The UFC 170 "Fight of the Night" went to a bout that I personally described as (and expected to be) an absolute bore. Rory MacDonald came back from a rough opening round to win a crucial bout over Demian Maia, thereby avoiding a two-fight losing streak and re-inserting himself back into the UFC's "mix" of contenders in one of the deepest divisions in the sport.
Based on the UFC's official rankings, this was Rory's 2nd win over a top 10 opponent, with Maia ranked 6th. His July victory vs. Jake Ellenberger came at a time when Ellenberger was ranked 4th, and he's presently placed 5th, with MacDonald holding down the 4 spot. Strictly speaking, MacDonald beating Ellenberger stands as his best win to date both from a rankings standpoint and the fact that unlike Maia, Ellenberger was coming off a win in his last fight. But Saturday night was the biggest and most important performance of his career for multiple reasons:
1.) That he fought in the first place. More than anything else, one of the biggest knocks on MacDonald has been his ability to stay healthy. He's pulled out of four different fights, and nearly withdrew from this one because of a hand cut suffered while slicing an avocado with a knife. Saturday night marked his 3rd fight in 7 months, which is his quickest turnaround time in 4 years with the UFC. It looks like he's finally keeping an active schedule, which is a big plus for him if the UFC brass wants to start pushing him as a title threat once more.
2.) He was forced to "fight from behind" to get the win. Historically, MacDonald has been able to claim round 1 in all of his fights. Two judges scored the 1st round of the Lawler contest for "Ruthless", but it was fairly uneventful. Saturday night was a new experience for Rory, as Maia clearly took the 1st, something no one else has been able to do, and MacDonald had no choice but to take the remaining rounds or else he'd lose. He dominated the 2nd, and clinched the 3rd after Maia could do nothing with his takedown and continued to absorb hard kicks and punches. MacDonald was forced into a bit of desperation mode early and netted a positive outcome.
3.) Relative to his last two fights, he was much more aggressive. MacDonald drew flak from fans and (more importantly) Dana White following the largely panned bout with Ellenberger. He clearly won the decision, but his cautious, tactical, jab-heavy style was not what the UFC had hoped for. The 1st round of the Lawler bout seemingly set the tone for a similar outcome, but the pace picked up over the course of the fight and ultimately Lawler's striking was the difference in the final round. MacDonald threw over 200 strikes for the first time since his dispatching of B.J. Penn, and landed nearly as many significant strikes vs. Maia (75) as he did in his past two fights combined (83).
There is room, of course, for a bit of skepticism even in last weekend's performance. While Maia has been finished just once in his career, MacDonald once again was unable to force a stoppage. I'm not sold on it being a total lack of killer instinct, but it's pretty clear that he lacks the striking power that is seen in other contenders like Hendricks, Ellenberger, Lawler, Condit, etc. His three UFC finishes have all come on the ground, whether via GnP TKOs against Mike Pyle and elite Che Mills, or his armbar of Mike Guymon in his debut. He thrives off of his offense from top control and that's where he does his most damage.
Also, to play Devil's Advocate to my own point re Rory's aggressiveness, I feel that it was brought on by both Maia's sapped energy and MacDonald realizing that Maia is out of his depth as a striker both in technique and in power. In essence, he could afford to throw at a higher volume without the risk of getting clubbed by a power shot. Maia definitely tagged him a few times on inside exchanges, but he doesn't have nor will he ever present the danger of Lawler (who dropped MacDonald) or Ellenberger.
Alas, it was a crucial triumph for MacDonald, who remains ranked in the top 5, is now theoretically 1-2 wins away from a title shot, and does not face any long-term possibility of facing Georges St-Pierre. The 24-year-old hasn't been superb in recent outings, but UFC 170 showed that he's still pretty damn good, and in a GSP-less division he absolutely still deserves to be in the conversation as a title contender.