Of all the fan-friendly experiments that Bellator has tried over the years, the upcoming welterweight grand prix might inspire the most purely cut, suite-quality onomatopoeia. Ed Ruth versus Neiman Marcus? Boom! Paul Daley versus Michael Page? Bang! Douglas Lima vs. Andrey Koreshkov? Borscht! Rory MacDonald vs. Jon Fitch? Bap!
It’s a nice crop of eight, with Lorenz Larkin and Yaroslav Amosov waiting in the wings as alternates. Yet the set-up is made all the more compelling in that the welterweight champion MacDonald will risk his belt at every leg of the bracket. Should he lose to Fitch in the opening round of the tourney, who knows where the welterweight belt could wind up by its end. It’s as likely to find its way to Kiev as it is to Russia, like a hot potato.
The tournament becomes even more unique still when you consider that MacDonald, an obvious favorite heading in, is fighting Gegard Mousasi for the middleweight title in San Jose on Saturday night, as a sort of preamble to this virtually lawless land. He’s doing that piece of business for history, of course — to become MMA’s next dual-division champion — while at the same time establishing himself as arguably the best welterweight on the planet.
And, for anybody that knows MacDonald, he’s doing it for the freaking fun of doing it.
“[Gegard]’s very good,” MacDonald told MMA Fighting. “I’ve always been interested in him. He’s very good, he’s tough, he’s crafty, he’s relaxed and he’s got good technique. He’s a powerful guy who has a lot of dangerous elements about him. It’s a very exciting match-up for me at a higher weight class. I couldn’t be happier going up against a guy like that for a title.”
“Happy” is a strange mood to carry into a cage with a Dutch plunderer like Mousasi, who himself is considered one of the very best 185ers in the world. Mousasi is the betting favorite as the bigger fighter, and has more experience on whole. Yet such details are where MacDonald finds his peace of mind. He feasts on doubt. And he gets giddy that he can let his actions speak louder than his words.
That’s because MacDonald is the rare fighter who is about to live-up to his own high claims and billing. A coveted free agent before signing with Bellator in Aug. 2016 — who, as so many are quick to point out, owns a victory over current UFC champion Tyron Woodley — he had a quest to fight for not just the welterweight title, but multiple titles in his new home at Bellator. In fact, he was willing to fight anyone with a name within a two-division radius of 170 pounds, and was one of the few who couldn’t wait to step in against a quiet cannon like Mousasi.
Now he’s on the verge of doing that, with his future mapped out to build his legacy the way he intended. The chance to hold two belts has been a thought of his since his early days fighting in the UFC.
“It’s always been a dream of mine, that’s for sure,” he said. “And it’s amazing that it’s actually coming to fruition. It’s been a journey. I’m all smiles, I’m very happy. I’m looking forward to expressing myself out there and putting on the best performance I can.”
What gets you is the thrill behind what might seemingly come off as prosaic words. When the idea of fighting in a tournament is brought up, he positively lights up.
“I love this,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to be in a tournament since I was a little guy in this sport. It’s cool that it’s here and that I’m part of it. It’s going to be a good tournament. We’ve got some really strong guys in it.”
And when the idea that he’s the only one with anything to lose in the tournament is brought up, since his belt is the carcass that all the vultures will descend on, he shrugs in a most peculiar way.
“Eh, it’s not big deal,” he says. “Any fight I was going to have anyways, even if it wasn’t a tournament it would have been a title fight. So I just say, bring it on. Let’s go through the whole division.”
Why not? And why not take on Mousasi first? It’s one of the reasons why MacDonald has developed a kind of cult following over the years. It’s in the juxtaposition between his shy demeanor and the monster he becomes in the cage. He is understated terror. He barely said two words in the lead-up to his fight with Robbie Lawler at UFC 189, and went out and put on one of the most ultra-violent wars in MMA history. At the end of the fourth round, with blood streaming down his face, MacDonald stared at Lawler like a predator that would need to be killed before he’d yield an inch.
Though he’d end up losing the fight, he took a piece of Lawler with him. He tends to take pieces of whoever he faces with him, including Woodley. Because he did, he believes that a segue title victory over Mousasi puts him atop the best welterweights going.
“I do feel that I would be,” he says. “I think me and Tyron would have a very competitive fight again, an even more competitive fight the second time around if we were to go again. But, I think it’s a strong argument that if I got a win over Gegard at middleweight to compare myself as one of the top welterweights out there.
“It’s hard to say. All the guys in the upper echelon of this sport, if one guy’s feeling at his best, and one guy’s feeling a little under the weather, not at his best that month or that day, you could see drastic changes in performances and victories and losses. I think we’d have a great fight if we ever did step in the cage again together, but I feel very confident I’d win.”
Of all of MacDonald’s virtues as a fighter, the one that sticks out is his near Palahniukian tolerance for pain and blood — that his thresholds for such things are beyond what the ordinary man can endure. Bellator president Scott Coker said that two weeks after MacDonald’s hard fought victory over Douglas Lima to win the welterweight title back in January, he was calling up looking to get booked into a fight.
His leg was a mess, and his face was no better. Yet with MacDonald, the idea that he was in a fight — and that he prevailed — makes the wounds smart in all the right ways. He doesn’t enjoy healing after a fight. But he appreciates the pains and cuts and swollen areas as souvenirs, as reminders that he did it.
“It is tough sometimes,” he says. “That leg injury [after Lima fight] was pretty rough. There were a lot of sleepless nights, and a lot of pain and stuff. But there is something weird about, like when you got through a battle that was hard on yourself and you were able to push through it and come out on top. It’s a strange thing. You definitely have some kind of…I don’t want to say pride, but a thrill or some kind of rush that you went through that.
“Preferably I’d like to go without too much damage, but there is something to say about it when it does happen. There’s something there.”
Mousasi will know have his hands full in San Jose. MacDonald will want to take a piece of him, too, even if he has to trade a piece of himself. And win or lose Saturday night, MacDonald knows he’s heading into a ridiculous tournament next, where every contender is mashing his fists and hoping to draw little X’s over those cold shark-like eyes.
In other words, MacDonald is right at home. That’s why he says he’s all smiles in his new gig with Bellator. The more harm headed his way, the better.
“It’s nice, it gives you a little bit of peace of mind,” he says, when asked about having so much lined up. “It’s like, oh it’ll be up again soon [after Mousasi]. It’s cool. I’m looking forward to it. It’s nice to have a little bit of a schedule.”
That’s the kind of guy Rory MacDonald is.