Michael McDonald might drive himself to UFC on Fox 9.
From his home in Oakdale, Calif., it’ll take about 90 minutes—a straight shot north on I-5 to Sacramento, where on Saturday night McDonald will fight Urijah Faber in a bantamweight bout steeped in title implications.
It’ll be a luxury to have access to his own vehicle, he admits, especially after the UFC shipped him off to Atlanta (2,400 miles), London (3,900 miles) and then Boston (3,080 miles) for his last three fights.
He drove to the event when he fought Alex Soto at UFC 139 in San Jose two years ago and it seemed to work. McDonald won by knockout in 56 seconds.
“Not to be on a plane was very nice,” he says.
Don’t let the light travel schedule fool you, though, this won’t be a home game for McDonald. Not when there are four fighters from Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male (including Faber) on the card this weekend.
Not when he’s fighting a borderline legend of MMA's lighter weight classes, a guy who actually bills himself as “The California Kid.”
“He’s probably going to have more fans,” McDonald says. “He has a bigger fanbase than me. It’s about an hour-and-a-half away from my home and it’s probably five minutes away from his.”
If he thought about it long enough, McDonald might come around to the idea that this is a pretty big deal for him—fighting Faber in the former champion’s hometown. At just 22 years old, though, he’s pretty much the epitome of the steady-eddy professional and until this bout is over, he’s not allowing himself to think about Faber as anything more than just another opponent.
Still, McDonald grew up in California and made the first 11 appearances of his pro career there from 2007-10. On some level, he knows there’s a little more at stake here than just possible pole position in the 135-pound division.
“If I had a dime for every time somebody asked me what I do for a job and I said, I’m a mixed martial artist, and they said ‘Oh, do you know Urijah Faber?’ I’d be freaking rich,” McDonald says. “So, that’d be pretty nice to say, ‘Oh yeah, I beat that guy.’ That’d be pretty cool.”
McDonald bears no more ill will toward his fellow Californian than is necessary during the week before two men fight at an event a stone’s throw from their homes, in front of a crowd likely stocked with friends and family.
He and Faber are “business friends,” he says, and then adds, “He’s a nice guy. I don’t have any animosity toward him at all.”
Not that this fight needed an extra storyline.
During the years immediately preceding McDonald’s arrival in the big show, Faber was regarded as the best, most popular fighter under 155 pounds. More recently, he’s scuffled, going just 8-5 since since his aura-shattering TKO defeat at the hands of Mike Brown in Nov. 2008.
Meanwhile, McDonald has sprinted to 16-2 overall, 5-1 in the Octagon.
Both guys have lost to current interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao but are still in the thick of the 135-pound title picture. If McDonald beats Faber and Barao should lose to returning champ Dominick Cruz during their unification bout in February, McDonald would be a shoo-in as the next challenger.
Faber? He likely stays in the mix no matter what. Because he’s Urijah Faber.
Despite the 34-year-old's recent struggles, McDonald won’t say he’s lost a step. Instead, he compares Faber’s dominant run with the featherweight title to Anderson Silva’s time as middleweight champion and says a lot of the guys who fought Faber back then beat themselves before the cage door even opened.
“There’s an intimidation factor when you’re the champion or when you have a reign at the top,” McDonald says. “I think that was a factor when Urijah was the champion. People were a little bit intimidated by him, subconsciously. I think that’s the biggest difference between him now and then.”
By virtue of saying that, of course, McDonald implies that it won’t happen to him. He says he’s prepared for the strategies Faber will likely try to implement against him, but he hasn’t spent much time poring over video looking for the secret to how to beat him, either.
“In my mind I think I’m going to beat him everywhere, and I’m actually interested to see (if that’s true),” he says. “I think I’m going to beat him everywhere, so let’s see if I actually can. Let’s see how many of those things play out like I think they will …
“Other than one fight, everybody I’ve ever fought has been rocked or knocked out,” McDonald continues. “I don’t think this fight is any different. I think Urijah’s going to get hit and he’s going to be rocked. I think the question is just going to be about what happens after that.”
Faber has always been “on his radar,” says McDonald, who made his WEC debut the same night Faber announced himself in the bantamweight division by dispatching Takeya Mizugaki. Since then, they’ve fought on the same UFC card twice, so if a collision between them wasn’t exactly inevitable, McDonald always knew it was a good possibility.
Two top 135-pound contenders, both trying to get back to another title shot, their fight schedules more or less complementary—it was easy to do the math.
It’s also easy to bill this bout as something of an in-state rivalry match, though McDonald professes not to care about any of that.
He says he doesn’t care that he’s fighting Faber in his hometown or that—despite the fact he’ll only be an hour or so from his own front door—it’ll likely go down in hostile territory.
He says he’s content beat that same old fighter’s drum: It’s just another fight. Just another opponent.
Maybe the gravity of the situation won’t dawn on McDonald until the next time some fan asks him if he knows Urijah Faber.
Maybe then he’ll have a story to tell.
Chad Dundas is a lead writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.