In late 2011, I was in Toronto covering UFC 140: Jones vs. Machida for my former employer.
I remember plenty about that week. Jon Jones faced his toughest challenger yet in Lyoto Machida, then left him face-down and unconscious on the canvas after a brutal guillotine choke. Frank Mir murdered Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's arm with a kimura. And I ate roughly 21 gyros from this fantastic little gyro joint next to the UFC's host hotel, which was a terrible decision and one I do not recommend replicating.
There's one more thing I'll never forget. On Thursday night before the fight, the UFC's public relations department held a media mixer at a local bar. It was a chance to get together with folks working in the media field, to talk and generally have a good time without a computer in front of us and with no work to do. It had already been a long week, though, and I was exhausted.
But then Rory MacDonald showed up.
I began chatting with MacDonald. As tired as I was from a hectic work schedule, MacDonald was even more exhausted due to an endless amount of media commitments. This was another media commitment, in a way, even though it was held at a bar and offered free food and drinks. And so he wasn't in the best mood, which is understandable; the PR schedule some of these fighters must endure often borders on the insane.
MacDonald and I didn't talk much about MMA. When you're away from work, you don't really want to talk about work, and even though I consider myself extremely lucky to work in this field, there still comes a point when you don't want to talk about it. You want to relax. I knew MacDonald likely felt the same way, so I mostly kept the conversation to other, non-cagefighting things.
But I did ask MacDonald a question that was on the back of everybody's mind back then, and it has since moved to the forefront: If push came to shove, if a championship was at stake, would he fight friend and training partner Georges St-Pierre?
"No," MacDonald told me, and I could sense that he was resolute. "There's just no reason to do that."
I understood. I used to be a big believer in the idea that teammates should fight each other, but that was before I visited gyms like American Kickboxing Academy and Tristar. That was before I saw how close-knit many of them were. What I didn't understand then, and what I understand now, is that it's not just about training or showing up at the gym and putting work in alongside another fighter.
When fighters from these gyms say that they are teammates, that is what they mean. They are a team, united in helping each other while also furthering their own careers in the process. At AKA, I watched a team meeting come together after a training session; in the meeting, the fighters were encouraged to get any gripes off their chest in front of everyone else on the team. Those gripes were discussed and resolved, and then the athletes gathered in a circle for a practice-closing chant.
That was the moment that made me realize it's probably okay if Cain Velasquez and Daniel Cormier don't want to fight each other.
Still, there are moments where two teammates are stacked at the top of a division, where the challenger has nowhere else to go if he doesn't want to face his teammate. That's what we call a career conundrum; how do you maintain that brotherhood with your teammate when he's holding the gold that could potentially crown you the best in your division?
It's workable. Cormier won't face Velasquez because he isn't just a friend or a training partner; he's also the heavyweight champion's wrestling coach. And so he is planning an eventual drop to light heavyweight to avoid the messy discussion and the questions about Velasquez.
When I talked to MacDonald, I believe he was resolute. He wasn't near the top of the division then, and so he had no real reason to discuss the possibility of training somewhere other than Tristar and being coached by someone other than Firas Zahabi and perhaps punching St-Pierre in the face for real and not just in training.
Perhaps it's just me, but I sense that MacDonald's position may be shifting these days. With a win over Jake Ellenberger at UFC on FOX next week, MacDonald will be in the driver's seat for a title shot. Because that is the case, the questions about MacDonald and St-Pierre are coming with more regularity, only the answer he's giving these days is a lot different than the one he gave me in December 2011.
"I'm just kind of focused on this fight for now. My whole career's kind of been go with the flow, everything changes after each fight," MacDonald said on a conference call today. "I'll see where I am after this fight, and just the options from there. Nothing's out of the question."
Nothing's out of the question.
That statement is a signal that MacDonald is considering the possibility of fighting St-Pierre. If it wasn't something he's been thinking about, he would've shut down the question the kind of answer he gave me. Instead of saying "No," MacDonald is essentially saying "we'll see."
MacDonald currently sits at #3 in the UFC's official welterweight rankings. The two men in front of them have either already lost to St-Pierre (Carlos Condit) or will get their chance to face him later this year (Johny Hendricks).
MacDonald is in the driver's seat. If he beats Jake Ellenberger—and though he's facing the toughest opponent of his career thus far, MacDonald still has a very good chance of winning the fight—he'll be in a position to challenge the winner of St-Pierre and Hendricks, to prove that he's the best welterweight fighter in the world.
Perhaps MacDonald will avoid the entire situation by moving to middleweight. Perhaps he'll take fights against other top 10 welterweights until St-Pierre either loses or retires, leaving an opening at the top of the division.
Or maybe, just maybe, MacDonald will elect to step in the cage with St-Pierre. They'll handle it with professionalism, but it would still be a messy situation. MacDonald would be forced to change training camps because St-Pierre has tenure at Tristar. For a brief period of time, MacDonald would have to change everything that he knows, and it will be painful and difficult.
But I'm sensing that MacDonald is driven to be the best, and I also sense that he knows the road to the top goes through St-Pierre. And while it won't be an easy road to travel, I believe MacDonald has the desire to be the world champion, even if that means facing off against a friend, training partner and mentor.