He has a way to go in his young career, but his performance to this point places him safely as a solid future contender for the bantamweight title. He has expressed a desire to be champion, a youthful courage in fighting any opponent, and the style and skills to make the first two unquestionably proper.
A closer look at his abilities, especially as exhibited in his fight last night against Torres and more of his recent bouts, shows exactly why McDonald is on the fast track to becoming a future champion in the UFC's bantamweight division.
The kid is 21 years old, is undefeated in the UFC and has an overall record of 16-1-0.
He also has an appetite for things like other contenders his age, including pizza, ice cream, focused striking and the natural ability to maintain the structure of a fight from beginning to end.
He displayed an affinity for all of these at UFC 145 when he showed up with the maturity needed to beat Torres, the veteran by many years and many fights. Most of us thought Torres would teach McDonald a thing or two, and this may still have been the case, only McDonald is the kid who doesn’t seem to study but shows up and aces the test.
I’ll stop the youthful analogies about youth—McDonald’s age is nothing but an advantage at this point. If he continues showing this level of competence and can only physically improve, he’ll no doubt move quickly up the ladder. That’s not to say he won’t meet some strong competition along the way, but even with losses, his age is on his side.
Although McDonald versus Torres didn’t go to the ground at all (except when Torres fell to McDonald’s uppercut), McDonald has shown his smart ability to bring a ground game when needed.
Case in point: McDonald’s “Fight of the Night” victory over Edwin Figueroa at UFC Fight Night 24. McDonald handed Figueroa his first loss that night in a fight that began with McDonald's excellent striking before he quickly took it to the ground.
McDonald was able to work out of Figueroa’s submission attempts, all the while attempting his own. Both of McDonald’s attempts looked strong and promising enough that the credit in their failure should go to Figueroa’s strength in escaping—the same strength he showed more recently at UFC 143 against Alex Caceres’ numerous submission attempts.
In addition, McDonald’s WEC debut against the hard-hitting Clint Godfrey showed his ability to take a strike-heavy fight to the ground to attempt submission. Both fighters hit well in the beginning of Round 1, when McDonald knocked Godfrey to the ground before allowing his opponent to stand up and continue.
But when Godfrey slammed McDonald to the mat later in the same round, McDonald showed extreme poise. He never lost patience and took Godfrey in the end with an armbar.
In these fights, McDonald showed strong ability on the ground and patience well beyond his age. While he still has a lot to prove in this part of the game, he’s promised us a lot as well.
Perhaps the most important thing McDonald showed us at UFC 145 was his ability to adapt strong striking capabilities beyond simple technique or power, but to match his opponents' weaknesses.
McDonald’s striking is no doubt one of the most impressive things about his fighting, but Torres’ 76-inch reach could have been advantageous over McDonald’s 70-inch reach. It was clear going into this fight that McDonald would have to get inside Torres’ reach to be effective.
He did just that. McDonald spent the first part of Round 1 measuring the ability of his reach before learning that solid footwork and an uppercut could get inside. Midway through the round, McDonald moved forward aggressively, following a left jab with a right uppercut and another jab to break Torres’ reach. This same combination proved more effective later in the round when McDonald was able to measure and supplement it better with his power.
McDonald’s KO of Alex Soto at UFC 139 showed similar aggression, but this time McDonald swarmed Soto with a number of punches before adding power behind his right hand and dropping Soto to the mat.
McDonald’s barrage of strong, wild punches against Soto made it easy to think a more veteran opponent could calm the fighter’s approach, but McDonald’s striking against Torres forces reconsideration. Though his striking could be developed more in its accuracy, it's improvement from his bout against Soto to his bout against Torres shows that he is not only aware of this, but he’s also making huge strides to perfect what’s already strong.
At UFC 145, McDonald showed extreme power behind his punches. More impressively, that power came at all distances.
His first-round knockout of Miguel Torres revealed the power that comes from McDonald’s punches even from inside his opponent’s reach. Even before the fight-winning uppercut, McDonald landed an uppercut followed by a jab that stunned Torres and allowed McDonald to land heavier follow-up punches. It’s the quick power behind the first combination that opened the door to a win.
McDonald’s knockout of Soto showed a similar power. McDonald felled Soto twice in that fight, and when McDonald couldn’t get a solid position to effectively strike past Soto’s defense while on the ground, he stood up and tried again. The second attempt, of course, was a success that earned him “Knockout of the Night.”
Of his 16 wins, 10 have been by KO or TKO. The power with which these knockouts are gained is both impressive and destined to improve with each fight.
The bantamweight division is packed with excellent competition for McDonald. From where we sit now, McDonald’s presence and movement in the division is absolutely welcome.
McDonald is not ready to face Dominick Cruz or Urijah Faber. At this point, he probably shouldn’t even fight Renan Barao, whose potential will be better suited against the top fighters in any upcoming match after his UFC 148 match with Ivan Menjivar.
But McDonald should absolutely be thrown in the mix with the top bantamweights, and soon.
A fight against Scott Jorgenson, Brad Pickett or the loser of Barao versus Menjivar would be a good match for McDonald. He’s got a good chance to win any of them, and each will help us learn a little more about McDonald’s full potential while helping the fighter develop any weaknesses. I’d even go a bit further and say that McDonald could fight Brian Bowles. Though it's a dangerous one, a victory there would catapult his career.
Given his exciting performance last night, the UFC could also choose to simply place him in an exciting fight next (much like Rory MacDonald versus Che Mills) to showcase his talent and build the hype. The good thing for McDonald is that there are few options that would diminish our attention to his promise.
The bantamweight fighters ranked above him will all prepare him for a fight against Dominick Cruz, given Cruz’s cleaning of the division. Moreover, fighters like Bowles, Faber and Barao will test McDonald’s complete style, as all are adept at striking, submission and changing up when the fight calls for it.
I’d argue that these fights will only help McDonald mature smartly. At his age and with his skill, a loss won’t greatly impact his eventual shot at a title. While the young fighter is hungry for that shot at the title, time spent climbing his way up this particular ladder will be time well spent.