For about a week after a cut on his right eyebrow forced him out of a scheduled bout with B.J. Penn, Rory MacDonald couldn't help but to feel depressed. One moment he was preparing for his highest-profile fight to date, against a former world champion in his home country, and the next, because of a simple training accident, it was all wiped away.
Because he values his ability to fight above all the other skills he possesses, MacDonald was a little bit lost afterward. If he couldn't fight, what was he? For about a week afterward, his mind wandered. It eventually came to a few conclusions about where was and where he was going.
"I like to fight and I want to make it a point next year to take fights on shorter notice," he said. "It just works better for me and my mind set. I feel like lately I’ve been trying to do what everyone else does, and I’m not everybody else. Some people need eight weeks to get ready for a fight and I really don’t think I do because of the way I look at my skills. I just need to be healthy. As long as I’m healthy I can fight at the drop of a pin. If you tell me, 'Rory, go fight that guy,' I’ll go do it. I don’t need that time. I just need to be healthy."
The words come with fire behind his eyes and the intense stare of someone focused on something even though it's far off in the distance. But full health is rapidly approaching. Sitting in the lobby of a hotel during a recent interview, MacDonald's cut is still visible but fading. He still has a couple of weeks to go before he is fully cleared to begin full-contact training for his UFC on FOX 5 fight with Penn.
He's itching to receive that permission, but the recent weeks haven't exactly been spent lazing around the house. He's stayed busy by hitting pads, shadow boxing, working on his grappling technique and improving his conditioning. Sparring isn't yet on his allowable list of activities, but he's done everything else conceivable to prepare him for jumping back into training camp at full-bore.
"There's so much to expand on in those times. If you have sit back and say you can’t do this and you can’t do that, you’re really taking a negative approach. I was doing that for a little while, but after that I jumped back on the horse. This is a time when I can show strength and stay focused and grow as a martial artist. I carried that with me until now and I think I’ve really improved a lot actually since the injury. So I think I’m going to improve even better in my next fight because of it."
Since losing in a heartbreaker to Carlos Condit in June 2010, MacDonald has looked outstanding in all three of his fights, manhandling Nate Diaz in a decision win and then finishing both Mike Pyle and Che Mills via TKO.
With that, it seemed clear that he was ready for another forward step, but what unfolded next was a bit unexpected: MacDonald challenged the semi-retired Penn. Just weeks earlier, Penn had rejected a challenge from Josh Koscheck, saying he wasn't returning to fight anytime soon. So it came as a surprise when Penn said that yes, he would be willing to face MacDonald, partly out his desire to avenge his UFC 94 defeat at the hands of Georges St-Pierre, a camp-mate of MacDonald's at Montreal's Tri-Star Gym.
If that seemed an odd rationalization for accepting the fight, it didn't bother MacDonald.
"I think he’s a strange individual in that sense, yeah, because I really don't think anyone at Tri-Star gives a second thought to him," he said. "But whatever he needs to get in there to fight me, I don’t care. I’m there to fight him because he’s a body, and I’m excited to fight him. He’s a good fighter, and I think it’ll be a good opportunity for me. He, on the other hand, I guess needs to prove a point to himself, and if that’s what he needs, that’s what he needs."
In MacDonald's estimation, Penn's fuel is fair play in the sense that it's self-generated. All too often, it's artificial, with fighters powered along through unnatural means like performance-enhancing drugs. That's one of the reasons MacDonald agreed to take part in increased testing by the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association, an independent organization which will enforce Olympic-style testing during the eight weeks leading up to the MacDonald-Penn bout.
MacDonald acknowledged that the prospect of having someone know your whereabouts every second of every day for eight weeks wasn't an attractive one, but felt that the long view of the situation demanded his participation.
For his part, MacDonald sees PEDs as a crutch, and not even a very effective one.
"I would fight anybody who’s on testosterone or whatever," he said. "It does not bother me at all."
It's not that the use of steroids doesn't bother him; it does. It's simply that he believes that the people using them are not mentally strong. And that's where the edge tips back in his favor.
"Everybody’s looking for an edge in athletics, and if people would just realize the biggest edge is up here," he says, pointing to his head, "they could show their best side. That’s all I need. Yeah protein helps, but at the end of the day if you’re a fighter and ready to fight at this very second, it’s all up here. And if you feel you need testosterone to make you better, you’re not going to be as good. I really don’t think in such a high skill level sport, that strength is going to be the biggest issue. if you rely on strength in the sport, you’re going to be weeded out. There’s going to be someone that’s more technical than you or stronger than you. So in this sport I really feel it’s better to have more skills than strength. If you can have both, great. But you don’t need to do that stuff. It’s unhealthy, it’s stupid."
MacDonald is so convinced his mind is his biggest weapon that he'll no longer concern himself with long fight camps or excessive preparation. Even though he has until December 8 to get ready for the most important fight of his career, it is a rawer, more primitive mind set that will guide him into the fight with Penn and beyond.
"As a fighter you have to remember that we’re just dogs in this sport. We’re not businessmen in my outlook," he said. "A lot of people view us now as businessmen. I disagree with that. Maybe in my outside life if I have other investments, that’s my business life, but this is fighting. I’ll always look at it like I’m a dog. I think if I stop looking at it like I do, I might not have the kind of success I do. I’m going to continue to be myself. Success and all that stuff will come. At the end of the day, I’m a fighter. If I stop acting or thinking like one, I might stop being a fighter and start being a businessman."