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Rory MacDonald is only 29, but man, doesn’t it feel like he’s been around forever? Making his pro debut at the age of 16, he won his first nine fights in a row and signed with the Ultimate Fighting Championship at age 20. He had a mostly spectacular run in the UFC, defeating names like Nate Diaz, Demian Maia and Tyron Woodley, while losing spectacular battles to the likes of Carlos Condit and of course Robbie Lawler -- their second meeting is simply The Greatest Fight of All Time. (It’s just a fact by now; this should be canonized into history by whichever Maester maintains MMA's historical records in the Citadel.)
Unfortunately fights like The Greatest Fight of All Time have consequences, and Rory’s sacrifice for being a part of such a violent and unbelievable spectacle was that his nose became pretty much permanently detached from his face. A tough price to pay, indeed, especially when you still plan on fighting for a living. Stephen Thompson, Doug Lima, and Gegard Mousasi all easily removed said nose in their fights with MacDonald, and the only reason Paul Daley didn’t is that he didn’t land a clean shot in the less than 7 minutes it took MacDonald to exploit his grappling deficiencies. Despite that, you still got the sense that a stiff breeze from one of the ceiling mounted HVAC units anchored to the top of the arena might just have knocked MacDonald’s nose off by mistake if it blew too much. It’s truly been that fragile.
Regardless of not possessing an attachable nose, the “Red King” -- has a nickname ever been more appropriately earned? -- finds himself holding the Bellator MMA welterweight title and will defend that title for the first time against 41-year old Jon Fitch this Saturday at Bellator 220, in the final first-round match of the promotion’s welterweight grand prix. So he must be doing something right. Truth is, nose notwithstanding, MacDonald is hands-down one of the most talented and well-rounded fighters out there; in any weight division or organization. His long and accurate jab, top-notch grappling skills, varied submission techniques, and generally excellent fight IQ are all among the best in class. He’s got wins by triangle choke, rear naked choke, armbar, knockout and technical knockout. He can finish fights standing or on the ground, and as the great Harold Lederman would scream, “Jim! The boy has excellent ring generalship! Look at him control the center of the ring in there!” He knows how to command the center of a mixed martial arts cage in a way only the best in the world do.
So where is all this taking him? It’s not common for the UFC to let a 27-year old top-10 fighter in his prime walk, but that’s exactly what happened when MacDonald signed with Bellator in 2016. The UFC simply declined to exercise the standard matching clause included in all UFC fighter contracts after being presented with MacDonald’s offer sheet from Bellator. Why the UFC did this is still anyone’s guess; perhaps it was salary, although the UFC’s coffers are certainly deeper than Bellator’s. Perhaps it was that problematic nose.
Whatever the case, you get the feeling MacDonald is destined to make it back to the UFC, where he can truly compete against the best welterweights in the world. Especially so if he defeats Fitch this Saturday -- current odds have him as a comfortable -400 favorite -- and then takes out Neiman Gracie in the semifinal. That would place him in the final against either Michael Page, against whom he would be a rightfully huge favorite, or Douglas Lima, who is probably Bellator’s next best welterweight, and has already dropped an uncontroversial five-round decision to MacDonald. Among Bellator’s up and coming talents, Ed Ruth was just finished by Gracie, while the 10-0 Logan Storley would be a high-risk, low-reward proposition for a marquee name like MacDonald. What more will there be to prove?
Quite conveniently, MacDonald’s current contract with Bellator would take him right to the end of the grand prix, assuming he makes it to the finals. He recently stated on the “Pull No Punches” podcast, “I love what [Bellator and I have] built so far in a short amount of time. I don’t see any reason to test free agency. I could, but I don’t think I will. It’s not on my mind now.” That’s nice to hear, but who the heck would be left to fight? He would have cleared out the welterweight division -- so there wouldn’t really be any fights to make there -- and we saw what happened when he got a little cocky and tried moving up to middleweight. The obvious move, assuming numbers can be worked out by both parties, is for him to return to the UFC in 2020.
Back in the UFC, he’ll find no shortage of rematches and new opportunities, and hopefully his nose will finally be screwed on securely. A third rematch with Lawler would be can’t-miss TV, no matter how many miles each has driven since their second fight, plus the 170 pound division is just loaded with other intriguing matchups. Most importantly though, that’s where all of Sherdog’s top 15 welterweights reside, with the exception of Lima and himself. MacDonald is one of the first mixed martial artists who grew up training in MMA as opposed to an individual martial art, expressly to be an MMA champion. While the Bellator title is nice, a UFC belt around his waist would truly validate the last 13 years of his professional life in a way nothing else could. And in both talent and age, he’s still got what it takes to truly compete on that level. Let’s just hope modern science has found a way to keep that nose attached to that face.