One Man’s View: A Developing Dilemma

By Jason Probst Aug 8, 2011
Welterweight prospect Rory MacDonald is emblematic of MMA’s New School. | Photo: Dave Mandel

Commentators have a responsibility to place events in perspective, especially in real-time as they unfold. When they execute this duty correctly, it codifies exactly what many viewers may be thinking, putting serious observations on the table that can be as interesting as the action itself.

It can be a spur-of-the-moment reaction that sends chills down one’s spine, as well, like when George Foreman knocked out Michael Moorer after getting his head bounced around for 10 rounds and HBO’s Jim Lampley shouted, “It happened! It happened!” It can also be an apropos observation to bring the near-future to light; in that case, UFC color analyst Joe Rogan advanced exactly what many of us were probably wondering on Saturday, as Rory MacDonald put on yet another perfect performance at UFC 133 in Philadelphia.

In the midst of MacDonald’s one-round battering of Mike Pyle, Rogan opined that the 22-year-old may be better than champion Georges St. Pierre was at the same stage in his career. It might sound like a bit of hyperbole, until one lines up the people MacDonald has beaten lately and compare them to GSP four fights into his own UFC campaign.

It is a valid question, and the fact that there is enough credible evidence to ask it is precisely why Rogan was correct to do so.

It is also an exciting proposition to contemplate, made ever-interesting by the fact that MacDonald and GSP train together and, given their mutual career trajectories, might not be able to avoid a situation in which the public burns to see them collide in the cage. MacDonald, who trains with St. Pierre at the Tristar Gym in Montreal, told me the two will never fight one another, as did their trainer, Firas Zahabi. The problem is the kid is so damn good at this point I’m not sure there are a lot of roadblocks en route to him being a lock for a title shot.

Given GSP’s vice-like grip on the crown, their dual tracks may parallel other friend and teammate combinations, raising difficult questions for them and creating those that fan interest may force the UFC to answer.

In my May 30 column analyzing the welterweight ranks, I delved into the existing chasm between New School and Old School contenders. The New School welterweights are fighters who have never received a UFC title shot, while the Old School 170-pounders are past GSP challengers. How these two factions play out against one another will go a long way toward determining who he fights. The UFC is in the difficult position of promoting rematches, GSP vs. Jon Fitch, and third matches, GSP vs. Penn and GSP vs. Josh Koscheck, in which St. Pierre already won the first two and, in both cases, dominated the second one so handily that there was no question as to who was the superior fighter.

For better or for worse, MacDonald has definitely joined the New School faction, and he looks so good one can only wonder how long he will be able to keep winning like this and not want his shot at the gold. Matt Hughes was a good soldier during Pat Miletich’s reign and stepped in to take the title immediately after his mentor was dethroned by Carlos Newton. However, Miletich surrendered the belt as age and the game rocketed ahead. GSP, even if upset in the near future, is still very much in his prime. He could have another Matt Serra Moment, but we have all seen how readily he rebounded from the first one.

The New School reps will essentially serve a sort of housecleaning function if any of them can beat Old School guys who are not currently marketable in rematches with the champion. It is a tricky process of matchmaking; there are no givens, but that is precisely the route the UFC has taken of late.

New Schoolers Jake Ellenberger and Carlos Condit have been matched with Jake Shields and Penn, respectively, in an effort to elevate viable title contenders. The rub lies in the fact that the Old School guys -- Shields, Penn and Fitch -- are exceptionally tough nuts to crack. Throw in the powerful Anthony Johnson, who will join the New School ranks if he can best Charlie Brenneman at UFC Live 6, and we have quite a lineup of capable competitors.

Beating any Old School rep will make Ellenberger, Condit and now MacDonald immediately relevant and marketable as title challengers. That is what Condit has in front of him, but he does not have to worry about fighting a friend, even though he and GSP do part of their training with guru Greg Jackson. Another touchy question: who does Jackson corner in that fight if Condit bests Penn at UFC 137? Jackson must grow tired of such questions, but it is his own fault given the talent he keeps building in Albuquerque, N.M.

For reasons I will not reiterate here, I do not think GSP will ever move up to middleweight, and though he has plenty of interesting challengers at 170 pounds, I cannot view any of them in either the New School or Old School factions as likely to dethrone him outside of catching lightning in a bottle.

The UFC has handled situations like this with a business-first approach. Jon Jones was plugged in to substitute against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 128 when then-buddy and Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts teammate Rashad Evans was injured, and the fallout made for some strong copy and storylines. Evans has since moved to a new camp, providing the kind of build-up to an eventual title challenge that makes it interesting if Jones gets by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in his first defense at UFC 135.

In the short-term, given that MacDonald just turned 22, time remains on his side. If the UFC pairs him with an opponent against whom he is a 4-to-1 favorite in his next bout -- say, a Brian Ebersole or a veteran type that has a tough reputation but has not been a Top 10 welterweight -- we will know the promotion is biding its time with him. However, a deep-water match, such as one against Fitch, could be very interesting. Virtually all of the UFC’s Top 10 welterweights are slated for difficult bouts in the coming months, except for Fitch. He could also be given the winner of Diego Sanchez-Matt Hughes or Johnson-Brenneman or the loser of Condit-Penn or Ellenberger-Shields.

There is a luxury in matching a brilliantly talented, young fighter this way. A loss is viewed as more of a learning experience than a major setback, and it also creates a buffer on the talk of him deserving a title shot against a friend he has stated he will not fight. Fittingly, MacDonald recently changed his nickname from “The Waterboy” to “Ares,” the Greek god of war. Perhaps it is a sign of his growing comfort with his emergence as a contender.

Whatever the UFC does with MacDonald, if Rogan turned out to be anywhere close to correct -- MacDonald as the next GSP, or even better than the champion -- it will force a matchup that everyone in the world wants, except, perhaps, for the two guys settling the question.

Jason Probst can be reached at [email protected] or
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