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When Rory MacDonald came to Bellator MMA from the Ultimate Fighting Championship, he did not take the route to an immediate title shot. Instead, he fought one of Bellator’s top-ranked welterweights to get a feel for his new home, and at Bellator 192 on Saturday, he proved it was the best path to a championship.
Benson Henderson and Lorenz Larkin were given immediate title shots when they arrived. In fact, Henderson fought for the welterweight and lightweight belts in two of his first three appearances with the company, falling short on the judges’ scorecards on both occasions. MacDonald probably could have done the same, but it looks as if not doing so has paid off. After his dominant victory over Paul Daley in his promotional debut, MacDonald broke ground on 2018 by challenging and defeating Douglas Lima for the welterweight championship on the rebranded Paramount Network.
While it may be good marketing to sign well-known names from a rival organization and fast track them to title shots, it might be wiser for the free agents involved to pump the brakes on those plans. Just consider MacDonald’s recent success. The Bellator cage is dimensionally different, while fight week and press-event obligations can vary. Future signees should follow MacDonald’s lead. Further evidence: Matt Mitrione and Roy Nelson made their Bellator debuts in non-title bouts, and now both men are entered in the heavyweight grand prix. They will face one another at Bellator 194 on Feb. 16 at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
MacDonald has been competing against top-flight opposition for years and fought his way to a title shot in the UFC, with wins over Nate Diaz, B.J. Penn, Jake Ellenberger, Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley. He challenged Robbie Lawler for the welterweight crown at UFC 189, where he came up short in the fifth round of a battle that was a consensus choice for 2015 “Fight of the Year.” The injuries MacDonald sustained kept him out of action for almost a year, as he made his return in the UFC Fight Night 89 main event and lost a five-round decision to Stephen Thompson.
Mixed martial arts matches are often compared to chess, and fighters must play the long game correctly in order to maximize success while still in their prime. With more options available to up-and-coming fighters, the path the 28-year-old MacDonald chose to finally becoming a champion looks to be a sound strategy to follow.
Edward Carbajal serves as the lead MMA analyst for Frontproof Media and holds a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a brown belt in Ishin Ryu Karate. He has covered combat sports since 2014 and has been a fan of MMA since UFC 1. You can follow him on Twitter @Carbazel or at his website TheBlogBoardJungle.com.