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With the passing of the legendary Muhammad Ali, there was much discussion about the latter stages of his life when Parkinson’s disease took its terrible toll on the man. There isn’t definitive proof one way or another, but most believe the disease came as a result of his many years in the ring. Specifically, attention focuses on some of the most brutal fights of his career, against the likes of Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes. The “Thrilla in Manila” was such a grueling battle for Ali and Frazier that even in victory, it set up Ali for future peril.
This is a common thread in the sport of boxing, where boxers will have singular fights that change the courses of their careers. Jermain Taylor appeared to be embarking on a special career when he ran into a buzzsaw that was Kelly Pavlik. After a vicious knockout loss to Pavlik, Taylor never appeared to be the same fighter. Meldrick Taylor likewise never fully rebounded from an epic fight with Julio Cesar Chavez, nor could Juan Manuel Lopez recover from his TKO losses to Orlando Salido.
This phenomenon is rarer in MMA, for a number of reasons. MMA fights are shorter than championship boxing bouts, particularly the 15-round contests of Ali’s time. Thus, the punishment in the most gruelling of fights just won’t go on as long. Also, MMA fights are almost always stopped at the point one fighter suffers a severe concussion, while boxers are given the 10 count and the opportunity to regain their faculties enough to take an even further beating. As such, in MMA it’s rare you see the sort of career-altering fight that is more common in boxing.
That’s not to say it never happens. Don Frye in 2002 engaged in a pair of brutal spectacles against Ken Shamrock and Yoshihiro Takayama in Pride Fighting Championships. He won both but was never the same fighter afterwards. If Frye-Takayama was his equivalent of Ali-Frazier 3, Frye-James Thompson was Ali-Holmes, a sad beatdown made possible by the earlier war, along with criminally bad officiating.
The ban on testosterone replacement therapy has often been linked to the decline in the career of Antonio Silva, and there’s clearly a lot to that. However, a possibly overlooked contributing factor was Silva’s epic war with Mark Hunt, one of the most vicious fights in the history of the sport. “Bigfoot” clearly hasn’t been the same fighter since, regardless of what one wants to list as the principal causes of that decline. Getting into a 25-minute battle of endurance with one of the hardest hitters in the history of the sport is a dangerous proposition. Gray Maynard is another example of an MMA fighter who wasn’t the same after a pair of epic battles with Frankie Edgar for the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title.
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Rory MacDonald, returning on Saturday for the first time in around a year, is still only 26 years old. He should by all rights remain one of the elite fighters in the welterweight division for years to come. There is nonetheless a real question about how he rebounds from his last fight, an all-time war against “Ruthless” Robbie Lawler at UFC 189. Fights brutal enough to permanently alter the trajectory of careers don’t occur with great frequency in MMA, but if ever there was such a fight, Lawler-MacDonald 2 fits the bill.
When MacDonald collapsed in a heap to end his second fight with Lawler, he hadn’t succumbed to one perfectly timed shot. It was the accumulation of damage over the course of over 20 devastating minutes. His bloodied face was difficult to recognize and represented a demoralizing conclusion to his long quest to capture UFC welterweight gold. If MacDonald returns to top form immediately upon stepping back into the Octagon, it will be a testament to his mettle. It’s a tough psychological challenge for even the most determined of professional fighters. Moreover, his chronological age belies the fact that he has been fighting professionally for 10 years and has much more mileage on his body than most fighters his age.
All fighters know at least to some degree what they are getting themselves into. A fistfight is an entirely different sort of competition than a game of basketball or baseball. Still, it’s one thing to know in the abstract the omnipresent danger associated with high-level MMA. It’s another to experience the very worst of it, to have a long period of time to think about that and then to prepare to dive right back in. That’s a challenge few fighters have to deal with, because few are ever going to be in as violent of an ordeal as Lawler-MacDonald 2.
Adding to the stakes for MacDonald is his impending free agency. An impressive performance could net him a big contract either with the UFC or elsewhere. A weaker showing and it will be much easier for the UFC to resist getting into a bidding war, particularly given a currently stacked welterweight division with no shortage of intriguing future title matchups. There is considerable financial pressure to go along with the physical and psychological pressure.
MacDonald’s opponent at UFC Fight Night 89 is a blessing and a curse. The downside is that Stephen Thompson is another tough opponent for MacDonald’s comeback. He isn’t getting a soft touch by any means. Thompson is coming off a dismantling of Johny Hendricks, a fighter who showcased remarkable durability until squaring off with “Wonderboy.” Thompson has four knockouts in his last five fights and has a tricky style to deal with and time.
On the flipside, there’s a lot to like about Thompson as an opponent. Thompson’s stock has never been higher, and he’s one of the top welterweight contenders. If MacDonald can defeat Thompson, he’s immediately right back in the UFC title picture. A lot for MacDonald will depend on whether Lawler keeps the gold, because it will be harder for MacDonald to receive a shot against an opponent who has bested him twice. Either way, the pressure will be on for the UFC to re-sign him, enhancing his negotiating position.
Those future contract and ranking considerations are ultimately peripheral compared to the central issue of rebounding from such a devastating loss. MacDonald throughout his career has been critiqued for his unique personality and approach to fighting. MacDonald will have the opportunity to prove the kind of fighting spirit he possesses when he meets Thompson in Ottawa, Ontario. His second fight with Lawler will be remembered for years to come, but it remains to be seen whether it will be remembered for MacDonald more for the body of the fight or for the ending.