SPORTS

Welterweight Rory (Ares) MacDonald's UFC title shot is years in the making

10/09/2014 06:27 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST
TORONTO - It's been nine years since Rory (Ares) MacDonald made his pro debut in Prince George, B.C., against Terry Thiara.

His parents had to sign a waiver to get the local commission to OK the bout for the 16-year-old lightweight. Even David Lea, his longtime trainer at Toshido Mixed Martial Arts in Kelowna, was a little concerned.

Lea had no qualms about the teenager's talents. But he knew anything could happen in mixed martial arts.

"This sport there are so many variables," he said. "You zig when you should have zagged and then all of a sudden you're out. I remember having some real anxiety right before the fight thinking if this kid gets hurt, I'm never going to hear the end of it."

MacDonald proved Lea right. He needed just two minutes 11 seconds to win via rear-naked choke and start a career that has taken him to a UFC title shot.

"Of course, that was the beginning of a journey," MacDonald recalled Thursday from Montreal.

"I was definitely nervous for that fight, probably the most nervous I've ever been — for anything," he added. "It was a big, big obstacle in my life, that first fight."

Nineteen bouts later, the 25-year-old MacDonald is counting the months to fighting for the UFC welterweight championship.

"It's good news," he said of his date with destiny. "But I'm not going to be completely happy until it's in my hands for real."

MacDonald (18-2) will fight the winner of the UFC 181 main event between 170-pound champion Johny (Bigg Rigg) Hendricks and No. 1 contender (Ruthless) Robbie Lawler. They face off Dec. 6 in a Las Vegas rematch of their UFC 171 bout in March that decided the successor to Georges St-Pierre.

MacDonald, who lost to Lawler four fights ago and has not faced Hendricks, says it does not matter who he faces. He just wants to fight the best man.

MacDonald is not sure whether he will be cageside in December to discover his opponent. If he has his choice, he won't.

"I don't really like Vegas," he said.

In confirming Wednesday that MacDonald was in the 170-pound title on-deck circle, UFC president Dana White did not specify a date or city other than to say his championship challenge would be in Canada.

"I'd love it if it was in Vancouver," said MacDonald, a native of Kelowna who fights out of Montreal. "That would be my ideal spot. Anywhere in Canada would make me happy."

The UFC has a March date reserved in Montreal. A Toronto date is also expected in 2015.

Tom Wright, director of operations for the UFC in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, said last week he expects two or three pay-per-view shows in Canada next year.

The UFC has held three fights in Vancouver to date. MacDonald has been on two of those cards, losing to Carlos (The Natural Born Killer) Condit at UFC 115 in June 2010 and beating Tyron (The Chosen One) Woodley at UFC 174 in June 2014.

In the wake of his weekend win over Tarec Saffiedine in Halifax, MacDonald is headed back to Kelowna to see family and friends. While he does not know the date of his title shot, his training continues.

"Nothing crazy though," he said.

The black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu is also prepping for a no-gi grappling match with J.T. Torres at Metamoris 5 on Nov. 22 in Long Beach, Calif.

MacDonald, ranked No. 2 among welterweight contenders, has established his championship credentials, winning three straight and eight of his last nine in the UFC.

Recent victims include No. 3 Tyron Woodley, No. 7 Demian Maia, No. 8 Jake Ellenberger and No. 9 Saffiedine.

MacDonald is bidding to join St-Pierre and Carlos (Ronin) Newton as the only Canadians to hold a UFC championship.

St-Pierre vacated the title last December, saying he needed time away from the sport. He kept training and is currently rehabbing an injured knee. The 33-year-old from Montreal says he has not decided whether he is coming back.

MacDonald and St-Pierre, who both train at the Tristar Gym in Montreal, both said they would never fight each other for real.

So will MacDonald turn to the former champion for advice before his title shot?

"If I see him, I'm sure he'll have some words for me," said MacDonald. "But at the end of the day, it's a fight. Sure there's a piece of gold at the end of the road, but I've been in 20 professional fights now and I'm looking at this fight just as I have the other 20 fights."

