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Rory MacDonald’s truthful post-fight speech was a rare moment of clarity

MMA: Bellator 220-Macdonald vs Fitch Dave Mandel-USA TODAY Sports

If fighting really is in our DNA, as Dana White likes to tell us, and the “niche” lies in tapping that primal capacity, there’s also a level of absurdity to the proceedings. One kick to the solar plexus is worth a dozen philosophy books in what it teaches you about life, just as a broken nose will have you questioning what’s behind the cosmos in the middle of the night. All of that is pretty obvious and easy to understand, even for a beer-drinking spectator.

But still, it’s a hell of a thing being a prizefighter, whose burden it is to override the absurdity of the job and focus on the objective. That objective is to conquer. To scatter a man’s wits like jacks on linoleum, and literally impose his will — physically and mentally — for the paying voyeur to behold, selling everybody the whole way on the idea that it’s a life calling. This is what separates fighters from the common lottery of humanity. The willingness to go to such extremes for a sack of cash.

Absurd. Great. Crazy. Profound.

It’s a beautiful sport for its many contradictions, but when you think about it — when you really think about it — none of it is overly human, including the speed in which we move on from one fight to the next. And it must be a hell for a fighter to sort out the motivations that go into it, especially when 98 percent of them are bound for anonymity.

That’s what made Rory MacDonald’s post-fight interview at Bellator’s show in San Jose on Saturday night a strangely logical, completely introspective bit of theater. It was so human that it made the absurdity of the job override any sense of conquest. It’s not often you see a fit of conscience during a killing spree, but this was something like it. It was a man giving voice to his own doubts, a champion in the blood trade no less, at a time when chest smiting is preferable.

Which as you might guess played out to a chorus of boos. MacDonald, who has been compared to a cold-demeanored (yet charming) psycho for much of his career, fought to a majority draw with Jon Fitch. It wasn’t a great fight. In fact, it was tentative, somewhat withheld, not quite satisfactory — anticlimactic. Yet the “majority” aspect advances in the welterweight tournament, presumably to face Neiman Gracie in the next round in about a month-and-a-half.

That is, if there is a next round for MacDonald. When he stood in the center of a stage and tried to explain what went wrong, his, what…confessions?…became more like a vulnerable soul grappling with the abyss.

“I landed some good stuff in there, but, I don’t know, something…it’s just hard to sometimes pull the trigger now, I guess,” he told Big John McCarthy. “I don’t have that killer inside. It’s really hard to explain, but I hesitate a little bit now. I don’t know what to say. It wasn’t my best performance.”

Asked if he’d changed as a fighter, MacDonald peeled back another layer and introduced the celestial governors.

“As a man,” he said. “I feel like God has really called me the last little while, and I don’t know, He’s changed my spirit and my heart. It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain and stuff. I just don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore. I don’t know what it is. It’s confusing. But I know the Lord has something in store for me, He was speaking to me in here tonight, and I don’t know…it’s a weird feeling.”

As for facing Gracie?

“I have to get out of here and re-evaluate,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. Tonight was a mix of emotions in there. I landed some good stuff, but it was something different.”

Something different? Re-evaluate? Did Rory just admit his heart is not in it anymore? It happens, but it’s rarely articulated as honestly, and usually not right after a bout.

The fight game is a fairly straightforward affair; it’s hit or get hit. But beating back the impulse of compassion is something that never shows up on the Tale of the Tape. If anything, MacDonald was turned inside out there for a few minutes. Many fighters dislike the idea of inflicting harm on another human being, but few talk about the blight it becomes on the conscience. MacDonald — the expressionless cult figure who happens to be Bellator’s biggest free agent signing — brought some raw existentialism into the cage on Saturday night.

Not exactly the promo that Bellator hoped for. If anything, cage fighting is a place for fans to vent the day’s frustrations vicariously through the lunatics who take off their shoes. Warriors shut down the faculty of compassion just as easily as fans shut down the workweek to watch them. At its best, it’s collective hysteria at having all witnessed the same thing at the same time, and in that hysteria it’s fun to argue over what it is we think we saw.

But it was awesome to see MacDonald fracture the contours of that set-up, if only because so few are willing to. Maybe it’s because MacDonald knows those quiet hours too well.

I can remember talking to him about recovering from his UFC 189 fight with Robbie Lawler — one of MMA’s great opuses — and asking him if his wounds gave him satisfaction, knowing that he’d gone to such depths to earn them. Very shyly, almost like the boy of 16 who started off on his MMA journey in British Columbia, he said they did. He kept saying, “I know what you mean by that,” even as he qualified the concept by adding he’d rather not have a shattered nose. Again, fighting is a game of beautiful contradictions.

MacDonald apparently thinks about of this stuff a lot, only this time he thought about it publicly, right in the heart of the gladiator space. Did he lose the stomach for it? We’ll see. But if we melt at shows of compassion when two fighters embrace after they go to war, we should melt when a man goes to war with his own conscience to approve the actions. That’s as meaningful as anything.

And fighting is just as profound as you want it to be.

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