When Rory MacDonald signed with Bellator in the summer of 2016, he spoke often of possibility. The possibility to pave his own way. The possibility to test the waters in whatever weight class he pleased. The possibility to take risks with his prime years, to experiment, to ultimately lend a creative hand to his own athletic career, unshackled from the corporate handcuffs. And although his run may have begun in a more traditional sense — a two-fight romp that saw him crowned the king of Bellator’s 170-pound division — that was simply table-setting for all of the nontraditional to come.
Because the next six-month slate for “The Red King” appears anything but ordinary.
Over the next half-year, MacDonald is not only booked for one dive into the great unknown, but two. He first makes his much-anticipated middleweight debut on Sept. 29 in a champion vs. champion superfight against Bellator titleholder Gegard Mousasi. Then, win or lose, he’ll turn right back around and defend his welterweight strap in early 2019 against former UFC title challenger Jon Fitch in the opening leg of Bellator’s welterweight grand prix.
MacDonald has never before fought at 185 pounds. MacDonald has never before competed in a major MMA tournament. MacDonald has definitely never before agreed to a second dance date before his first dance date is through. But there is a reason the Tristar product is sometimes affectionately referred to by the MMA fanbase as “The Canadian Psycho.” The man is a lunatic in the best possible sense of the word, and these type of daring, new challenges are exactly what the 29-year-old was searching for when he became the highest-profile defector of the UFC-Bellator arms race.
“If anything, it’s kind of cool,” MacDonald says about having two fights booked at once. “It’s actually great, I love it. I don’t know, it’s just exciting to know that I’m not going to have to be waiting on the shelf for any reason. I have something to look forward to after this now, so I get to plan bit ahead, which is kind of rare in my career. I’m going with the flow always in my life because I never know what’s going on, say, six months down the road.
“But the way this year is stacking up, it’s going to be the biggest year of my career, so everything’s coming together. God answered my prayers and I’m so excited for what’s going to happen over the tournament and this middleweight championship. It’s a dream come true. Everything’s coming together.
“It’s exactly what I was hoping for in my transition to Bellator,” he adds.
Considering the two vastly different challenges that await him, MacDonald will face a precarious balancing act in how he navigates the next six months of his career.
The first meal on his plate is Mousasi, an all-time great combat sports combatant who is riding high on a seven-fight win streak and could very well make a claim of being the best middleweight alive today. In regards to sheer size, Mousasi isn’t a particularly massive fighter at 185 pounds, but he isn’t particularly small either. Regardless, he still presents a mountainous presence for MacDonald to overcome.
A lifelong welterweight, MacDonald will undoubtedly be the smaller man at Bellator 206, but he’s made a conscious effort to curb that as much as he can, having packed on several pounds of muscle since his Jan. 2018 title defense over Douglas Lima.
“I’m a little heavier than I was the last couple years,” MacDonald says. “Because between my last fight and this training camp, I tried to put some size on with just eating and doing a lot more power lifting. But I’m walking around 195 and I still am going to trim down even more as the fight gets closer. But I’m really very close to the weight.
“I get to eat more [for this camp], so that’s nice. It’s one less thing, right? So that’s been a plus, that’s been a pleasure, but I’m also sparring with bigger guys more regularly. So I’ve been sparring with some light heavyweights, middleweights, and that’s been a fun experience. I used to spar with them, but now I’m just very much on a regular basis trying to go with the bigger guys as much as I can.”
While the promise of additional size is an alluring one against a world-class middleweight like Mousasi, MacDonald also has to be careful in how much he lets himself go. This is where the balancing act plays into the equation, because MacDonald is all too aware: For every pound he piles onto his frame to help with Mousasi, he’ll need to lose each and every one of them all over again for the beginning of his tournament run against Fitch.
“I’m not forcing myself to put weight on, I’m just being myself,” MacDonald promises. “I’m just eating how I feel and I’m training hard. Wherever my weight’s at, it’s at.
“[Mousasi] is very skilled and what I can tell is he’s physically very strong. That’s what it seems like — when he gets ahold of guys, he’s very powerful. And it seems like he has a very relaxed mind frame, so he can stay pretty relaxed, he doesn’t get too nervous and mire himself up with bad nerves. His skill set is, I think, his biggest thing. He’s good everywhere, he’s dangerous everywhere … but he definitely will be the biggest guy [I’ve fought].
“I’m embracing that. I think I’d like to prove to people that my skills can carry me through even against bigger skilled guys.”
MacDonald swears he isn’t letting his mind wander too far away from the present. He admits he’ll sometimes allow a daydream or two to creep into his head about the other nine competitors in Bellator’s stacked 170-pound bracket, but inevitably his focus always returns to Mousasi. He’s the one who’s next. He’s the one who could determine whether the next six months go down as an indictment of MacDonald’s over-ambitiousness or the first leg to a run for the ages.
But so far, everything appears to be setting up the way MacDonald hoped. And he even has a special surprise potentially lined up for the coming weeks. An old rival-turned-friend, former UFC interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit, is expected to journey up north to help MacDonald close out the late stages of his Mousasi camp.
“He’s working on his passport situation,” MacDonald says of Condit. “But if everything comes together with that, he should come out for a week in September. It would be great to get to train with another really good martial artist. I think he’s got some similarities to the guy I’m fighting next, so it’d be good to get some work in with him and he’s very good at what he does, so it’s good to work with another top martial artist.”
In a sport where most competitors refuse to gaze too far into their horizon, MacDonald is charging headlong the opposite way. Not only is he gazing into those scorching rays of sunlight, he’s somehow found himself in an all-out sprint towards the golden beyond. A dual-title upset over one of the best middleweights alive followed by an immediate tournament run over three of the best welterweights Bellator has to offer is precisely the kind of big-game, legacy-defining hunt MacDonald has been pining for. Even he isn’t sure how things are going play out… but really, isn’t that the point?
After all, Bellator president Scott Coker called MacDonald nuts for a reason.
“I love what I do,” MacDonald says. “I also like to get paid, more on the regular. My last few years in the sport have been like one fight a year and that’s been frustrating. I don’t know, I just feel like I’m really hitting my stride the couple of years and I want to express that in the cage. I don’t want just use that all up in the gym. I want to showcase that on the main stage. I guess that’s why right now I’m really trying to get as many big fights as I can.”