Potential setbacks lurk around every corner in the fight game. Whether the bumps in the road come from injuries sustained in training, or an off night inside the cage, fighters learn to balance the ebb and flow throughout the progression of their careers.
While no fighter is immune to these circumstances, there are those who establish such a profound trajectory where a great deal of expectation becomes attached to them. With talent being an absolute must for long-term success to be obtained, there is often some additional element involved that causes fans and the media to project a bright future for a fighter.
For Rory MacDonald it was his age. The Tri-Star fighter burst onto the UFC stage at 21-years-old and made an immediate impact by fighting at a level beyond his years. The young Canadian found victory in six of his first seven showings, with the only setback coming at the hands of former WEC champion Carlos Condit—in a fight MacDonald was dominating up until the very end.
Following his loss to Condit, "Ares" rolled off five consecutive wins over increasingly competitive competition. The British Columbia native rag-dolled Nate Diaz, blistered Mike Pyle, pounded the senses out of Che Mills and battered former two-divisional champion BJ Penn. Those performances helped MacDonald trade in his prospect label for that of a certified contender, and he took a position in the upper tier of the welterweight division.
Where reaching rare air was certainly an accomplishment, things took a bit of a turn in his next two outings. He outlasted Jake Ellenberger in a fight where both men gave lackluster performances at UFC on Fox 8, then came out on the losing end of a split decison against Robbie Lawler at UFC 167 last November.
When the final bell sounded, the former Elite XC champion had his hand raised, and MacDonald was faced with only his second loss in his eight years as a professional. In the aftermath of the fight, the criticism on MacDonald's performance came flooding in, and he stepped up to meet it head on. The 24-year-old publicly stated his motivation had been off in recent fights, but the loss to Lawler had re-ignited the competitive fire inside of him.
"I'm still constantly improving, but I really didn't show improvements in my last fight like I usually do," MacDonald told Bleacher Report. "When I fight, people expect to see an even better version of what they've seen before, and I think I disappointed in my last one. People are going to be pleasantly surprised in this next fight."
The Firas Zahabi-trained fighter responded to the situation by asking the UFC to get him back to work in the quickest possible fashion and to make sure there was another top welterweight standing across from him inside the cage. The promotion responded by tapping former middleweight title challenger turned welterweight contender Demian Maia, and the two men will square off at UFC 170 this Saturday night.
"This is what I wanted," MacDonald said. "I didn't want to sit on the sidelines for too long and be pouting about the last fight. Being able to jump right back into training camp helped me get my mind off of things and helped pick up my spirits. Now, it has me looking in the direction of the title.
"With Georges stepping away, [Johny] Hendricks fighting Robbie [Lawler] and the other fights on that card in March, it has really opened the doorway for everyone in the top 10 of the division to really make their mark. I'm really looking and motivated to have that belt around my waist this year."
Much like MacDonald, the Brazilian grappling ace also had his momentum stunted when he came out on the losing end of a split decision against Jake Shields at Fight Night 29. The loss was his first at 170 pounds and brought a three-fight winning streak to a halt. Following the setback, Maia made a similar request to the UFC and asked for a fight that would give him the potential to jump right back into the title hunt.
There will undoubtedly be a lot on the line when the cage door closes in Las Vegas on Saturday night, and MacDonald believes it's the perfect fight and perfect set of circumstances to bring out his best.
"I'm very excited for this fight," MacDonald said. "I think he's a great opponent and I have a lot of respect for his style of fighting. I think it will be an entertaining fight. He poses a lot of threats—as do I—and I think it's an exciting mix.
"I haven't really been delving into it or thinking about it too much from a stylistic standpoint. I've really been working on my own skills and making sure I'm going to pull the trigger when I'm in there on fight night. I'm not going to go in there and over-think things. I'm going to go into the fight and let the training shine through.
"I'm confident in my skills if this fight goes to the ground," he added in regard to hitting the mat with such a decorated jiu-jitsu practitioner. "I'm a black belt in jiu-jitsu as well. I'm not saying everything equals out in that area, but this is a fight. I'm confident in all areas, even on the ground with such a skilled ground fighter."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.