Drive to the Finish

Rory MacDonald is not the next Georges St-Pierre — he’s the first Rory MacDonald, and it’s his mission to show you what that means.

Rory MacDonaldRory MacDonald lives upstairs. He warns that it’s about 60 steps to his apartment. Once up to it, he slips off his shoes, but the American doesn’t take notice. The dumb American tromps right in and looks around.

“What is it with you guys?” MacDonald says. “You’re the second American that has come in here without taking off your shoes.” He half laughs. “It’s okay, though, the floor is filthy anyway.”

The floor is really not. It’s a clean hardwood in a clean apartment, renovated in an old building in Montreal in the Cote-des-Neiges section of the city. MacDonald, the brightest prospect in the UFC’s welterweight division, keeps things pretty dark in his crib. There’s not a lot of natural sunlight up there to brighten things up. That seems fitting for a guy with such an unnerving appearance of concealment.

By now, you’ve seen his game face. When MacDonald was getting ready to step into the cage against Che Mills at UFC 145 in Atlanta, Georgia, Joe Rogan pointed out the eerie psychotic calm of his expression. It is intense, that look, and it’s not just for battle. There is some of that Norman Bates vibe going on with the Canadian at all times, some of that American Psycho suave.

There’s a couple of contemporary art reproductions on his walls, a television, and some video games, and a massage chair next to the air-conditioning unit. Very spartan indeed—far more bachelor than psycho. He’s not 2,700 miles from his home in Kelowna, British Columbia, to live high in the hog. He’s in Quebec to shatter our perceptions of greatness—to shatter his own. Something about the austerity of his apartment brings home the loneliness of that pursuit.

“Check out the massage chair if you want,” he says. It’s the one luxury to be found, a black chair with kneading knobs and constricting pads to sort out tensions. MacDonald is getting ready. He has a photo shoot scheduled, which he wants to get over with as painlessly as possible because he has to train. He has to eat, then spar. All the media stuff is his burden to get through.

He goes into the bathroom to comb his hair. When he comes out, he wears that familiar zero expression. His hair is perfect, his posture straight and narrow. He’s the most no-nonsense 22-year-old to ever get into the fight racket.

“Actually, you know what—I’m 23 years old,” he says. “I forgot that I just had a birthday last week.”

All it took was the $85,000 he earned in bonus money from his UFC 115 fight with Carlos Condit to make the move to Montreal from British Columbia. Losing the fight was a catalyst, too. He wanted to get better. He wanted to train with the greatest welterweight ever, Georges St. Pierre, and the man who made him that way, Firas Zahabi.

So he came to Montreal to be serious.

How serious? He left his juvenile “Waterboy” nickname back in B.C. and turned into “Ares,” the God of War. C’est grave.

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“At times, yes, this sport can be intimidating,” MacDonald says at the nearby Café Orange, where he has been handed his eggs over-medium and a comical heap of bacon that he holds up as if he’s got Medusa by the braids to laugh at. “But in the important times, no. In those times when you meet people, I’m still shy—I’m still myself. It’s like, I’ve kind of developed this split personality, like Jekyll and Hyde. The important times where I’m fi ghting, there’s no intimidation—I’m not scared of anybody. I feel like a gorilla.”

Rory MacDonaldIt turns out it’s fun to talk to MacDonald, because he’s young enough to just tell you what’s what. He’s not like his mentor/ training partner St. Pierre, who is guarded in interviews to the point of becoming unknowable. There is absolute conviction in what he’s doing in fighting, where he’s going, where he’s been.

“Then there are times when it’s just me, and I’m in this big world, a young kid, and it’s whoa. But I’ve come a long way and seen a lot of things, so I’ve grown a lot in that sense.”

It’s been a nine-year journey to these cusp moments of greatness. Back in the Vancouver suburb of Langley (where his mother lives), and later in Kelowna (where his father used to live), MacDonald was a hockey player. Though he was a good centerman, he was losing interest by the time he was 14 years old. One day while driving with his dad and brother, the conversation steered toward a “UFC kind of gym” that his brother had visited. It piqued MacDonald’s curiosity, and he had “like a million questions about it.” His father—who had dabbled in kung fu and boxing back in the day—asked him if he wanted to go check out. Rory said yes. They turned around and headed to Toshida MMA in Kelowna.

And that marks the day that Rory MacDonald, at a gangly 14 years old, became the next generation of MMA.

“There were all these big muscular dudes—nobody had shirts on,” he says. “I came in, I was probably like 125 pounds soaking wet, just a bag of bones, and I see these guys, and they’re muscular, with tattoos on them—they just looked tough. And I did not look the part. I wasn’t scare of it, but I looked like an idiot the first time. You should have seen me hitting the heavy bag.”

