With his victory over Che Mills at UFC 145, Rory MacDonald has now reached five fights in his Ultimate Fighting Championship career. In those fights, he holds a record of four wins and one loss, the sole defeat coming via a final minute stoppage at the hands of current interim champion Carlos Condit (a stoppage Condit had to have in order to win the fight).
Macdonald will turn 23 this summer and his success at a young age has fans anticipating great things for him in the future. According to the consensus rankings he's the twelfth ranked fighter in the division. He's been ranked in the top 15 for the last eight months, since his first round stoppage of Mike Pyle in the fight before this one. His first opponent since entering the top 15, Mills, was unranked; MacDonald made fairly quick work of him. This makes it fairly likely that his next fight will be against someone else in the top 15.
Carlos Condit will not be included, as we have seen them fight recently enough to have a good idea of how it would go. Neither will Jake Shields, as he is returning to middleweight.
Strengths: Offensive and Defensive Wrestling, Standing Striking, Ground Striking, Athleticism, Speed, Fight IQ. The champion truly has it all, combining unparalleled physical attributes with one of the sharpest mental games in the sports world. He attacks his opponents where they are weakest, relying on his wrestling to dictate where the fight takes place. We haven't seen much of GSP's guard game from his back but since he never gets put there, it really doesn't matter.
Weaknesses: Aggression. The only knock on GSP is his tendency to play it safe. He has looked like a far better fighter than his past few opponents, yet he has only defeated them via five round decision. The thought is that he could go for the finish a little more but adding an unnecessary element of risk is not something that appeals to the very cerebral and calculated champion. Until someone forces him to fight their fight, expect him to continue to win in dominating but not particularly brutal fashion.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: Both men are from Canada, Rory has drawn favorable comparisons to St. Pierre and they train together, so its not very likely that we'd ever see them face off. If they did fight, St. Pierre would almost surely keep the fight standing and out-strike his young teammate, as Macdonald has shown himself to be a competent striker but he has yet to really do any damage to one of his opponents on the feet. He prefers to strike as a means to achieve a takedown, which would be all but impossible to get against St. Pierre.
2. Jake Ellenberger
Strengths: Power, Clinch Striking, Boxing, Footwork, Offensive wrestling. Ellenberger is generally thought of as an overpowering striker but for someone with one punch power he does have good technical boxing to go with it. He generally uses his wrestling to establish to the clinch, but he mostly uses the position as a place to strike from rather than to attempt takedowns. Like most good wrestlers, once he gets on top he has good striking and control but he seems to prefer fighting on his feet.
Weaknesses: Cardio, Distance Striking, Defensive Jiu Jitsu. His primary weakness is his tendency to get tired. He slowed down considerably in the third rounds of his fights with Carlos Condit, Carlos Rocha and Diego Sanchez. Part of this is because of the energy that he expends looking for the finish in the early going but part of it has to be his training and/or his genetic predisposition to having a shorter wind. He doesn't kick very often and his reliance on a powerful inside game makes him vulnerable to lengthy and accurate strikers. He could stand to sharpen up his defensive jiu jitsu game, but then again, he's only been in bad positions when tired, so cardio is almost surely the key to avoiding those positions.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: Macdonald is lengthy and does have a pretty varied attack on the feet in terms of mixing up punches and kicks, which could serve to keep Ellenberger off balance in a potential match-up. I don't think Rory is as powerful as Ellenberger and he definitely doesn't have the strength in the clinch that Ellenberger has. Che Mills stung Rory in the early going of their fight and Rory took him down right away. Could he take down a solid wrestler like Ellenberger? If he wasn't able to do that, could he adapt his game to defeat a powerful but one-dimensional striker? This would be a good fight to answer those questions.
3. Nick Diaz
Strengths: Boxing, Offensive Guard, Cardio, Aggression, Toughness. Some people don't really consider Nick to be a boxer, as he tends to just crowd his opponent against the cage and unleash flurry after flurry, something that looks like boxing but doesn't incorporate the nuanced movement that a true practitioner of the sweet science would have. Either way, he's beaten a bunch of noted strikers with that strategy, so whatever you call it, he's good at it. He has one of the most dangerous guards in the division, although he hasn't used it too much recently, preferring to keep fights standing. He never gets tired, can take a helluva shot and his gameness is pretty much unquestioned.
