Michael McDonald is only 26 years old, and yet he’s already been through a process of self-discovery, the rigors of starting his own business as a woodworker in Modesto, and multiple chapters of his fighting career. The latest shift occurred in mid-March when McDonald was granted his release from his UFC contract and promptly signed a deal with Bellator. The move was surprising in some ways, and — then again — very “Mayday” McDonald in others.
For a fighter who started competing in the amateur ranks at 14 years old, there’s a wily veteran lurking underneath the youthful skin. And, with just two fights since 2013, that veteran hasn’t been afraid to speak his mind on exactly what’s been going on.
McDonald recently detailed his reasons for making himself scarce in the cage to ESPN, namely that he couldn’t afford to put together a fight camp befitting of a “professional athlete.” He alluded to the risky, haphazard nature of putting himself in financial distress just to compete, saying he racked up $15,000 in debt in recent camps. Now with a family, McDonald said the prospect of hurting himself to fight was untenable. Coming off a tumultuous year in MMA in which the UFC was sold for four billion dollars, McDonald’s relaying of those details became all the more eye-opening.
Yet now he has a new home in Bellator, and he says he’s happy to put a stressful situation behind him. And even though there are indications that perhaps he’s grown disenchanted with fighting — going 2-3 in his last five fights, after going 15-1 to become a top bantamweight prospect beforehand — McDonald says his passion to compete remains intact.
“It’s not an uncommon thing, if you look at anything from missionary work, to sports or anything, often people can love what they do,” he told MMA Fighting. “The reason they stop often isn’t the sport, it’s the people and the situation surrounding it. So yes, I absolutely do love MMA, and that still drives me.”
McDonald, a devout Christian who has been equally open about his faith throughout his professional career, has been supplementing his income though his woodworking shop in Modesto, Mayday’s Custom Woodworks. As his reputation has grown as a fighter nationally, so has his reputation as a woodworker in Northern California. That other job, he says, is not a side gig. It’s something he enjoys doing, and that he won’t set aside even when he’s engaged in a fight camp.
He said that dealing with the business side of fighting — with communication breakdowns and being forced into determining what’s real and what isn’t — is often akin to a necessary evil.
“There’s no way around it, and it’s part of the game,” he said. “It’s my job and I can’t do my job if I don’t negotiate how much I’m going to get paid for the job, or what exactly I’m going to do. It’s understandable. I think me doing woodworking has really taught me a lot about business — from me being the head guy and basically running the whole company — to understand how this process works. There are some clients in woodworking, I walk into their store or house and within five minutes, I say, I think you’re going to have to find someone else.
“Then I have other people I can go in, I can talk to and everything works perfect, and we’re good doing business, and we have an understanding. I think that’s just what it was with the UFC. I wasn’t okay with how I felt the business was going, the lack of communication. And so, morally, I didn’t feel like I wanted to stay.”
McDonald last competed in the UFC last July, in a headlining spot against John Lineker. Things didn’t go well for him in Sioux Falls. McDonald was knocked out in the first round of the fight, making him 1-1 since coming back from a two-year hiatus. He submitted Masanori Kanehara at UFC 195 in early 2016 (rear-naked choke), which earned him Performance of the Night honors.
Still, McDonald — who is young enough to have upside, yet old enough to know his bearings in the fight game — was ready for a fresh start, after what he concluded was “dishonest” business practices from the UFC. In recent months certain UFC veterans who’ve defected to Bellator via free agency — such as Ryan Bader and Lorenz Larkin — have glowed about the reception they’ve received.
McDonald says he’s excited about fighting with Bellator, but he’s still in the early process of getting to know them.
“[Bellator] has been kind to me so far, so that’s great,” he says. “I’m taking my time, and I understand they’re a business and they’ve got to make money, just like the UFC. This whole dealing I did with the UFC was between me, my management agency and [matchmaker] Sean Shelby. Aside form the whole deal and me not feeling okay with the negotiations, I have for years considered Sean Shelby a friend, and I still consider Sean Shelby a friend.
“Even if it’s someone I don’t like, if they do business up front and honestly and keep me informed, I’ll be okay. I haven’t learned enough about the guys at Bellator to have a personal opinion on the people there. I’m a new guy. I’ve only been there [a little more than] a week. But business wise they’ve been very up front, and they’ve been prompt with everything they said and they haven’t dropped the ball or anything. They seem like they’re honest, which is great.”
With developments like the UFC’s Reebok deal taking sponsorship opportunities out of fighter’s hands, there’s been an influx of athletes fighting out their contracts in hopes of better maximizing their worth. Some, like Bader, were just tired of the old show/win structure of a typical UFC contract, which incentivizes wins rather than provide a flat-rate guaranteed purse.
