Welterweight champion Rory MacDonald had just narrowly retained his title with a majority draw against Jon Fitch in the opening round of the Bellator Welterweight World Grand Prix, which meant that he would advance to the semifinals to fight Gracie. At least that’s how it was supposed to work.
Post-fight, MacDonald delivered a thoughtful speech in which he explained that some of the difficulties he experienced against Fitch may have stemmed from a hesitation to “pull the trigger” and that he was unsure if he had “that same drive to hurt people anymore.” He later clarified his statements, confirming that he was not retiring and that he planned to meet Gracie at Bellator 222 on June 14 as scheduled.
Gracie was in San Jose to watch the MacDonald-Fitch clash and he was impressed by the efforts of both men. Appearing in-studio on The MMA Hour on Monday, Gracie told host Luke Thomas that MacDonald’s comments were simply an emotional release.
“Sometimes you let the emotions take part of you, especially after the fight is over all the emotions come out, because us, as fighters, we try to hold the emotions,” Gracie said. “We try to hide them during and before the fight. We don’t want to be too emotional during a fight and before the fight, so we always try to keep the emotions in and after the fight is over we put everything out and it’s crazy.
“So I think that’s what happened to him, he just put out what he was feeling.”
An elite competitor at the highest levels of jiu-jitsu and now unbeaten in nine pro MMA bouts, the normally reserved Gracie can speak from experience about what the fight game can do to your head. He pointed to his own raucous reaction after defeating Ed Ruth via fourth-round submission last December as an example of how excitement can lead to uncharacteristic behavior.
However, he didn’t find anything uncharacteristic about MacDonald’s performance against Fitch and he expects the best version of “The Red King” to be standing across the cage from him at Bellator 222.
“I think he’s the same guy,” Gracie said. “I think he’s tough. I saw him trying to kill Jon Fitch. I think he’s still one of the best welterweights in the world, maybe top-2 or top-3, I think so. It’s gonna be a tough fight.”
Gracie had high praise for Fitch as well and he didn’t agree with pre-fight assessments that pegged the 41-year-old veteran as a massive underdog. The stalemate result (the one judge that didn’t score the bout a draw actually favored Fitch 48-46) seemed to validate Gracie’s opinion and he thought Fitch got the better of MacDonald.
“That fight was a war between two great fighters,” Gracie said. “I was telling people before the fight that Jon Fitch was going to bring it to him and people were counting him out. ‘No, I think Rory’s gonna finish him standing up and it’s gonna be easy.’ I said I don’t think it’s gonna be easy. I don’t think anyone that fights Jon Fitch is gonna have an easy fight.
“If you see, I think he only lost to guys that are champions or fighting for a championship, so he’s a very tough guy. He was able to get the strikes that Rory throws at him, he was able to eat them and get him down. I think it was a very tough fight and I think Jon Fitch won.”
Win, lose, or draw, Gracie doesn’t believe there were any significant issues with MacDonald’s aggression. The Fitch fight was MacDonald’s first since a failed bid to move up in weight and capture Gegard Mousasi’s 185-pound belt at Bellator 206, an outing that saw MacDonald put away with strikes in round two.
This short winless stretch made MacDonald’s recent comments all the more illuminating (and possibly concerning), but Gracie said it’s natural for fighters to experience fear and hesitancy around fight time. Even if MacDonald had decided to hang up the gloves, a decision that would have led to tumult in the welterweight grand prix, Gracie would have supported him.
“I think he tried to hurt Jon Fitch pretty bad, but I respect that,” Gracie said. “I respect what he’s feeling. We fight in the cage in front of millions of people, the whole world watching. If you think about it, it’s kind of a crazy thing to lock yourself and someone else inside a cage, it is a crazy thing to do. And he’s been in a lot of wars, so I respect if he doesn’t want to do that anymore. It’s up to him. Everybody has a certain time in this sport and if he feels that he doesn’t have it anymore, it’s okay.
“But from seeing the fight—I was there live—I think he tried to kill Jon Fitch, he just wasn’t able to and he put out what he was feeling. I think when we fight, it’s going to be a tough fight, I’m ready to die when I step in there and I think he’s going to be ready to die too.”