English welterweight Che (Beautiful) Mills turned heads in his UFC debut when he demolished Chris Cope at UFC 138 with some vicious knees and punches.
His reward? A matchup with rising Canadian star Rory (Ares) MacDonald in the co-main event of UFC 145 on Saturday in Atlanta.
At 22, MacDonald is the fourth-youngest fighter in the UFC. And the ice-cool Kelowna, B.C., native, who fights out of Montreal, is already one of the most dangerous.
MacDonald (12-1) is 3-1 in the UFC already with impressive wins over Mike Pyle and Nate Diaz in his last two outings. He credits those performances to being more relaxed in the cage, saying a fight is a fight whether it is in front of two people or 50,000.
"I just feel the UFC is my home, my home base for fighting," he said. "Not a strange, foreign place with pressure. I feel comfortable."
The Canadian welterweight feels no added pressure from being in the co-main event either.
"No different from any other," he said of his fight preparation. "Same as always."
It has helped that the main event between light-heavyweight champion Jon (Bones) Jones and former title-holder Rashad Evans has dominated the spotlight.
Their injury-delayed showdown has been more than a year in the making. And it comes with a storyline of friendship and betrayal, the extent of which differs depending on which fighter you are talking to, that has grabbed the lion's share of media attention leading up to the card.
"That's fine with me," said the pithy MacDonald.
MacDonald, who last fought in August when he stopped Pyle in the first round, was slated to be part of UFC 140 in Toronto last December but had to pull out with a leg injury suffered in training.
There would have undoubtedly been more attention on MacDonald, has this show gone ahead as planned March 24 in Montreal. But problems securing a main event forced the UFC to push the date back to April 21 and shift the show to Atlanta.
"I was a little disappointed. I didn't want to wait that long," said MacDonald, who also regrets missing fighting in front of hometown fans.
MacDonald is not stressing about Mills, however.
"I don't know too much about him. I know he's a good fighter and he's up and coming. I'm really excited to test myself against him, see what he has to bring to the table. I'm looking forward to it."
MacDonald has only seen highlights of Mills' win over Cope in November in Birmingham, England.
He hasn't missed much, then. The entire fight lasted 40 seconds and earned Mills an extra US$70,000 for knockout of the night.
"I hit like a truck and I'm quite accurate as well," Mills told the UFC "Countdown" show.
The 29-year-old Mills (14-4 with one no contest) bided his time to get in the UFC. He just missed out on Season 9 of "The Ultimate Fighter," losing an elimination bout to eventual winner James Wilks.
"Definitely a good fighter," said MacDonald. "He doesn't have much attention following him but that doesn't mean he's not dangerous."
Still, the bookies have the Canadian as the favourite.
For some, it's a no-win matchup for MacDonald. He is widely expected to have his hand raised, so a victory doesn't add much to his reputation. And a loss would be considered unexpected and shocking.
MacDonald sees his job a different way.
"It's performance-based," he said. "My job is to look good against whoever they put in front of me. It doesn't matter if it's Jake Ellenberger or it's Che Mills. It's my job to go out there, finish the fight and put on a good performance, put on a show. And that's what I plan to do.
"It's about entertainment. I've got some new things I've been working on so it's going to be a better version of myself."
Considering MacDonald has finished his opponents in 11 of 12 wins, the bar was already pretty high.
Mills, whose father spent 15 years in prison for a murder conviction that was eventually overturned, started training MMA at 19.
MacDonald is part of a new wave of fighter that grew up training in all aspects of mixed martial arts.
He started at 14 and had his first pro fight at 16, with his parents having to give their approval to do so. Even then, only a few athletic commissions would sanction the youngster.
He won the King of the Cage Canadian lightweight title at 18 — in his sixth fight — and the King of the Cage world 155-pound title in his next outing a year later.
Thanks to a growth spurt, MacDonald then moved up to welterweight and continues to fight at 170 pounds.
The lone blemish on his record is a loss to Carlos Condit at UFC 115 in Vancouver in June 2010. MacDonald had the best of the fight in the early going but the veteran Condit rebounded to finish him off with seven seconds remaining.
MacDonald has spoken of wanting a rematch, but Condit — now the interim 170-pound champion — is said to be waiting for his title showdown with Georges St-Pierre later this year.
MacDonald and GSP both train under Firas Zahabi at Montreal's Tristar Gym.