If 2014 goes down as the year Rory MacDonald cemented his claim to the UFC welterweight throne, then Saturday's performance against Tarec Saffiedine will be remembered as the moment everything came together for the young Canadian, as MacDonald outclassed Saffiedine at his own game for two rounds before shaking his decision-prone stigma and ending the former Strikeforce champion's night with a textbook third-round salvo of heavy punches.
Afterward, MacDonald made his intentions clear: he wants a shot at the UFC's welterweight title.
He's said the same in the past, although prior to UFC Fight Night 54, it'd been nearly three years since MacDonald had last left the Octagon without the assistance of the judges' scorecards -- and justly or not, facts like that matter in MMA's ‘what have you done for me lately' world, where promises of gold can be rescinded with each passing event.
"When he beat (Tyron) Woodley, they said he'd get the title shot after that. But it wasn't enough," MacDonald's head Tristar trainer, Firas Zahabi, said on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour. "They gave it to Matt Brown and (Robbie) Lawler as a (title) elimination bout. It's because they have more exciting performances and that's what the market is. People want to pay for what they want to see, and I understand that. It's fair. I think now people want to see Rory.
"He finished with an incredible left hook that I think would've knocked out an elephant if it'd hit an elephant. I think people believe now that it would be an exciting match against whoever's champion in the spring."
Zahabi said that neither he nor MacDonald have been approached by the UFC in regards to a potential next move, but considering the landscape of the division, he would be extremely surprised if MacDonald did not end up fighting for the championship opposite the winner of Johny Hendricks' December rematch against Robbie Lawler.
"How many more fights are on the table?" Zahabi asked. "If you look at the top-10, who else would be eligible? Everybody's pretty much booked or [MacDonald] has beat. I don't see who's really out there who makes sense. I think the only thing that makes sense now is the winner of Hendricks and Lawler. I can't think of anybody else."
Conversations like these are a far cry from the situation MacDonald found himself in less than a year ago, when his five-fight win streak was abruptly snapped by Lawler at UFC 167. Lawler ended up challenging for the UFC welterweight title -- the same title that once belonged to MacDonald's mentor, Georges St-Pierre -- while MacDonald was forced to embark on a soul-searching mission to figure out what went wrong and why his stock had fallen out of favor in the eyes of many fans.
"We learned to play the game right," Zahabi said.
"Everybody was telling him: ‘you're not finishing, you're not finishing.' I think in round three (against Lawler) he wanted to go for a finish instead of staying with the gameplan. I really believe that if you follow the steps, you'll finish. If you think about finishing, you don't finish. That's my opinion.
"That's what he did on Saturday. He didn't think about finishing. He just focused on the gameplan and going out there, reading and reacting; not planning out what you're going to do and executing it, but reading and reacting, and sticking to what we've done in training, and it was beautiful. The knockout came, it came out naturally, it came all of a sudden, and that's how KOs should come about."
Since the loss to Lawler, MacDonald has rebounded to win three straight fights in 2014, defeating Demian Maia, Tyron Woodley, and Saffiedine, collecting two ‘fight night' bonuses in the process, and somehow looking more impressive every time out.
Grabbing his first finish in several years was just the cherry on top of MacDonald's already impressive sundae, and Zahabi believes it did more than enough to prove what he knew all along.
"It's the way it is. I think over time things will change," Zahabi said. "You look at (Floyd) Mayweather, he doesn't knock people out either. But man, is he loved, and man, does he sell pay-per-views. And I think that over time people are going to understand that, hey, even the best of the best don't always get the KO. It's not easy at that level. Believe me, we're always looking for a finish. If you think anybody is just trying to go to decision, you're crazy. Everybody wants a finish."