Weaknesses: Strength, Wrestling, Fight IQ. In his first stint with the UFC, Diaz had a tough time keeping his fights standing, although he has said on multiple occasions that he would not have taken the bottom and played from his guard so readily if he had known the judges would treat the top guy as having the advantage, despite it being something he probably should have been aware of. In his fights since, no one has succeeded in taking him down and keeping him there but he also hasn't fought a vaunted take down and top control fighter of the calibre found in the upper echelon of the UFC`s welterweight division. He admits to not being as strong as his peers, but he also doesn't want to be, preferring to rely on his superior cardio and a volume striking approach to win his fights.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: Rory rag-dolled Nick`s younger brother Nathan en route to a three round decision in his biggest UFC victory to date. He landed three suplexes in the final round against Nathan, showcasing a decided strength advantage that he would also hold on Nick. Rory also out-struck Nathan for a good portion of their fight, but it wouldn't be a good idea to try to stand up with Nick, so this fight would likely come down to how much damage Rory could do from inside Nick's guard. It seems likely that this fight would go into the third round and if Rory ran out of gas in the same way he did against Condit that would spell trouble against Nick.
4. Josh Koscheck
Strengths: Offensive and Defensive wrestling, Athleticism, Power. I was going to list striking as a strength here, but it has been a long time since Koscheck out-struck anyone in the cage. Matt Hughes was actually beating him to the punch in the early going of their bout and Koscheck failed so miserably at generating any success on the feet against GSP in his title fight that I just can't do it. He does have one of the best double leg takedowns in the sport and he was quickly able to get back to his feet when GSP took him down, so he would do well to go back to using wrestling as his bread and butter, the way he did early in his career. He does have good power when he does land though.
Weaknesses: Fight IQ, Striking defense. Koscheck actually doesn't have that many weaknesses, in fact, his biggest problem is just that he doesn't fight to his strengths. If he did, he'd be shooting takedowns from the get go and using an aggressive top game mixing submission attempts with heavy ground and pound to attack his foes. He got stopped by Paulo Thiago, not a dynamic striker by any stretch of the imagination, he had no answers for GSP`s jab, and has been hit hard by Hughes and Mike Pierce in recent fights, so he definitely could shore up his standing defenses.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: Koscheck would probably come out looking to strike, and that would be good for Macdonald, who has the smarts to avoid the big shots and the length to keep Koscheck outside of his range. He might not be able to beat Koscheck on the feet, but if Koscheck wanted to get Rory down, he easily could, and would likely win a pretty clear cut decision but I'm not sure that he'd even try to. This would probably be a closely contested striking match.
Strengths: Offensive and Defensive Wrestling, Boxing, Power. Hendricks is a two time NCAA Division 1 wrestling champion, so his biggest strength is definitely his ability to dictate where the fight takes place. He is actually pretty similar to Koscheck in the sense that he has great wrestling but prefers to use his hands to do his damage. He is a southpaw, which can cause some trouble for his opponents. He has won two KO of the night bonuses in his last three fights.
Weaknesses: Clinch striking, Jiu Jitsu, One-dimensional attack. Hendricks is 7-1 in his UFC career, so there isn`t much to pick out as a weakness. He was over-powered by Rick Story in the clinch in his only loss, so there is some work he could do there. He hasn`t shown much offensive jiu jitsu in his fights, although he does have a submission victory by d`arce choke on his pre-UFC record, and as a champion wrestler he surely has the background to be successful in that area of the game if he put his mind to it.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: Like a fight between Macdonald and Koscheck, a bout between Macdonald and Hendricks might be a striking match when it should be the division 1 wrestling champ coming in taking the fight to the ground and going to work from the top. As a southpaw, Hendricks would present a difficult challenge to Rory but not one that he couldn`t handle with some strategic consideration. I`ve seen a couple members of the MMA media suggest that Rory should face the winner of Hendricks/Koscheck but I don't think Rory is quite ready for it, despite the fact that he has a pretty decent shot at beating either of them.
