When we last saw Rory MacDonald he was in the UFC against Stephen Thompson, in the fan-friendly confines of Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, fighting out his contract for a chance to explore free agency. Eleven months later he’s now settled in with Bellator, and he’s heading into enemy territory.
MacDonald — perhaps the most prized free agent of 2016 — will face England’s own Paul Daley in London on May 19 at the SSE Arena. It will mark the Bellator debut of one of MMA’s finest talents, who put on a Fight of the Year back in 2015 fighting then-welterweight champion Robbie Lawler at UFC 189.
Since that bout against “Wonderboy” Thompson, MacDonald has taken the time to heal up from lingering injuries to nasal bones stemming from the brutal Lawler bout. And getting set to operate under a new set of marquee lights, he says he’s enjoying the transition, his renewed health, and everything else.
“I’m totally feeling refreshed,” he told MMA Fighting. “It’s a new beginning. No drama. It’s been all positive on my end and with Bellator. Very happy to be where I’m at.”
MacDonald has split time for the Daley camp between training in Montreal with his regular gym, Tristar, and his original gym in British Columbia, the Toshido Fighting Arts Academy. In his last several fights in the UFC he went through a lot of different looks, trying to mix in different techniques and broaden his game plans.
Now he’s back to basics — which means he’s getting back to the things that got him where he is. That’s why he went back to Kelowna, where he trained as a teenager before segueing into the UFC.
“My original coach Dave [Lea] is here, and I needed to switch my gears a little bit, get back to my strengths, and I feel that Dave is excellent in getting me focused on that,” MacDonald said. “I sometimes have a habit of just exploring so many other routes of martial arts that I get a little distracted. Getting back here I’ve been able to really focus on my strengths, zone in on what I have to do, and it’s been excellent for me. I think you’re going to see the natural Rory MacDonald when I get into that cage.
“If you look back at my fights, if you pick three or four fights in a row, it’s possible if you watch my style I’m fighting a different type of style every single fight. It’s just something I want to get away from. I just want to hone in on how I like to fight rather than just keep exploring new styles and new martial arts. I just got to hone in on my strengths, and that’s what this is all about.”
MacDonald fought Thompson while still nursing a not-quite healed broken bone in his nose. After he lost that decision to end his run in the UFC, he opted to take time away from sparring and physical training to allow it proper time to heal. So for the first few months into his free agency tenure, MacDonald was on the sidelines, getting himself back to 100 percent for his Bellator debut.
Yet even though he was dealing with the same issue for his last two fights, he says his nose is fully healed and he doesn’t feel “gun shy” at all about taking a shot. And that’s a good thing, given that he’ll be standing in against Daley, one of the division’s most lethal strikers. Daley scored one of the most vicious knockouts of 2017 so far against Brennan Ward in January, landing a perfectly timed flying knee.
“I’ve been watching Paul since I was a teenager,” MacDonald said. “I’ve always been impressed with Paul. A dangerous striker obviously. I’m happy to be fighting a guy of his caliber, and that exciting style. I think we’re going to put on some fireworks for the fans, and it’s going to be fun to watch for sure.”
For MacDonald it will have been 11 months between fights, the exact amount of time he took between the Lawler and Thompson fights. If he has his druthers, he wants to stay active going forward with Bellator — to not have long patches between bouts, and to not wait around for opponents.
Even if that opponent happens to be whoever is holding the welterweight title.
“I was expecting my first fight to be for the title, but it’s obviously not,” he said. “I’ll be looking to make a statement in this fight to tie their hand. But to be honest, I’m not going to be waiting around for these title shots. I’m going to be fighting very consistently. That’s my main focus. If they’re going to make me wait on the sidelines waiting for things like that, I’m not interested. I’m going to be here hunting guys down month after month.
“So Bellator’s going to be busy with me. They’re going to be working hard, just finding opponents for me.”
MacDonald says that the Daley fight is the beginning of a new chapter in his career, one that has careened through the biggest names in the sport since the time he was 19 — through names like Nate Diaz, Demian Maia, and current UFC champion Tyron Woodley.
“Look back at my career — I was 19 or 20 years old when I started fighting those guys,” he said. “As soon as I got into the UFC I was willing to take on the number one guys. I fought Carlos Condit in my second appearance in the UFC. That doesn’t change for me. I could have went a different route, and went slower and stayed on the undercards, but that wasn’t me. I know what kind of fighter I am, and I want to compete against the best. I’m not here to be dicking around fighting easy guys. I’ve been past that for a long time. I fight the world’s best to prove I am the best.”
As for the reception he expects when he makes his walkout under the Bellator lights in London? MacDonald knows how to make his blood run cold when he needs to.
“To be honest, I don’t really care if they like me or not,” he said. “I’m just there to hunt, you know? And they don’t really play a part in what I’m trying to do.”