At UFC on Fox 8 Rory MacDonald successfully achieved a transition from hot prospect to the most hated man on the card. How? By fighting smart. Too smart.
Rory MacDonald displayed a wonderfully accurate jab and snapped it in Jake Ellenberger's face whenever the latter stepped in. For the best part of fifteen minutes, this was the story of the fight. Unfortunately, as much as the UFC wants MMA to be taken seriously as a sport, exciting fighters still get into title contention far quicker than tedious, forgettable ones.
Now Rory MacDonald is not boring fighter ordinarily—his manhandling of Nate Diaz, his close loss to Carlos Condit and his destruction of BJ Penn should attest to that. Unfortunately Rory's greatest strength is the characteristic which is going to drive fans away from him the most—he is an intelligent fighter who, since his hard fought loss to Carlos Condit, seems reluctant to take risks.
We only need to look at the sad saga of Jon Fitch to understand where forgettable fights get a fighter. Fitch was easily the second-best welterweight in the world and could take down and grind on anyone he met and strike decently in between. When he finally got knocked out—exceptionally early in his bout with Johnny Hendricks—he was immediately out of title contention. A few fights later he was out of the UFC.
The climb is slow for a boring fighter, and the fall swift. If someone stinks up the event like Jacob Volkmann, Jon Fitch and Anthony McGee did, the UFC will be happy to throw them out the door as soon as they can justify it. If Rory MacDonald truly hopes to become a force in the division, or even a well-paid fighter in this era of TV deals and reportedly declining views, he cannot afford to be a boring fighter.
Fighting behind the jab is brilliant—if one has a hard enough jab to stun or hurt opponents rather than just throw their aim off and jam their attacks—but there is a reason that non-jabs are referred to as “power punches”. Most people, even professional fighters, need to turn their hips over and throw a right hand or come back with a left hook to do real damage.
MacDonald's jab is sound from a technical stand point, though he leans forward at the waist when he is diving in to reach for an opponent and drops his right hand. This is not great for avoiding counter jabs and counter left hooks. What MacDonald does so well, and what Tristar seems to teach so well, is how to feint, pump non committal double or triple jabs and connect with a stiff one.
MacDonald's jab is quite peculiar because it lacks the smashing authority of Georges St. Pierre's. George's jab is a driving step that coincides with the extension of his arm, it is a full-body punch. Rory seems to spring forward then push his fist out on the end. I wouldn't dare to imply it doesn't hurt—Jake Ellenberger is a far tougher man than most and he wasn't enjoying it—but he looked more confused and annoyed than in any dire straights.
MacDonald once again carried a significant reach and height advantage in this bout. This is interesting because he does not seem to keep anywhere near to the same form that St. Pierre does. When Rory pushes his jab out on the end of his step, he will stick his chin out, then back out of range.
Against Penn and Ellenberger, there were several moments where their punches fell just short as they chased him and this was put down to great distancing by MacDonald, but it would be interesting to see how this holds up against taller opponents who pursue him out of range.
Now we can't blame a boring fight entirely on Rory MacDonald. There were two men in the cage and it was clear that the other, Ellenberger, had no idea how to go about closing the distance on Rory or prevent him from jabbing.
Typically there are two ways to get close to a taller fighter—the first is to move your head or cover their lead hand as you move in close—the second is to step back and make them over commit, giving up their reach. Mike Tyson is a fantastic example of the former and Lyoto Machida is a fantastic example of the latter.
Ellenberger did neither and sat on the end of MacDonald's reach all night, reluctant to do anything because it hurts to be hit while moving in. While many asserted before the fight began that Rory was the better rounded striker, it really hurt Ellenberger to not be able to kick in this bout despite it being a pure boxing match.
Notice that almost every time Rory steps in with his jab he jumps straight back out, and his feet are almost always in line. Furthermore, when Rory circles to his left he leads with his rear leg, a basic flaw in footwork. Well-timed low kicks will break the balance of fighters who do this and expose opportunities to run in without risking getting a hard jab in the face.
While I enjoyed the fight from a technical perspective because of the jab, I can see where fans are coming from in asserting this fight was boring because it was samey and there was no sign of a conclusion before the final bell.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.