6. Jon Fitch
Strengths: Offensive wrestling, Submission defense, Ground control, Cardio, Fight IQ. There is a lot of dislike for Jon Fitch throughout the MMA fanbase and most of it stems from the fact that Fitch knows what he is good at, does it and does not apologize for it. He has excellent takedowns and once he gets you to the mat, the round is practically over for you. He leaves his grounded foes no room for escape and is probably the best grinding fighter in the world. I consider him to be GSP without the athleticism, and this lack of athletic prowess (not a lack of effort) is the primary reason for the lack of finishes on his record
Weaknesses: Athleticism, Striking defense, Striking, Chin. He doesn't have much natural power or speed, so he doesn't have the one punch ability that fellow wrestlers Koscheck, Ellenberger and Hendricks have. He was out-struck badly by Georges St. Pierre in his single title shot and could stand to add a little variety into his striking attack but, as he generally uses it quite efficiently to set up takedowns, he can get by in most fights. Hendricks put him away with a single punch, which could be a sign that the years of fighting have taken their toll on his chin but we can't be sure until he takes another punch.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: BJ Penn took Fitch down at the start of both the first and second rounds of their fight at UFC 127. Macdonald would be smart to do the same thing and I believe that he would. BJ tried to grapple Fitch into submission without first softening him up with strikes and he couldn't get by Fitch's defenses. Ground and pound is one of Macdonald's strongest points and he would surely test the chin of Fitch. If Rory wasn't able to get top position he would surely be in for unanimous decision loss by Fitching.
7. BJ Penn
Strengths: Defensive Wrestling, Boxing, Aggression, Offensive Jiu Jitsu, Speed, Chin. Penn will go down as one of the all time great fighters hailing from a jiu jitsu background. That being said, he generally prefers to use his jiu jitsu to stay on his feet and to finish fights that he is already winning with his striking. It's rare to see Penn take a fight to the ground right off the bat, although he did attempt to use that strategy in his fight against Jon Fitch at UFC 127. He was once called "the best boxer in mixed martial arts" by Freddie Roach due to his hand speed and footwork.
Weaknesses: Cardio, Fight IQ. BJ has a great deal of natural talent and you could say that being blessed with such innate ability has actually worked against him. He has never been one of the best conditioned fighters around and he has spent a considerable amount of time jumping between the lightweight and welterweight divisions. This is partly because of his conditioning issues and partly because he can beat men bigger than he without too much trouble. In his two losses to Frank Edgar, he allowed himself to be out-struck for the better part of both matches and never attempted to bring Edgar to the mat, something that brings into question his ability to make adjustments to his gameplan both on the fly and after the fact.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: GSP pretty much laid out the game plan for beating Penn if you have a size advantage against him: Clinch him up against the cage, wear him down by striking his body and legs, take him to the mat once he's tired, and beat him up inside his guard. Nick Diaz took the first part of the game plan and used it to tire Penn out before beating him up standing. As he is bigger and stronger than BJ, Rory would be able to apply this game plan perfectly in a fight with him. Rory's lack of experience might lead to him getting into trouble inside Penn's guard, but I think this is a good fight for Rory.
8. Martin Kampmann
Strengths: Standing Striking, Defensive Wrestling, Offensive Jiu Jitsu. Kampmann is a very technical striker, though he lacks the one punch stopping power that many of the other top welterweights have. He uses his length to his advantage, keeping his opponents at range and using his technical kickboxing to pick them apart. He has worked very hard on being able to keep fights standing and his takedown defense is one of his strongest attributes. He has a couple of good chokes in his arsenal when the fight does hit the ground.
Weaknesses: Offensive Wrestling, Striking Defense, Fight IQ. I'm not sure that I should list his offensive wrestling as being a weakness, as he rarely looks to take a fight to the ground, but I will include it nonetheless as he would probably benefit from having a couple of go to takedowns in his arsenal. He has a tendency to get hit more than someone with his technical background should, especially early in a fight, and he has a bad habit of fighting in the style that best suits his opponent rather than himself.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: This would be a difficult fight for Rory at this point in his career. Kampmann has become a battle tested veteran and I think he'd be a little too difficult for Rory to take down while at the same time a little too sharp for Rory to beat him on the feet. If Rory did manage to pull him to the mat, Kampmann would definitely offer a lot more from the bottom than either Mike Pyle or Mills did both in terms of getting back to his feet and also in threatening Rory with submissions.