It was a full MMA gym that taught all the disciplines. The MacDonald you see today didn’t come from jiu-jitsu or wrestling or kickboxing or anything piecemeal—he came from everything at once, beginning in the mid-2000s.

“Eventually I got really good at it, and I became obsessed with it,” he says. “I would go to school, and I would think about MMA all day long. As soon as I could, I would take the bus across town to the gym, stay there until closing, then go home and watch fight videos until I’d pass out.”

Today, he is exactly what the future of MMA looks like. Here is a man who grew up striving to get in the UFC, unlike many of the old guard who found their way into (or fell into) MMA in adulthood. And it’s why when you run down his UFC casualty list—guys like Nate Diaz, Mike Pyle, and Mills—he can boil his strength down to one essential word.

“Balance,” he says. “That’s what I think is the biggest key, to be a balanced fi ghter. My style is to be balanced and technical, but there’s also the other half, which is to be exciting and to go for the finishes at the proper times. Some guys, they get scared and they get worried about going for the fi nish, and they lose the fight. There’s a balance in MMA. There are so many variables, you need to balance it out.”

Since losing to Condit in what was one of the most memorable come-from-behind victories in UFC history, MacDonald’s been in Montreal training at Tristar Gym with GSP and Zahabi. He’s 3-0 since moving east, all one-sided victories that have made him such a curiosity in the 170-pound division that people always bring up the crossroads dead ahead known as Georges St. Pierre.

Rory MacDonaldYet, on this sunny day in early August, he is training for his upcoming fight with the recently unretired B.J. Penn. MacDonald’s been training for Penn for a while now, as his training camps tend to be drawn out affairs. In fact, heading into his last fight with Mills, MacDonald said he burned himself out in training about a month before the bout.

“I trained my ass off for that,” he says. “They had pushed back the card [from Montreal to Atlanta] by a month, so I over-trained. I just continued my training, and I was so tired by the time the fight came around. That’s why when you see me, my striking looks so slow. It felt so slow. That’s why I took him down, because I was just not comfortable in there. I didn’t get to show my best self, but I still won.”

Now, he’s got Penn in his crosshairs, and—contrary to how it looked, and even more contrary to sanity—it was Penn who requested MacDonald be his first fight out of retirement.

“He asked Dana White to fight me, and Dana told me over dinner and I didn’t know he was out of retirement, and so I was surprised,” he says. “I talked to my coach and my manager, and they were up for it. So I made it public by going on Ariel Helwani’s show, and then everyone thinks I called him out.”

Things have been turbulent since. Penn tossed out a request on his Twitter feed to have VADA—the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association—pre-screen each of the fighters beforehand. MacDonald quickly agreed to that little bit of gamesmanship, knowing exactly what was being implied.

“He wanted to make me look stupid in the public’s eye, to take a shot at me,” MacDonald says. “I hear accusations of PEDs on Twitter all the time, because I have back acne and my face gets acne, but it’s just my age. I think people are silly. They hear all these guys that are doing it—and it sucks, because there are a lot of guys doing it—and guys like me who aren’t get thrown under the bus.”

When you’re fighting a guy like B.J. Penn, who has a loyal following of blind supporters, every little accusation is magnified. MacDonald knows it from having fought Nate Diaz, who has a similar cult backing.

MacDonald smiles it all away. Criticism is a guaranteed side effect in this line of work, and he has long toughened his skin to it. But the bottom can drop out on you at any minute in this sport, too. A few days after this interview, MacDonald took an elbow in training that gashed open his brow and required 38 stitches. Penn’s going to have to wait.

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MacDonald drives a Saab, and, on this day, he’s bumping to rap music as he zigzags through traffic en-route to Tristar Gym. There’s a ding on the front from having hit an ice patch in the Montreal winter. The mild climate of British Columbia are a million miles from this island he now calls home. Rap is just what’s on, but he says he digs all genres of music. In fact, his walkout music is never the same, because he is a rarity in MMA—he’s not in the least bit superstitious.

One thing that doesn’t escape his attention is the talent surrounding him. French Canada is bustling with women, and if he pauses in conversation, that’s usually the reason. He’s got a roving eye. “I made a wise decision, right?” he says about moving to Montreal. He doesn’t read or speak a lick of French, and—unlike when he’s in Kelowna where he’s an icon and recognized wherever he goes—he can move about the city fairly anonymously. This is perfect for a guy who is all about focus.

