From the first time Rory MacDonald walked into an MMA class, it was love at first sight. In fact, when the then 14-year-old jumped in the family car for the ride home afterward, he informed his father that he had found his calling.
So quick and so complete was MacDonald’s fixation for his new sport that other sports soon ceased to exist for him. He’d grown up playing hockey, soccer and baseball, but within weeks, they were all in his rearview mirror.
“It just kind of took over my life,” MacDonald says with a chuckle.
Now 20 years old, MacDonald represents the new breed of pros who grew up training MMA from the very beginning, not learning the fighting arts à la carte, like many veteran fighters had to do.
The Canadian welterweight recently made his UFC debut, defeating the 10-year veteran Mike Guymon by first-round armbar submission at UFC Fight Night 20.
MacDonald is largely regarded as something of a phenom. He sought out his first pro bout at 16 years of age and, fittingly, had to win his first important fight to make it happen—getting his parents’ permission. Because he was underage, he needed it. Showing the dogged determination that would define his rise up the MMA ladder, he eventually won their blessing.
“Basically, I told them that this is what I wanted, and I was going to do it no matter what,” MacDonald says. “They supported me.”
They had little choice. By that time, MacDonald was obsessed. He remembers sitting in high school classrooms unable to focus on school work because his mind would constantly wander to a new move he was working on or what his training would encompass later that day. Like clockwork, as soon as he returned home from school, he’d find a ride to the gym, and there he would stay until closing time.
In his first pro bout, he defeated Terry Thiara by first-round submission.But his mission was more than simply winning a fight.
“I went to the fight wanting to show everyone I belonged, proving I wasn’t a regular kid but something special,” he says. “I wanted to show I could be entertaining—that I could fight older guys and be successful.”
MacDonald kept winning. His first big test came against Kajan Johnson, a vastly more experienced fighter with 21 bouts under his belt as well as a five-fight win streak. The 18-year-old MacDonald won via third-round TKO. In his next fight, he had an even bigger challenge, facing Clay French, a veteran who had faced quality fighters, including Shinya Aoki, Mac Danzig, Jason Ireland, and Jameel Massouh. MacDonald took him out in the second round.
“After I won that fight, I realized I was at the level where I could fight in the UFC,” he says.
While MacDonald says it was his goal to make it to the UFC before his 20th birthday—he missed by less than six months—he now says he’s thankful for the extra time he had to prepare. That time included at least one stint with UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre.
As a welterweight, MacDonald might one day have St-Pierre in his cross hairs. After all, phenoms are meant to think big. Asked where he sees his career a decade from now, he doesn’t hesitate. You can tell he’s thought about this before, maybe in a high school classroom.
“In 10 years,” he says, “I want to be the best fighter in the world, and considered the best ever.”