McDonald says his new contract with Bellator isn’t necessarily aligned in the same way as Bader’s, but that he can see why promoters would prefer a bonus structure.
“First, I’m not sure what I can exactly say and what I can’t, because I did read in my contract that I’m not supposed to talk about a whole lot of details of it,” he says. “But, I will say I have thought about that many times. I’m not really sure exactly if I prefer it one way or another. I understand why they do structure the fight deals as a show, win and purse. They’re protecting themselves, and want people to do their best, so people don’t just do crappy and still get paid. So I understand it both ways, and I’m not sure what I would prefer.
“I would say I don’t have a problem at the moment with the show and win, because in general I have a pretty high win rate. So because of that, I don’t have a problem with it at this time. I do see a lot of people who have flat-rates who are maybe very established in their career and maybe a little older.”
Though he is scant on those details, he did say there was a relief to be operating under a fresh set of circumstances.
“I am glad that the previous situation is over, because that was very stressful,” he said. “I’m on to a new situation, and so far my dealings with Bellator have been great, and I’m very excited to do business with them.”
As for when McDonald expects to make his debut, he said he wasn’t sure. The one thing he stressed to Bellator while striking a deal was that he would need an adequate amount of time to get in fight shape. “I take my training very seriously,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything with minimal effort. I want to do my best with everything I do, and I want to make sure the conditions are right for everything I do. As soon as those conditions are right, and as soon as I’m feeling at the top of my game, we’ll be ready to go. I’ll never be the guy that says, ‘you know what, I need the money, I’m just going to go in there and fight…I’m probably going to lose, because this isn’t the right situation.’ I’m never going to be that guy.
“I’m someone who is going to do my absolute best and make sure all the cards are in my favor when I’m ready to go in there. I want to win, and I want to do my best because sometimes you don’t win, but I want to be the best as I can be. I did let Bellator know that I haven’t been training as much as I should be, that I’m woodworking and saving up money for a fight camp.”
McDonald debuted in the UFC back in 2011, when he broke in against Edwin Figueroa at UFC Fight Night 24. He scored a unanimous decision that night, earning Fight of the Night honors. He would go on to win four in a row before landing a shot at Renan Barao for the interim bantamweight title in 2013 at just 22 years old. McDonald lost the fight via fourth-round submission (arm-triangle).
Since that time he has traded wins and losses through four fights.
Heading into his new promotion, McDonald admits he doesn’t know much about the roster in his new home — not even within his own division.
“Honestly, I don’t even know who their champion is right now,” he said, in reference to Eduardo Dantas. “It’s no disrespect to any of the guys there. I’ve just been in my world of being the best I can be and doing what I can do. Honestly, when my training is done and when my business is done I enjoy coming home and being with my family. I’ll definitely going to be learning about some of the competition, and the guys that I’m going to be fighting. That’s going to come in time.”
If there’s been a constant in McDonald’s career, it’s that he lives by his own principles. Before he fought fellow NorCal fighter Urijah Faber in 2013, he made headlines for confessing he’d been abstinent from sex for three-and-a-half years. That kind of honesty can be jarring. But it’s the honesty that he likes. He says that part of his love of fighting is that it’s an honest sport in the purest form, and that honesty with himself has been a mainstay in his life since he hit “rock bottom” in his pre-UFC days as a teenager.
For a man of 26 years old, he’s been through his share of dark times. To the point that each move he has made since, including his move to Bellator, he conveys like a running grasping for the light.
“I had incredible success at a really young age, and it was a lot of pressure,” he said. “I took in everything the world has to offer, and it left me completely emotionally and spiritually bankrupt, going through depression for maybe six months. I got to the point where I didn’t want to live. I just wanted to throw it all away, and I’m not joking, God lifted me up out of that pit and I heard Him speak to me for the first time, and He gave me a purpose and a destiny. I’ve been in SoberRecovery, which is a mix between alcoholic’s anonymous and church, and I’ve been involved with that for seven years.
“I never want to get to the point where I say, I don’t need recovery, I don’t need counseling, I’m good. This is a recovery thing: When you think you don’t need a meeting, that’s when you need a meeting most.”
Asked to elaborate what went on early in life, McDonald just said the pressures of his teen years led him down paths that turned him into who he has become.
“In general, I was a normal kid,” he said. “When you take a normal teenage kid, and just because it’s normal, does not mean it’s okay. You take a normal kid and you put them in the limelight, with a bunch of success and fame and everything they could want, that was me. Those outside pressures were enough to make me a normal kid — I was a normal kid who occasionally liked to drink, and I was a sexually broken kid just like any other teenager, not doing anything out of the ordinary. And just the outward pressures of everything going on around me, was enough to just completely break me.”