“I’ve made a lot of friends, but I still have a tight circle of true friends that I see every day, and that’s important to me,” he says. One of the people that adjusted him to the city was St-Pierre. Not only that, but St-Pierre took him under wing when he was under the radar.

“When no one really knew me or anything, Georges would introduce me to them, show me the right gyms,” he says. “And seeing how much he trained and his schedule, it really gave me a good idea of what you need to be doing to be a champion. I owe him a lot for what he did for me, when nobody cared two shits.”

As for Firas, MacDonald calls him the “best in the business,” and he’s known his coach since he was 18 years old—long before he moved to Quebec. There is good synergy at Tristar.

Rory MacDonaldMacDonald doesn’t exactly know what the street parking situation is, but he has a spot around back that’s safe of parking violations. He parks and grabs his stuff. He walks with his arms dangling casually at his sides, wearing striped shorts and sunglasses. He is unassumingly fi t. When his eyes meet yours, they are melancholy. The eyebrows are always a little surprised. It adds up to something very intense.

Maybe that’s what Mike Pyle saw before UFC 133. Or maybe that’s the abyss Mac- Donald forced him to look into. Pyle was one of those rare few who rubbed MacDonald the wrong way before fight night.

“He’s all talk, that guy,” MacDonald says. “He’s a mental midget. That’s what I call him, because when I look him in the eyes he breaks. He’s a very weak man. He’s just not real—he puts on a show, he puts on this parade to get where he wants to be because he’s not good enough at fighting.”

Words like that might have Pyle asking for a rematch.

“He’d get it in the street if he wants it,” MacDonald says. “He’s a waste of time in the ring.”

MacDonald calls it like he sees it. The take away? Don’t rub him wrong like Mike Pyle did.

Inside Tristar, it’s all exposed concrete with pipes running along the ceiling like a subway map. This is GSP’s house. All around are pictures of St-Pierre, and there are plenty of other images. There’s the image of Muhammad Ali saying, “I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.” There’s knobby-kneed Carmen Basilio, and there’s Roberto Duran and Riddick Bowe.

There aren’t many images of the young MacDonald, but he is a presence. He wants to be the best 170-pound fighter in the world. The suspicion is that he will be very soon. Yet the best 170-pounder in the world—Georges St-Pierre—is synonymous with the bright red stars in the Tristar window. The question asks itself—can they co-exist, or is the confl ict inevitable?

“That’s a problem I’m looking forward to having one day,” Firas Zahabi says. “If I have the two best 170s in the world then I’ve done my job.” However, it’s an impasse for Zahabi, and if the day comes that St-Pierre and MacDonald are the No. 1 and No. 2, he says he’ll fi gure something out.

“Fighting each other is not an option for me because, if I do that, then I’m going to betray one of my friends,” Zahabi says. “Then I’m going to split the camp in half. I’m going to make it that money comes first before any friendships or relationships we’ve built together. I know there’s a lot of money on the
table, but I don’t care—our principles are first. You can’t give up your principles.”

Principles are the sound of the heavy bag and the zip of a jump rope and the conviction to follow through. Principles are what hangs on the walls at Tristar.

“What kind of person would I be?” Zahabi says. “I’m going to stick to my guns to the end on that. Let’s see what happens, but I’m very confi dent we would fi nd a solution. Don’t forget that Georges and Rory are very different in age. There is about 10 years difference. Georges is not going to be champion when Rory is at his peak, because he’ll be past his peak.”

And Rory’s right. There are so many challenges at 170 pounds that he can feast for years without having to cross GSP’s path. But you can’t help but notice there aren’t many pictures of MacDonald on those old walls. You can’t help but wonder of the day that might start getting to him.

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If a day spent with MacDonald can tell you anything, it’s this he’s a very nice guy. He’s reserved, well mannered, and strict in his ways. He’s also fi ercely driven. “I don’t want to be silly and goof around, because this isn’t a joke to me,” he deadpans. “Some of these fighters are jokers—they laugh and play and giggle. They want camera time and to be noticed.

“I’m a fighter, and that’s it.”

That’s the short and simple of it. MacDonald is so unflinching, so dedicated to the idea of where he’s going, that it doesn’t sound at all audacious.

“I want to be the champion at 170, and once I feel I hit my stride and my peak, I’m going to try and take on other weight classes,” he says. “I want to do it and test myself. We’ll see what happens in the future, if I feel confi dent enough at 25 and 26 years old, then we’ll see. But the idea would be to win multiple championships at the same time.”

The real trick here is that MacDonald is living at a time in his life where boldness and modesty are still equally interchangeable. He’s barely 23 years old. Five years from now, if he makes good on his goals, that modesty might be a little harder to come by.

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