
“I was super nervous for that one,” MacDonald said. “Of course, the UFC is exactly where I’ve always wanted to be and I got there pretty early in my career. I was super nervous to make a good impression, but in the end it was really just another fight. They started me out on the undercard and it was definitely a less intense experience than what it would have been had I been put on the main card where the seats are all filled and fans are going nuts. The undercard is a bit mellower, and that was a great place to start.”
Facing Guymon proved to be a solid first test under the hot lights of the UFC, but when his next fight against Carlos Condit was announced, indicators pointed to MacDonald’s career sitting in the fast lane. Despite being dominant as the WEC welterweight champion, Condit’s transition into the UFC had not been the smoothest. After coming up short against Martin Kampmann in his debut, he edged out a split-decision victory over Jake Ellenberger in his next outing.
When the bout between MacDonald and Condit got underway, “The Natural Born Killer” appeared to be anything but as MacDonald jumped out to an early lead in the fight. Condit found himself on the business end of MacDonald’s offense, as he used effective striking and strong wrestling to claim the first two rounds on the judges' cards. Heading into the final frame, the fight appeared to be MacDonald’s for the taking, but Condit showed amazing heart and pulled out a stoppage victory with only seconds remaining in the fight. MacDonald was handed the first loss of his career that night, but walked away knowing his biggest flaw could be repaired. Those adjustments were displayed beautifully in his next bout as he manhandled Nate Diaz en route to a unanimous decision victory.
“The biggest things I took from the fight with Condit were experience and how to handle my emotions coming into a fight,” MacDonald said. “I got really excited about it going in because it was the biggest fight of my career. I had never experienced anything like that before. I also learned how to carry my emotions throughout a fight. Going into the third round, I was not level-headed and started getting too crazy. I ended up getting caught because I was overdoing it a bit too much.
“In the Diaz fight, the main focus was to stay relaxed and use my mind. I wanted to use my brain just as much as I used my body for technique. One of the biggest advantages I feel I have over my opponents is my technique – being smart about the way I fight. Against Diaz, I stuck to the game plan and was able to consistently place myself in strong positions to win the fight.”
Following the loss to Condit, Zahabi knew he had the perfect opportunity to hone MacDonald’s ability to keep his emotions in check. For two rounds, his fighter had worked an effective game plan but overaggression in the third ended up costing MacDonald the fight. With the experience fresh in their minds, they set about preparing for Diaz, and Zahabi was extremely pleased with results.
“If you look at his fight with Diaz, it is the first fight I can look at and say I was able to really hold the reigns and get Rory to fight in a calculated fashion and follow the game plan,” Zahabi said. “You can win fights being reckless, but eventually people will figure you out and counter that. They will use your aggression against you. Being aggressive is good, but being overly aggressive is just as bad as being not aggressive enough. He needed to find that balance.
“Rory is naturally a very strong kid. I think in the practice room back home, he was always the stronger and bigger kid. When he came to Montreal, that wasn’t always the case because we have a lot of seasoned fighters and guys who were bigger and more athletic than he was. He was still so young at the time and hadn’t developed yet. He would get tossed around here and there. I would tell him he can’t just force his way into winning. He needed to trick his opponents. He needed to outsmart and finesse them. I told him he wasn’t always going to be the strongest guy, and he understood he needed to be more technical and calculated. That really showed in the fight with Diaz.”
MacDonald kept the momentum rolling as he claimed a first-round victory over Mike Pyle at UFC 133. It was another strong showing against a talented veteran, and MacDonald’s status in the division began to change right as the weight class reignited.
In the months that followed his win in Philadelphia, not only would a crop of new contenders emerge, but his training partner, the long-time welterweight champion would be sidelined with a knee injury. Suddenly a division that most considered to be cleaned out by St-Pierre was firing on all cylinders with new blood coursing through its veins. While MacDonald may not be able to see every twist and turn that will come down the road, he is excited for the journey and will face the challenges and opportunities with confidence and poise.
“It’s an exciting time to be a welterweight in the UFC,” MacDonald said. “There are a handful of guys who are on the verge of making a big name for themselves. There have been some big performances and I think over the next few years people are going to see some amazing fights in the division. I really, truly believe I’m going to be the fighter who comes out on top of the division when it is all said and done.
“I haven’t seen myself on anyone’s Top 10 rankings, but I’m not really worried about it, either. In my mind, rankings don’t really matter because your place in the division is performance-based. If you perform well, the UFC is happy and I think I’m doing a good job at that so far. Sometime over the next few years, I’m going to be moving up into the next weight class. After I win the welterweight title and feel comfortable with my technique to the point where I feel I can compete with bigger guys, I’ll make the move. I want to prove that even though I’m the smaller fighter, I can find success because my technique is at a high level.
“At this point in my career I’m ready for whatever comes my way. I genuinely feel I’m ready to fight anyone in the world. People are going to see the next evolution of it in Atlanta. I feel as if I’ve developed my technique even further, added new tools and I’m a better version of myself. I’m really confident in my skills, and it is only a matter of time before people start believing in them too.”
Although his career is still in the early stages, Rory MacDonald has withstood the pressures and expectations that accompany the sudden rise of success. His name continues to hover just beyond talk of title contention, but if he can continue his progression when he faces Che Mills at UFC 145 in Atlanta, it will be difficult not to place MacDonald in the division’s upper tier. While his focus continues to be the immediate next step, Zahabi sees a young fighter living up to every bit of potential he posses – the result of which Zahabi believes will go down in the MMA record books.
“I think in a matter of time, Rory will be a world champion,” Zahabi said. “I think after Georges is retired, Rory will have his chance to become a world champion. He is very young. He has plenty of time and he is nowhere near his prime. Mark my words – he is nowhere near his prime. The road to the title is not always a smooth one, but this kid is going to get there. I truly believe that. I think he is nowhere near as good as he will be in three to five years from now.
“A few years from now I believe he is going to hit a winning streak that will not only be impressive but historic. There won’t be anyone who will be able to match him in that time period. He is still young and a few years away from reaching his prime. Three to five years from now I think Rory is not only going to go on a winning streak but will have such dominant victories that it will be both impressive and historic.”