How the UFC wars changed Rory MacDonald, and what he's chasing at Bellator

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Rory MacDonald is starting fresh with Bellator after losing his last two UFC fights. (Getty)

There was a time, not so long ago, that Rory MacDonald was the fresh-faced kid, the guy who was going to show everyone what the next level of mixed martial arts was all about.

After the first era was dominated by single-discipline fighters who figured out how to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, the sport was supposed to be taken to greater heights by young fighters who trained MMA from the beginning.

MacDonald was the first of those, a guy who at 20 came within a whisper of beating the great Carlos Condit. He combined the various disciplines effortlessly and transitioned between them seamlessly, making those who predicted greatness for him look ever so wise.

He’s 27 now, and about to embark on a new phase of his career. If he didn’t quite achieve greatness during his six-year UFC stint, he didn’t come far from it. He was 9-4, with his only losses coming twice to Robbie Lawler (a world champion), and once each against Condit (a one-time interim champion) and Stephen Thompson (who fought twice for the belt).

He built quite a reputation and is now ready to start Phase 2 of his career by joining Bellator and fighting Paul Daley on Friday in London.

MacDonald has fought only twice in the past two years – of course, one of those was the epic 2015 loss to Lawler, regarded by some as the greatest bout in MMA history – and is eager to get back into the mix.

“I definitely need to start getting busier,” MacDonald said. “The layoffs have got to stop and it’s time for me to start making a strong push in Bellator and getting these fights rolling.”

He picked a terrific opponent to introduce himself to Bellator fans. Daley is a heavy-handed, aggressive fighter who looks to push the pace. MacDonald shined in exactly that type of fight in his 2015 rematch with Lawler, when he left the fans at the MGM Grand Garden in awe of what they’d seen.

A win over Daley is significant for anyone, and if MacDonald pulls it off, it would put him right into position for a title shot.

Rory MacDonald (L), shown during his epic battle with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189, will fight Paul Daley in London May 19 in his Bellator debut. (Getty)

MacDonald, though, now understands the business side of the sport far better than he once did, and he realizes it doesn’t make sense to subject himself to the type of punishment he took in the Lawler fight if it’s not worth it for him.

So his big-picture goal is not so much to control one division, but to float between 170 and 185, and potentially at 205 for the right fight, to find the matches that make the most sense.

He believes he’ll still be able to reach the levels once predicted for him when he enters the UFC. His experiences have made him not only a better, more physically talented fighter, but also a more relaxed one.

He’s got his business details behind him and can focus on his future, but even that is only a small part of it.

“I’m happy with Bellator and I’m looking forward to fighting for them,” he said. “But I think what is different for me now is that I’ve been around for a while, I’ve experienced a lot of things, and I’ve learned to relax and enjoy the experience. I’m not stressing myself anymore.

“Looking back at my life, I see how strict I was with myself and I learned from it. I had to make certain changes in some areas and relax and be more disciplined in others. Everything that I’ve gone through and that has brought me to this point has been a learning experience. I’m more in tune with my body and I know when to push and when to pull back. And I feel like I’m primed now to perform at my best.”

Though he was stopped in the fifth round by Lawler in that epic bout at UFC 189, MacDonald received universal praise.

As he looks back on that bout, he concedes he didn’t handle himself as well as he would now. He’s changed things, not because of that fight, but because of what he learned from all of them.

“In that particular fight, I was excited, and nervous, and I think I let the pressure get to me a bit,” MacDonald said of UFC 189. “Robbie’s an explosive fighter, and hard to judge how to fight.

“I know Paul is an unreal striker, too, and he throws some huge bombs. He throws unique strikes from different positions and he’s creative. I have learned, though, and I think what people will see is I’ve adapted and I have a feel now how to put myself exactly where I need to be.”

If he can raise his game from the high level it’s been at over the past six years, he may easily turn out to be the best free-agent signing in Bellator history.

That’s saying a lot, but MacDonald is that good.

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