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MacDonald best when emotion put aside
The most promising young fighter in the UFC doesn’t fight angry.
Rory MacDonald, the 23-year-old welterweight who will fight UFC legend BJ Penn at Saturday’s UFC on FOX event (8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on FOX), is a cold-blooded Canadian. He has a chiseled face that doesn’t betray emotions, a slicked-back hairstyle and sleekness that evokes the soulless Christian Bale character from “American Psycho.”
You can tell MacDonald is a bit of a loner, too, as he stands on a wrestling mat to the side of Tristar Gym in Montreal on a recent afternoon, staring at a mirror as he shadowboxes. He’s like his father, a hard-nosed millwright from an old gold-mining town in British Columbia. A blue-collar dude who despises any bull and avoids life's squishier feelings.
The one time MacDonald fought with emotion? That was the one time he lost in the UFC. It was two and a half years ago, when MacDonald stepped into the Octagon at a sold-out arena in Vancouver, not far from his hometown. He was fighting Carlos Condit on a card that included UFC legends Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin. He walked into the Octagon, the hometown crowd went nuts and MacDonald got too amped up. He pummeled Condit through the first two rounds, but by the third round he was gassed, and he ended up losing by TKO with only a few seconds left. To this day MacDonald says he embarrassed himself that night, even though if he’d survived until the end of the fight the judges had him as the victor.
There are two ways a fighter can deal with emotions in a fight. He can go to a dark place, emphasize the supposed slights that his opponent has leveled against his fighting skills, and build up all that anger so it bubbles over the moment he steps into the Octagon. Or he can fight calmly, philosophically, tactically, still going to that dark place but instead of letting all his emotions burst out he focuses them, channels them, tucks them away.
Both of these approaches describe Rory MacDonald. He is a young man whose life has been filled with rage and with anger and with slights from people who think he’s less-than. He is also a young man who doesn’t let that lifetime of emotions enter the cage.
But let me tell you a secret about Rory MacDonald: He wasn’t always this stone-faced hit man. He was the product of a broken home, his parents divorcing when he was five. He lived with his mom, then he lived with his mom and stepdad, then at age 12 he went to live with his dad in the city of Kelowna in the interior of British Columbia. They were poor. Rory wasn’t popular. Kids on the hockey team made fun of him. He wore the same pair of clothes every day. He didn’t have friends.
So the kid got angry. His dad always seemed to be at work, so Rory did whatever he wanted. He skipped school. He thieved. He was forced to take anger management classes. Sometimes all that anger built up. Sometimes Rory just snapped.
That’s how it came to be that Rory got kicked out of school for beating up a classmate at age 14. And that’s how it came to be that, before he was able to enroll in a new school, Rory was in the car one day with his dad and older brother, and his older brother mentioned a mixed martial arts academy in town, and Rory’s ears perked up. Rory, who’d spent hours with his dad watching Bruce Lee movies and Mike Tyson fights and the early UFC events, was enthralled. He asked his brother a million questions about it. His dad noticed. He turned their Jeep around and took Rory straight to that gym.
This was the moment where a lost boy’s anger turned into a young man’s ambition.
“It was full of huge men, their heads shaved, tattoos, and they’re punching each other – it’s just a tough-looking gym,” MacDonald told FOXSports.com on a recent afternoon in Montreal, where he was preparing for the UFC on FOX fight. “There’s holes in the cement on the ground. It’s just a rugged gym. It was intimidating for a 14-year-old kid who didn’t even weigh 130 pounds.”
He put in a mouthpiece, tugged on a pair of borrowed gloves, and trained alongside the older, tougher men. He felt the positive energy. He saw that this was a place where people rooted for each other, unlike his hockey team. He felt this was a family.
“My dad picked me up, and I was like, ‘This is what I’m doing with my life,’ ” MacDonald said. “I just knew it instantly.”
That moment changed everything: A fresh start for a troubled and angry 14-year-old. He quit the hockey team. He started at a new school and left behind all the friends he’d been getting into trouble with. He obsessed. He watched videos of UFC fighters for an hour before school. He thought about fighting and training during all his classes. He went straight to the gym after school, biking or walking a few miles to get there, and stayed until the gym closed. Then he went home and watched more fight videos until he passed out.