MacDonald was just 14 when he came to Lea's gym. He soon became the first one in and last one out, soaking up everything he could about the sport.

"I've never taught anybody who was able to learn faster," said Lea, pointing to MacDonald's ability to maintain his focus.

MacDonald, then 20, became the youngest fighter in the UFC when he signed a four-fight deal in late 2009.

He was 9-0, winning the King of the Cage Canadian lightweight title at 18 — in his sixth fight — before winning the King of the Cage world 155-pound title a year later.

In between those fights, he stepped away from the sport in 2008, lacking focus and needing some time to sort things outside the cage. So he left Kelowna for Langley, B.C., stopped training for five months and started a carpentry job.

"It was a difficult time in my life, personally and in my martial arts career," he said. "I was struggling for motivation. I wasn't focused on martial arts, I did the right thing, I took a few months away and I came back hungry as ever."

He moved back to Kelowna, and started training again. Three wins later, he had a UFC contract. And the road to the title began.

He needed four minutes 27 seconds to dispatch veteran Mike (The Joker) Guymon in his UFC debut in January 2010.

His friends and training partners gushed about him.

"I see the future of this sport in Rory MacDonald,'' said middleweight David (The Crow) Loiseau.

"He's amazing,'' said St-Pierre. "He's the new big thing, I'm pretty sure. Watch that name. He's going to go far.''

"Rory represents the new generation of fighters,'' said former UFC and Pride fighter Denis Kang.

In those days his nickname was The Waterboy, a reference to the Adam Sandler film. Like Sandler's character in the movie, MacDonald apparently did not react well to anyone who tried to take liberties with him.

He has since changed it to the more bellicose Ares.

After Guymon, the UFC threw MacDonald into the deep end with a fight with Condit.

MacDonald's approach to fighting changed after his loss to Condit, a fight that saw him take it to the veteran only to fade in the third round.

He admitted he let the moment get to him at UFC 115. While he had fought in the UFC once before, the adrenalin was pumping overtime for the fight in his home province.

"I got very emotional," he said at the time. "It was a home town (crowd), they pumped me up. I had a lot of pressure on me, a lot of nerves. It was a big fight for me. It got very emotional for me, I just wanted to go in there and put on a good show, so I got a little headstrong."

Asked if he could hear the Rogers Arena crowd chanting "Rory, Rory," he replied: "It was pretty much all I could hear."

His basic purse for the Condit oss was US$8,000 although he picked up another $85,000 for a fight of the night bonus. Against Maia at UFC 170 in February, his last fight for which purse figures were released, he collected a minimum of US$150,000 including a pair of $50,000 bonuses.

Today he fights without emotion. And he has managed to separate himself from the pitfalls of fame. He says the glitz, glamour and cameras are not what he works for.

"I've been able to separate the show from reality, some people can't," he said.

"I don't focus on that," he added. "I focus on the reality of the situation and just fight."

When he steps into the cage, a stone-faced MacDonald stares across at his opponent. The smile only comes when his arm is raised.

MacDonald moved to Montreal after the Condit fight, to train full time at Tristar, although he also spends time at Renzo Gracie's New York gym. He won five straight before losing to Lawler at UFC 167 in November 2013.

Lea says the Lawler loss also changed the young fighter.

"He was training with the wrong mindset and he was training to fight too conservatively," said Lea. "There is that balance. You don't want to be reckless but you also don't want to sit back and just be reactionary ... He just Lawler dictate the pace of the fight at the end there.

"I don't think he'll every make that mistake again. I think you saw him immediately, in his fights after Lawler, come out and really try to set the pace and take away that space and be the one who's dictating where the fight's happening. If he gets that, with a little bit more of a killer instinct when they' (his opponents) are in troubles, I don't think anybody's going to stop Rory."

While a private type, MacDonald says away from the gym he is into "regular young guy stuff."

"I like video games, I like shopping, I like girls," he said in a 2012 interview.

You can add clothes to that list. Like GSP, MacDonald will slip into a well-tailored suit for his post-fight interviews.

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