Rory MacDonald: From Also-Ran to Title Contender Overnight, and What It Means

Matthew RyderFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2014

Feb 22, 2014; Las Vegas, NV, USA;  Rory MacDonald (red gloves) throws a punch at Demian Maia (blue gloves) during their UFC welterweight bout at Mandalay Bay. MacDonald won by way of a 29-28 decision. Mandatory Credit: Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Rory MacDonald was pretty much done.

Remember? He looked horrible in beating Jake Ellenberger and lost pretty convincingly to Robbie Lawler, and he didn't finish BJ Penn when it was pretty clear he could have.

That was it, man. Game over.

A career lost before his 25th birthday, his considerable skill wasted away behind a pumping jab and the occasional body kick. He'll probably be serving you at Dunkin' Donuts (or Tim Horton's if he decides to retire back to BC) by the summer given how quickly he's lost his luster in MMA.

That was more or less the eulogy the MMA world was writing at the end of 2013, waiting for the kid who once showed limitless potential to reappear in the Octagon. Then the UFC gave him Demian Maia, he won a solid but certainly unspectacular decision, and all of a sudden the party was back on.

It was a Rory MacDonald world again. The rest of us were just living in it.

Now that may be an overstatement, but once UFC 171 happened and no clear welterweight contender emerged despite basically the whole division either competing or circling with interest, it became only a slight one.

People began to bang the drum for a MacDonald title shot, not the least of which was Joe Rogan right on the broadcast, and the young Canadian had undergone a full-blown career cycle in the course of a few months.

He was the next hot thing at welterweight.

He looked bad, so then he wasn't.

He looked alright, so faith was restored and he was a man on the rise again.

Everyone else looked bad, so he immediately became the best option among contenders people have heard of.

Only in MMA, a sport of instant gratification and what-have-you-done-for-me-lately attitudes not seen anywhere else, could such a roller-coaster ride happen in a few months. The UFC train keeps rolling; it doesn't stop for anyone and it needs contenders to fuel it.

Before anyone knew champion Johny Hendricks was hurt in his UFC 171 title bid, every possible challenger was pretty uninspiring. MacDonald conjured up the least indifference, so he was likely to get the shot.

Now Hendricks is hurt so the rest of the division will probably sort itself out more naturally, but MacDonald is still in that mix. That's more reasonable given his recent history, though one has to wonder what the volatility of his recent career tells us.

It probably tells us that we're all too quick to anoint young guys as the next generational talents these days. For every 10 Next Big Things we're seeing in the cage, we'll be lucky to have one of them be a Jon Jones or GSP.

It probably tells us that we're all too quick to claim those guys are done long before they are—or, perhaps, before they've even started. Not everyone's path is the same, and some guys are out of the sport at an age that others are winning major titles.

It probably tells us that we live in an era where, thanks to lots of demand and not enough supply, a guy can be deemed a contender on questionable merit because belts were made to be defended. Pay-per-views need to be sold and FOX cards need to be headlined and nothing does that better than a title defense on a Saturday night, regardless of how the two dudes (or dudettes) came to be in that position.

So let MacDonald's overnight run from also-ran to contender serve as a cautionary tale. The next time we want to say a kid is a guaranteed champion before he's close to putting it all together, we shouldn't.

The next time we want to strip that kid of this imagined status for not putting it together, we shouldn't.

The next time we argue for him to be a title contender because no one else seems like a better option, we shouldn't.

Let a guy breathe. Let him become the challenger he can be in the time it takes him to do it. Everyone involved—the fighters, the fans and the promotion itself—will be better off for it.

Not everyone will navigate such choppy waters as successfully as MacDonald apparently has, and who knows how many true prospects and contenders that may cost the sport as a result.