The memories of UFC 189 are some of the brightest memories from a single event that I've ever had the privilege of taking in. Thomas Almeida stunning Brad Pickett with a flying knee after losing the first round that Pickett was awakened from upon the impact of his head clashing against the mat. Jeremy Stephens surprising Dennis Bermudez in a similar manner about an hour later to secure a win in a fight that he too was behind on the scorecards. Connor McGregor backing up his bold predictions and shutting up his detractors by taking out not just a wrestler, but perhaps the best wrestler in the division in Chad Mendes to secure the interim featherweight title.
But there is one memory that burns brightest for not just me that night, but for all in MMA fandom. It has been cliché for fighters to say that they are going to war when they step into a cage, but there can be no other way to describe what went down between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald that night. They put on one of the most entertaining back-and-forth fights ever seen in the sport. Both emerged from the cage that night bloodied and battered as few ever have in the history of this violent sport, Lawler emerging the victor with a late stoppage in the fifth round. Lawler's lip was split so badly it truly looked as if someone had run a knife across his mouth reminiscent of a scene out of a horror movie. MacDonald was in worse shape as the bridge of his nose had been separated from his skull, turning his nose into a faucet from which there appeared to be no end to the amount of blood pouring out.
The scene that has stuck out most in my head though was a scene I witnessed the following day on multiple MMA news sites. Sitting up after collapsing in a heap from the accumulation of damage at the conclusion of the match, McDonald's head was bobbing like a newborn baby unable to support the weight of its own head. It wasn't long before MacDonald fell over, his body to weak to even sit up. At that moment I couldn't help but wonder if that was going to be the last time we see the title contending iteration of MacDonald.
Considering MacDonald was only 25 at the time of the fight, the notion that MacDonald had peeked sounds like a ridiculous notion to many. If anything he should continue to be growing as a fighter. Anderson Silva didn't lay claim to his UFC title until he was 31 and proceeded to reign for almost seven years, dropping the belt at 38. How could MacDonald not continue to improve? In the strictest sense MacDonald should continue to improve... but that would be ignoring the brutal toll his battle with Robbie Lawler took on him.
MacDonald employed a cautious style this past weekend in his contest with Stephen Thompson. No surprise as this is a typical strategy for him. There were signs though that there are lingering effects from his last appearance in the cage.
Late in the fight when it was clear that he was behind on the scorecards, MacDonald needed to press the action. For the most part, he did what he needed to do. But there were other times where he tried to wade into range with his left hand out while his right arm covers his face in an unorthodox manner that looked as though he was attempting to protect his nose in particular. It seemed he was more concerned with protecting himself than throwing the requisite offense needed to get the win even as he walked into the danger zone. I'm not ripping on him for protecting himself as that is an integral part of being a successful MMA fighter, but there are times where you have to throw caution to the wind and be willing to eat a shot or two to get yours in. MacDonald didn't have a problem with that against Lawler, but he sure as hell did against Thompson.
Thompson did work over MacDonald's face throughout the course of the fight, particularly on the rare occasions that MacDonald did open up. By the end of the fight MacDonald's nose was pouring with blood. It wasn't pouring at the level that it had been against Lawler, but it was still a significant amount. Whether MacDonald was simply trying to protect himself from further damage is irrelevant as it indicates that his nose can't hold up to the usual amount of punishment doled out over the course of a typical fight any longer. This would be a huge detriment to MacDonald. Perhaps even detriment enough that it could cost him victories.
Maybe I'm looking too much into his body language, but there is reason to do so. Fighters that emerge from epic battles having taken an ungodly amount of punishment have historically proven to never the same physically or mentally. Look at soon-to-be UFC Hall of Famer Don Frye. Frye not only had his ankles shredded by Ken Shamrock in a legendary fight fueled by hate, he engaged in the wildest brawl this sport has ever seen against Yoshihiro Takayama in his next contest. He did emerge victorious from both of those contests which provided him with a 15-1 record at the time, but did so at a heavy price as that was where the wheels fell off the bus. He finished his career 5-8 with a no contest as his body was no longer able to perform the way it once did or withstand the punishment it received in return.
Some may argue that Frye was already 36 years old by the time he emerged from those battles which is a fair argument. So how about the cases of David Loiseau and Joe Stevenson? Both received title shots at the ages of 26 and 25 respectively. Their bouts may not be the classics that MacDonald and Frye engaged in, but they sure as hell received legendary beatings. Loiseau fell short to Rich Franklin at UFC 58 while Stevenson took his lumps from BJ Penn at UFC 80. On the other side of his title loss, Loiseau would never win another fight in the UFC despite three attempts against opponents whom the former version of himself likely would have torn though. Stevenson's decline seemed a bit more gradual, though he would close out his career 3-8 following his loss to Penn.
It could be said that Gray Maynard is the best comparison to MacDonald as he not only endured a lot of punishment in his contests, but came very close to possessing championship gold. After one of the greatest fights in the history of MMA in which Maynard dropped Edgar not once, not twice, but three times in the first round, the judges ruled the contest a draw, a decision that few outside of the Edgar and Maynard camps argued. Maynard came back strong and another classic was delivered in the rematch as Maynard dropping Edgar in the opening round again. But it was not to be as Edgar persevered and knocked Maynard out cold in the fourth round, popping Maynard's hopes and dreams in violent fashion. Since that time Maynard has gone 1-4 with 3 of those losses being KO's in addition to being knocked down 5 times over the course of those bouts.
MacDonald was also in proximity of being crowned champion as he damn near finished Lawler in addition to being ahead on the judge's cards had he and Lawler survived until the 25 minute time limit expired. Maynard never seemed to recover psychologically and there is a possibility MacDonald could be affected in the same way after coming thisclose to catching his golden goose only to fall short. That would be torture for just about anyone... even the most hardened of fighters.
It is too early to say that MacDonald's career is definitively going to suffer a similar fate, especially given that his performance against Thompson was respectable. After all, MacDonald does seem to be breed from a different cloth as he has said that his fight with Lawler was the best day of his life. That doesn't mean that we can't question whether or not we've definitively seen the best that he has to offer us as he is showing subtle signs of suffering the same fate as those who've gone through similar wars.
That he started his professional career at the tender age of 16 comes into play as well as it isn't just the cage time that accumulates, but the training camp wars too. Remember that Jordan Mein retired last year at the age of 25 and he started his career about the same time MacDonald did. The question of whether or not we've seen the best he has to offer couldn't be coming at a worse time as he is now free to test free agent waters. While no one doubts he'll receive a raise over what his last contract provided him -- his last reported salary was a base of $59,000 against Lawler -- it's probable those questions could cost him more money than his loss to Thompson does.
I hope MacDonald gets paid as he deserves for putting his body on the line like he has for the fans. I hope that he comes back better than ever to once again challenge for the title. Bottom line is that I only hope the best for him. Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that those things might not happen.