Prizefighting is an innately egotistical act. The very nature of the sport is to accept a monetary value to prove one's worth against another person. It takes an intense confidence in your skills to enter a cage against someone that wants to injure you.
Rory MacDonald will be testing that confidence and those skills in Saturday's UFC Welterweight title fight against champ Robbie Lawler.
Young fighters get into mixed martial arts with their thoughts on reaching the top of the sport. They imagine a trajectory that sees them headlining the UFC's most prestigious events in short order. Everyone wants to be a star.
Almost everyone, that is. It's unclear what Canada's Rory MacDonald is hoping to accomplish or what he expects to achieve. There's the obvious stuff about wanting to be a great fighter, we know that. But what else? We know so little about the young challenger, he seems robotic in nature.
While in Montreal for UFC 186, I covered a Q&A session that featured MacDonald alongside former UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre. It's not that the difference between these two athletes wasn't clear before, but seeing MacDonald quite literally in the shadow of St. Pierre made it abundantly obvious that he was never going to be St. Pierre. While MacDonald cowered in the corner, fending off questions with one-word answers and looking completely uncomfortable, St. Pierre was as friendly and cordial as one could be in such an unnatural setting. Despite nearly two years away from the cage, he still looked incredibly built, like a superhero. MacDonald, while definitely in shape, has never had nearly the muscle mass of St. Pierre, and though that doesn't necessarily translate to cage success, it does make for a stunning image.
But this story (presumably) doesn't end with the super hero coming back to save Canadian MMA; whether he wants it or not, MacDonald is now the flagbearer for the sport in Canada.
"It's nice," MacDonald said of being one of Canada's most prominent mixed martial artists. "It's good to get recognition from the country, but it's not my main goal or anything."
At UFC 189, MacDonald enters the cage in an ideal situation; few are talking about his welterweight championship bout against Robbie Lawler, which is just the way he likes it. With a main event that features the UFC's golden boy in Conor McGregor, there's little talk of anything else.
"Yeah, it's really nice," MacDonald said on the lack of media attention. "I prefer less media, less talking. I really just enjoy the fighting part of this," he said, as if that wasn't clear.
In a way, it's hard not to feel sorry for him. He's a guy who took up mixed martial arts in his hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia and didn't put any thought into the media attention that would come. He's a shy, quiet, introverted guy who just wants to take part in his craft like any other tradesman would do. It's not difficult to see how one could tire of answering the same mundane questions he doesn't have answers for.
"It's a big adjustment, but it's just like anything else," MacDonald said. "It's like getting experience in martial arts, you get better. I'm getting experience with media and it's been a learning process. I feel like I keep getting better with every fight and I am adjusting more and more to it."
Lawler and MacDonald first met in a three-round affair at UFC 167, which ironically co-main evented a card headlined by St. Pierre's last career bout. Lawler dismantled the young contender, beating him at his own game. He used movement and pressure to force MacDonald into uncomfortable positions. Over five rounds, MacDonald thinks things will go differently.
"My mindset was off; I could have been a little more focused on being in the fight as opposed to just getting through it," MacDonald said. "I think five rounds definitely favors me. I like the longer fights because they are more realistic of being at the high level of competition."
Confidence doesn't have to be boisterous. We're so trained to the MacGregors and Chael Sonnen's of the combat sports world; anything else is seen as peculiar. MacDonald is quietly confident, as he's proven in many of his recent outings. It takes confidence to enter a cage and dismantle another combatant's arsenal.
"I've learned how to get through obstacles," MacDonald said. "I think Robbie and I are going to have a great fight, everyone is going to be really happy with it."
Use whatever analogy you want: a win over Lawler and MacDonald will remove the monkey from his back and step out of the shadow of St. Pierre. The comparisons will quiet and it will no longer be about 'if' he can accomplish great things. While MacDonald admires St. Pierre greatly, as many Canadian fighters do, this is about MacDonald's legacy now.
"It's a compliment to be compared to him, but I don't compare myself to Georges (St. Pierre)," MacDonald said. "I'm my own person, I've got my own fighting style. I try to keep myself away from the whole comparison. I'm not trying to be Georges (St. Pierre)."