9. Diego Sanchez
Strengths: Offensive and Defensive Wrestling, Ground Striking, Cardio, Chin. Sanchez is very much a well-known quantity. He has solid wrestling skills, he brings a high pace to the fight and he can take a good deal of punishment without slowing down. He isn't particularly great at any one aspect of mixed martial arts but he brings everything together well and he is a great example of the type of heart and never say die mindset that you need to have to be a champion fighter.
Weaknesses: Standing Striking, Striking Defense. Diego has never been a great striker, although he does have decent power in his left hand. He also gets hit far too often when he comes in, whether it is for takedowns or to exchange strikes. The deficits in his striking game are basically the only thing that held him back from being a champion in my opinion.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: Sanchez is one of the few fighters on this list (along with St. Pierre and Fitch) that would definitely attempt to take Rory down. I have no idea if he'd be able to do it or not, as Rory has rarely had to defend against a shooting opponent. Rory would be well served by trying to beat Sanchez to the punch, (or in this case, the takedown) although he probably could win this fight standing as well. This is one of the few fighters on this list that I think Rory is ready to fight right now, although with Sanchez coming off a loss it's unlikely he'll be the next opponent for Macdonald.
10. Rick Story
Strengths: Offensive Wrestling, Clinch Striking, Aggression, Power. Story is really good at what he's good at, which is bullying his opponents on the cage and in the clinch. He is the only man in the UFC to hold victories over both Jake Ellenberger and Johny Hendricks and he was able to beat those guys by winning the positional battles up against the cage. He always comes forward and is not afraid to get into a brawl, making him a tough fight for anyone in the division.
Weaknesses: Defensive Wrestling, Standing Striking, Fight IQ. While he does hold those victories over Ellenberger and Hendricks, he has losses to Charlie Brenneman and Martin Kampmann, both due to a lack of fight IQ. He should have been better able to stay on his feet against Brenneman (albeit the fight was on short notice and he was preparing to fight a striker in Nate Marquardt) and he should have tried harder to get Kampmann to the mat. He strikes me as the bull-in-a-china-shop type who doesn't pay much attention to his opponent and prefers to impose his game on them, consequences be damned.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: On paper you'd think that Story has the advantage, as he's fought tougher opponents and has the wrestling credentials to avoid being put on his back. In reality, I have no idea how he'd try to fight Macdonald. If Story stuck to his bread and butter, pushed the young Canadian up against the cage and worked his dirty boxing game, he'd probably have a path to victory. If they had a straight kickboxing match, Macdonald gets my vote. And of course, if Story let himself get taken down, he'd be lucky to get the fight to the judges scorecards.
11. Thiago Alves
Strengths: Standing Striking, Defensive Wrestling, Power. Alves is a great striker, both accurate and powerful. When he is on his game he is one of the best defensive wrestlers in the division. He is at his best when he is able to counter strike without fear of being taken down, something that has been rare for him in recent fights. He struggled with his weight in the past, but he seems to have it under control, having made the 170 pound limit for four straight fights.
Weaknesses: Defensive Jiu Jitsu, Fight IQ. Yet another top welterweight who seems unable to fight in the style that best suits them, Alves gave away his last fight to Martin Kampmann after he shot a telegraphed takedown attempt in the last minute of the fight, ended up in a guillotine choke and was forced to tap out. He lost a close decision to Rick Story after spending the first two rounds doing exactly what Story wanted: Grappling against the cage. Once he gets taken down he doesn't have much to offer in terms of submissions, so he looks to avoid the mat at all costs.
How a fight with Macdonald would look: This would be another great fight for Rory right now. Rory would have to be sharp to avoid the power striking game of Alves but since Alves likes to use hard leg kicks Rory would likely get plenty of opportunities for takedowns. And he'd have to work hard for them, because despite using a lot of kicks, Alves does have good takedown defense. Once the fight hits the mat, it would be all Rory, as we've seen next to nothing from Alves once he is trapped on bottom.
And that wraps up this look at the potential opponents for Rory Macdonald in the near future. What do you guys think of any of these match-ups? It seems to me that there aren't many well rounded fighters at the top of the UFC welterweight division right now. There are a bunch of wrestle-boxers that would get destroyed if they ended up on their backs and there are a bunch of dynamic strikers who have a tough time keeping themselves standing, so a lot of these fights seem to hinge on whether or not Rory could get the takedown.
If he truly is the next GSP, he could very well make his way through any of these guys, which means we could be seeing him fight for a title sooner rather than later.