Michael McDonald just turned 22 years old. He has never been out of the continental U.S. He has only once been on a UFC main card.
One would think he'd be oozing with excitement when he heads to London, England, and on Saturday headlines his first UFC card opposite interim champion Renan Barao for a chance to become the youngest champion in Zuffa history. And one would think he may also have had frustrations because if he didn't have hand problems for the past two years, the opportunity would have happened sooner.
You'd be right about the frustration, as it was McDonald who was first tabbed to be Urijah Faber's opponent in the creation of the interim bantamweight title on July 21 in Calgary. The title was created when champion Dominick Cruz was put out of action with a torn ACL, requiring reconstructive knee surgery.
But he is almost eerily not excited, at least outwardly. As far as the potential of going into the record books, his reaction is almost a 180 from that most would expect.
"I don't really care about the title," said McDonald. "When people get obsessed with the outside appearance, the title, how much I'm getting paid, being in the main event, they let things rent space in their heads that don't need to be there. Emotion scraps judgment. I don't want to look at the title. I don't care about the title. I don't worry about what's going to happen. It's not one of my personal goals. I wouldn't be upset if I never won a title.
"My motivation in this sport is the same as anyone out their doing their job. This is my job. A job to me is something I use to provide a living for my family. Fighting in particular is a platform where I can spread the word of God, tell my story, and tell people how my life has changed through Jesus Christ. When it comes to that title, a lot of people take that title and let it be who they are. I have a very clear boundary between what I do, and who I am, with Jesus Christ. That has nothing to do with my job. If I was working at McDonald's, I'd be the same person."
He's not looking at coming back from England with a new belt to put in a trophy case at home, but don't think he doesn't see the value in a win.
"From a business standpoint, winning the title, that's cool, because it means more income, more success, a bigger platform for me to talk about God," he said. "For my personal identity, it means nothing. There's no connection, whatsoever."
He said there is no difference today from a week or so out from any fight in his career.
"There's no difference between this and one of my amateur fights," he said. "Every fight feels the same. It's a mistake if you think something is different. You won't be comfortable, you won't have confidence and everything starts to crumble. It's you and another person in the cage. The title doesn't matter. The opponent doesn't matter. No matter the location and the time, it's you and another person in the cage."
As far as fighting at Wembley Arena, which is nearly sold out for the fight that will air live on Fuel in the U.S., he did some research and found out he was one-quarter English. He does look forward to the trip. But London wouldn't be his first place to pick to have his highest profile fight.
"I'm going to England for a week, that's pretty cool," he said. "But it's a double-edged sword. I'm going and I'm going there to enjoy it because there's nothing I can do about it. I'd rather fight closest to home, or in the U.S. where I don't get double taxed. There's jet lag, being away from my family, so all those things add complications. But it doesn't really matter. My opponent has to deal with all the same things. From a personal standpoint, I think it'll be cool to see the world, see a new place."
McDonald (15-1, with 13 finishes) will be 22 years, one month and one day old when he steps into the cage with Barao (29-1, 1 no contest, with 19 finishes), in a battle of two fighters who possess among the best win-loss records among the elite stars of the sport. The youngest champion in UFC history was Jon Jones, who was 23 years, eight months, when he defeated Mauricio "Shogun" Rua on March 19, 2011. The youngest champion in Zuffa history was Jose Aldo Jr., who was 23 years, 2 months when he defeated Mike Brown for the WEC featherweight title on November 18, 2009.
Even though he tries to take emotion out of the equation, he did admit the hand injury that has plagued his career the past few years, has rented space in his head. But he's not all that upset that it delayed his first title fight by eight months.
"A lot of people, they get overanxious, overambitious, they can take on too much to early," he said. "I wanted to take a on a conservative approach. I wasn't opposed to having less fights (due to injuries). I'm going to be a better fighter at 24 than at 18. I didn't want to get a title shot and not perform well. I didn't want to get a title shot and be just as good as my opponent. I wanted to make sure I can finish him, I can be impressive when I get there. I'm happy with my slower rate of progress and not being overzealous."
Still, he's even happier, that after finally getting surgery on his often-damaged right hand, that he's felt good for the first time through a training camp since coming to the UFC. The combination of a relatively small bone structure, previous damage and great knockout power led to both great early success and then a lot of pain for the native of Modesto, Calif.
While on the mend now, the original problems he experienced are his fault, McDonald says.
"I hurt my hand by being a stupid teenager," he said. "I was told early on, `You hit really hard.' At first, my hands didn't hurt. It was me being a moron, using really crappy gloves. My wrist finally gave out a couple of years ago right before my first fight in the UFC. So every fight I've had in the UFC, I've had a busted up hand. Every time I made a fist, it would expose my bone. After every fight, it was very swollen, very tender. After surgery (that he had after the hand gave out when he started to train after being offered the Faber fight), it's perfect.
"For the last four fights that I've had in UFC, after every fight, I couldn't train or hit anything for about a month. Every fight, my fist would swell up like a balloon. My fist was in horrible condition. I'd let the swelling go back down, then I'd go back to training."
When Cruz was injured, and it was determined he'd be out of action for close to a year, the call was made to McDonald for a match with Faber to create the new title. Pegged for future stardom from his original signing, UFC officials knew McDonald had busted his hand up early in his first two fights in the organization against both Edwin Figueroa and Chris Cariaso.
Yet, after knocking out Alex Soto in just 36 seconds on November 19, 2011, he established himself as a star on the rise. Then he knocked out former champion Miguel Angel Torres on April 21, 2012, in 3:18 into the first round on his first-ever pay-per-view fight at UFC 145. More than anything else, that win put him high on the contenders list. He or Barao were the two most likely next opponents for the Cruz vs. Faber winner. Three weeks after the Torres win, Cruz went down. McDonald, not Barao, got the first call.
"I started training for the fight, and after one day of training, I thought my hand was okay," he recalled. "But I didn't give my hand enough time to heal."
The hand went out, and frustration set in. Barao stepped in, and defeated Faber to become champion.
"I decided I couldn't do this anymore," he said. "I can't be fighting top-level competition with my hand like this. This was the last straw. I've got to get this taken care of. It had been a plague on my training. In camp, I wasn't able to grab, I had to revolve my training around avoiding what I couldn't do. I couldn't do pushups on my knuckles. My wrist was also messed up, but not as bad. I couldn't hit a heavy bag. There were a lot of things I couldn't do. This is the first time in two years I've actually been healthy and that my training wasn't revolving around babying my hand. For this fight, I've trained every day the way I want to train."