Rory MacDonald has long been one of the best welterweights in the world, but after spending seven years under the UFC umbrella, his career ventured down a new path on Friday when MacDonald inked an exclusive six-fight deal with Bellator MMA, in the process becoming the biggest free agent to leave the UFC in years. And although the 27-year-old Canadian has only been part of the Bellator family for a few days, he is encouraged by his initial interactions with Bellator president Scott Coker and the crew at Viacom, compared to what MacDonald is used to hearing from the UFC.
"They're straight-up guys," MacDonald said Monday on The MMA Hour. "They're easy to talk to, they're approachable, and they have their ears open. They don't just have their plan and tell the fighters to just do what they want. They want to hear what the fighters want to do.
"They want to be creative, do something new. They don't want to just push their agenda, so to say. They want to listen and be partners almost, do this together and build something unique. So even though it's new, it's already been awesome. I've talked to the head guys over at Bellator and Spike in one day more than I have in a whole seven years with the UFC."
MacDonald debuted in the UFC as a 20-year-old prodigy in 2010 and quickly established himself as a name to watch in the welterweight division, racking up a 9-2 record with victories over the likes of Nate Diaz, Demian Maia, and current UFC champion Tyron Woodley. That run culminated in a title shot against Robbie Lawler at UFC 189, and although MacDonald lost a grueling war of attrition that many observers consider to be one of the greatest fights in mixed martial arts history, the experience prompted a shift in the way he looked at the fight game.
MacDonald earned a disclosed salary of $59,000 to fight Lawler, low numbers that MacDonald admitted opened his eyes for his need to get paid what he is worth. That realization ultimately led to "The Red King" inking a free agency deal with Bellator MMA, and now that his time in the Octagon is behind him, MacDonald pointed to the UFC-Reebok partnership as an example of the type of autonomous decision-making that is common within the UFC.
"I'm sponsored by Reebok and I appreciate everything they've done for me," MacDonald said. "They do a lot for me on a daily basis and they've actually been great. They actually want to come into the sport and make a positive effect. And you know what, they came in with not much time to work, putting together the stuff that they got going on in the cage right now. But I think in the long run, they have their mind in the right place. They want to do good things for the sport, be a part of it for a long time, and I appreciate that.
"I just think the UFC went about it the wrong way. They didn't really think of the fighters, I don't think, even though I think they're trying to make it out like they were. There was no discussion. It was just, okay, this is happening and deal with it, kind of thing. And that's not very respectful. I don't think that was a very good move. I don't appreciate that, but at the end of the day, I don't think it really played the biggest factor in my decision. It was more the numbers and the respect I get on a daily basis, the opportunities on the horizon that Bellator was believing in and giving me. They're working with me, building my brand and making money, and making good fights and making a great promotion."
As one of the few UFC fighters with an individualized Reebok sponsorship, MacDonald isn't sure if his decision to sign with Bellator will end his relationship with the apparel brand, though he hopes Reebok will continue to stick by him in his new home.
"I hope so," MacDonald said. "I guess we'll see. I still think that they have a great opportunity because of all the things that I'm going to be doing outside of the cage with Bellator, a lot of shows and good promotion. I think they could reap the benefits of that as well, not just reaching the UFC's market. That's a discussion I need to have with them."
Though he has been vocal dating back to March about his frustration with the UFC and his desire to test the free agency waters, MacDonald noted that still looks back fondly on his time with the promotion and he wishes the UFC well moving forward.
"You know what, the UFC has done a lot for me, and I'm not going to be one of those guys who sh*ts all over them and says they're doing this, they're doing that," MacDonald said. "They've done a lot for my career. Without them, I wouldn't be where I am on the bargaining side of things.
"They put in the position to do this, to build my career. They've given me many opportunities, so I would've been happy to go back with them. But at the same time, I also believe in the promoters and the company, in Bellator. I believe in what they're doing, building a strong roster, and I have a lot of faith in them and the direction they're going towards."
MacDonald declined to delve into specifics about the nature of his deal with Bellator MMA, reiterating only that he is "very happy" with the terms of the contract. He also added that even though he entered free agency on a two-fight losing streak, he was always confident that his overall body of work would speak louder than his loss to Stephen Thompson at UFC Fight Night 89.
"I was excited about the whole thing because it was time that I get paid, and I knew what I was worth," MacDonald said. "Win or lose, I know I bring a lot to the table. I'm one of the youngest and brightest fighters in the division, and I really don't think that I've even reached my potential. There's a long road ahead in my career, and I really don't even think that I've shown anything yet.
"I got another 10, 15 years ahead of me in this game. I think people have seen me for a long time at the top getting a lot of attention, so they think that I'm old-school and I'm on my way out. But they're going to be very surprised when they see me down the road in 10 years still at the top of the game."