Ever since the then 21-year-old Rory MacDonald threw around Nate Diaz before 55,000 fans at the Rogers Centre in Toronto en route to a unanimous decision win, people have labeled him as the next Georges St-Pierre, or as the heir apparent to St-Pierre’s crowns.
St-Pierre is not just the UFC welterweight champion, but the face of the sport in Canada. He earns millions in endorsements to go along with being the sport’s biggest drawing card.
MacDonald (14-1) was 20 when he moved from Kelowna, British Columbia, across the country to Montreal in search of the training that he felt would allow him to reach his potential as a fighter. That meant training at Tri-Star Gym, the home of St-Pierre.
After four dominant wins in a row since the move, MacDonald, who turned 24 on Monday, finds himself as the No. 3 contender for St-Pierre’s title, behind only Johny Hendricks and Carlos Condit. He faces Jake Ellenberger (29-6), the No. 4 contender, in what is the most anticipated fight on Saturday night’s UFC on FOX network special from the Key Arena in Seattle.
While the main event is a flyweight title fight with Demetrious Johnson defending against John Moraga, MacDonald is coming off a superstar-making performance. He defeated B.J. Penn back on Dec. 8 on FOX in the same city in a fight that had the kind of crowd reaction usually reserved for the biggest of main events.
MacDonald was the villain, booed like he was the reincarnation of Josh Koscheck, since the story of the match was Penn trying to prove he still had it against a confident up-and-comer. MacDonald dominated every aspect of the fight, and throwing in a shuffle when doing boxing combinations made the booing even more intense with the idea this young guy was making fun of a legend. Between the strong job of buildup UFC did in showing who MacDonald was, and millions more viewing the fight, MacDonald came out of it as someone that almost every UFC fan would know.
Ellenberger, a Division II college wrestling All-American with knockout power, has won eight of his last nine. He most recently knocked out former Strikeforce champion Nate Marquardt in just 3:00 at UFC 158, on March 16 in Montreal.
MacDonald lost out on being able to avenge his lone career loss, when two successive neck sprains caused him to pull out of his UFC 158 fight with Condit. Whatever disappointment he had about missing that fight on his home turf, is long gone.
"At the time, I was very disappointed," said MacDonald. "I’m over it and I’m focused on winning this fight and I’m happy to be healthy."
There has always been the question, dating back to the Diaz win, of what happens if MacDonald is the legitimate top contender and St-Pierre is still the champion. Two years ago, it was theoretical. Both would have to continue winning for probably a few years. But it’s coming closer to reality.
"I just want to keep fighting the best and beating them, and moving up in the ranks, and hopefully be the champion later on this year," MacDonald said.
"I’m really excited about this fight," said UFC President Dana White when asked if the MacDonald vs. Ellenberger winner will get the next title shot on a recent conference call. "Both guys are explosive, dynamic finishers and two of the top guys in the division, so I don’t know. Obviously, a guy who wins this fight is right up there and close to a title shot."
The way the timing works out, with St-Pierre battling Hendricks for the title on Nov. 16 in Las Vegas, even if MacDonald gets past Ellenberger, he is likely to have to take one more fight. Logical progression, which means, in a perfect world where nobody gets injured, the winner of Saturday’s fight should face the winner of the Aug. 28 Condit vs. Martin Kampmann fight in Indianapolis.
"There’s a lot more that goes into fighting another guy whose one of the best in the world than just getting to GSP," said White last week. "And I don’t think Rory ever said he wouldn’t fight GSP. Rory said he doesn’t want to talk about fighting GSP. I don’t think he’s ever said he won’t fight GSP. When that day comes, when he gets to that place where it’s time for GSP vs. Rory MacDonald, I’m sure that’s when Rory MacDonald will want to talk about fighting GSP."
Not so fast.
If that happens, that’s where team loyalty, friendship and career goals turn into massive contradictions for MacDonald. He and St-Pierre have trained together, and clips of them sparring just aired over the weekend on FOX’s Countdown to the Octagon. St-Pierre has gone on record as saying that MacDonald will, in time, surpass him and have even more career success.
White has talked in the past that when the day comes, and MacDonald realizes the kind of money St-Pierre makes as champion, that he’ll want that shot. For now, MacDonald isn’t convinced.
"No, I won’t be fighting Georges," he said, leaving no room for interpretation. "When the fight comes, if we ever had to meet up, we wouldn’t fight. I’m not fighting him."
MacDonald said that he feels he could move up to 185 pounds if St-Pierre remains in the way of his path to welterweight gold. In doing so, he’d be sacrificing the strong power edge he has over most fighters at 170, a weight he has no trouble making. But there is still a lot on the horizon, including both men’s next fight, to where it’s not a decision he has to think about.
"We’ll see," he said. "I don’t want to think about it until the time. I’ll keep fighting. He’ll keep fighting. It’ll work its way out. I could go up (to middleweight) for sure."
MacDonald attributes his neck problems to the way he trained, and his excitement to avenge his loss to Condit. People talk about things being a life-changing loss, but in his case, that was it.
MacDonald, then 20, had one UFC fight when he was thrown to the wolves against Condit, a heavy favorite and one of the best welterweights in the world for years. Surprisingly, he dominated Condit for two rounds, before getting tired and finished in the third.
So he left Kelowna, his family, his training partners, his girlfriend and all of his friends. "After I lost to Carlos, I moved two months later."
"There were lots of changes," he said. "French speaking is the big one. It’s a bigger city, not knowing where I was going was a big one, not having things here, like a car, resources, it was all new coming here by myself. But it was a good experience for me."
"I was pretty excited to rematch him," he said about the scheduled March fight. "I still am. I think I was a little too excited, too anxious. I’m taking a different mindset now. What’s in the past is in the past. If we ever do fight again, it’ll be completely different from the first fight. I won’t bring any ill will from the first fight. I’ll be a new fight, a new completely different fight."
The injuries, one of which happened training wrestling, the other in jiu-jitsu, were his warning sign that he was getting too excited in camp.
"It’s different," he said about the mental aspect of his training now. "It’s not my training regimen that’s different. It’s more my attitude, a little bit of the intensity, the movements, how I’m moving my body. It’s not my training that’s different."
MacDonald talks in a very deliberate cerebral style when discussing Ellenberger, noting his training has been more to focus on getting himself in the best possible condition, and not tailoring his training to his opponent’s style.
"He’s a good fighter, a powerful striker, good KO artist," said MacDonald. "He’s got a lot of things going for him and some things that are weaknesses, and I believe my strengths will exploit those weaknesses."
Ellenberger has been working hard building up the fight, in particular saying that he doesn’t think MacDonald should be ranked No. 3 by the UFC.
"I haven’t said anything that wasn’t true," Ellenberger said last week at a UFC press call. "And my message to Rory is pretty clear, for him to start testing some flavors of baby food and find out which ones you like and stock up, because this isn’t the Tears for Fears look alike contest. All I said to him was prepare for some horizontal television time, and I meant it."
MacDonald admits he wasn’t expecting the new Ellenberger when it came to his building up the fight, but isn't concerned with it one way or the other.
"It’s very unusual the way he speaks about a lot of things," said MacDonald. "I really don’t understand some of his one-liners. Some of them feel like he’s rehearsed things he wrote down, but I really don’t know. I don’t really care. I just want to fight someone and I want to fight the best in the world. That’s all it is. That’s my job. It’s nothing personal."