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Rory MacDonald gambling on himself in a moment of much uncertainty

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In a game of calculated risks, Rory MacDonald — a rare free agent in MMA as of Sunday morning— is betting on himself pretty heavily tonight in Ottawa. For the most part that’s because he’s going up again Stephen Thompson, who, after decimating Johny Hendricks during Super Bowl weekend, has the look of a champion in pending. Should "Wonderboy" waltz into Canada’s capital and do the same thing to MacDonald, the appointed heir to GSP’s throne will see his market lose a little altitude.

This all makes for a damn nice crossroads fight: There’s a title shot on the line, a country to defend, the pendulum of leverage rocking just behind the action, and an animated action figure who can hit you with kicks, punches and bible hymns, often in one delirious combo.

"Wonderboy" is, as somebody recently pointed out, like a Power Ranger with southern manners. He handled his main event spot against Hendricks with total aplomb, mesmerizing his public with a sniper’s precision. Of course, it’s always a thing of beauty when somebody can make something so complex look so effortless. But this is chaos we’re dealing in. That’s why there’s such a thing as the clinch game. That’s why there such a thing as "grinders," people controlling the tempest by the tail. And that’s what makes Thompson’s brand of pick-em-apart, flow-striking a potential gateway drug for casuals experimenting with MMA, the ones who want pure aesthetics and martial balletics in space. Thompson can give fans a kind of cinematic satisfaction in the Octagon. In fact, he looks choreographed.

And he can make his case for a welterweight title shot by merely doing it again. Easy enough, right?

Maybe. That’s part of the intrigue of UFC Fight Night 89’s main event.

Really, the bulk of the curiosity in the bout falls to MacDonald, who put on the fight of the year against Robbie Lawler last July. The question becomes: What did that fight do to him? He’s only 26 years old, but that encounter, which took place at UFC 189, was a collision of stubborn, unyielding, well-shopped sadists who quite literally seemed prepared to take the fight to Valhalla if need be. It took its toll on both men. That moment at the end of the fourth round, when both guys glared at each other with bloody, distorted features, will live on in the annals of fight game lore forever. MacDonald, who succumbed in the fifth when his face finally caved in, said it was the best time he’d ever had.

You see? Sadist.

But at some point, when MacDonald was breathing through his mouth waiting for his nasal bridge to fully reconstruct, he had to have contemplated if what he made that night was truly worth it. To go toe-to-toe with a marauder like Lawler, take his best punches for 20-plus minutes, and get his nose permanently rearranged, well — to voluntarily go through trauma on that scale for public amusement should come with an equally profound purse. Those thoughts had to have crossed MacDonald’s mind after the fanfare died away. Even if he himself loved the idea of being pushed to the brink of his human form giving over, his subconscious might have dredged up a native feeling of self-preservation. Some caution not to do that to himself again. That stuff happens.

It’s happened in the fight game many times.

And after a psychological toll like that…you’re never sure what the return product is going to look like. It’s possible MacDonald shows up at the TD Place Arena tonight exactly as he did last summer, ready to go out on his sword (as they say). But it’s also possible he comes out changed. Affected. Not the same. 

He’s obviously banking on the former.

And he’s letting us know that by fighting out his contract. MacDonald is a free agent as of Sunday, free to negotiate anywhere he pleases. He’s gambling on not only his ability, but also his reserves being there for him should he need them. He knows himself better than anyone, after all.

Whether he is the same fighter or not in the Octagon, we’ll have to see how things play out. But give him this heading into his main event spot in front of his fellow countrymen: He’s got balls putting himself into such a predicament and yet seeing it strictly as opportunity.