Fast forward a bit. Move past the time when his dad moved further north for a different job when Rory was 16, and Rory lived in the apartment by himself, cooking his own food, doing his own laundry. Move past when Rory got his parents’ signatures and turned pro that same year. Move past when Rory was an 18-year-old champion of a Canadian mixed martial arts promotion, close to getting a UFC contract.
Pause at the moment when Rory MacDonald started to get sick of mixed martial arts. He was training too much and working a job that he hated. He had his first serious girlfriend and was dealing with stomach issues for months. He felt weak and unmotivated. He went to live with his mom outside of Vancouver, just to take a break, to work some dead-end construction job, to step away from the sport. When 14-year-old Rory MacDonald stepped into a gym and decided to become a champion, this was when a troubled boy became a man. Whe 18-year-old Rory MacDonald stepped away from his sport and into the real world, this was when a talented young man realized he had something special, and should not waste it.
“It feels like yesterday, talking about this,” MacDonald told FOXSports.com a few weeks ago. “Five months went by and I was like, ‘This (freaking) sucks.’ It was the real world. I’d stopped training. I was eating like a fat-ass. Sitting on my ass, not training, just going to work and sleeping. And I was like, ‘I was meant for something more than this.’ ”
So he moved back to Kelowna to live with a buddy’s parents. He got a carpentry job and started training like a man possessed. He got that coveted UFC contract at age 20, the youngest UFC fighter ever. He worked his way up the welterweight division, all the way to this Saturday’s fight with Penn, one of the most accomplished UFC fighters there is. Three years in and MacDonald’s still the seventh-youngest fighter in the UFC.
Which brings us to the future: What will be next for the UFC’s biggest phenom? He’s marketable, sure, with shoulders twice as wide as his waist, with a forthright and honest manner, and with a Banana Republic style that makes him seem like a Ken doll. But he doesn’t seem to care too much about that side of things. The promotional side of the UFC is a chore for Rory MacDonald. What he loves is training to become a UFC champion.
And there’s the rub. The current champion in MacDonald’s welterweight division is Georges St-Pierre, MacDonald’s teammate and mentor. Firas Zahabi, the owner and head coach at Tristar Gym, forbids his fighters to fight teammates. MacDonald has the long, lean build that ought to push him up to the middleweight division in a few years, but that’s still a ways off. If he beats Penn, MacDonald would have a legitimate case that he ought to be in line for a title shot, or at least a No. 1 contender bout.
“He is amazing,” St-Pierre told FOXSports.com about his protégé. “I see Rory MacDonald as Rory MacDonald. Rory was already very, very good before he came to Montreal. He is who he is because he made himself.”
“As deadly as he is, as successful as he is, he’s got a long way to go,” Zahabi said. “He has three to five years before he reaches his peak. It was an intimidating place for him to come here, to train full time, to follow people like Georges and me. He’s a brave young man.”
Brave, but not stupid. Intense, but not angry – not anymore at least. Motivated, but not impatient. MacDonald respects the UFC seniority of St-Pierre, who has held his UFC belt for a longer stint than anyone other than Anderson Silva. He’s OK to wait his place in line. And he values the family atmosphere that he found in his first gym in his hometown and continued when he moved to Montreal a few years ago to train permanently with Zahabi and St-Pierre.
So what will be next for this young man and his channeled anger, should MacDonald beat BJ Penn on Saturday?
“I don’t know, man,” MacDonald said. “We’ll see how everything pans out. Maybe Georges will fight Anderson. Maybe he’ll move up in weight class. Maybe he’ll retire. Who knows, man? I don’t know.”
And if MacDonald’s mentor stays in the same weight class? “Then we’ll have to figure out something. He’s got some seniority. If I want to stay at the gym – I got a lot of respect for Georges … I don’t like stabbing people in the back. I would never go against him like that. I would never double-cross him like that.”
Which are very wise words for a 23-year-old fighter on the cusp of becoming a champion.
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