Normally when a 29-year-old fighter is set to compete, retirement isn’t one of the biggest questions heading into the bout. But, as he has throughout his career, Rory MacDonald differs from the norm.
MacDonald puts his welterweight title on the line in a Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix semifinal fight against Neiman Gracie at Bellator 222 on June 14. If his recent actions are to be read into, there is a real possibility that this bout could be the last time MacDonald straps on the gloves.
Even this fight was briefly in question following the champion’s first-round bout against Jon Fitch.
MacDonald’s back-and-forth fight with Fitch ended in a majority draw. Fitch’s wrestling-heavy approach won him the fight on judge Anthony Maness’ scorecard by a score of 48-46, but judges Michael Bell and Ron McCarthy both scored 47-47 draws, according to MMADecisions.com. All three judges gave Fitch a 10-8 in the third round.
Bellator’s way of handling the outcome was to advance the champion MacDonald to the next round of the tournament.
Rory MacDonald opens up about mindset change
MacDonald’s post-fight talk with John McCarthy further amplified the already stressful moment for Bellator brass. In his speech, MacDonald spoke candidly about the issues he faced once the action began.
“It’s hard to sometimes pull the trigger now I guess,” MacDonald said. “I don’t have that killer inside. I don’t know. It’s really hard to explain, but I hesitate a little bit now.”
The champion detailed the recent change he underwent while becoming a born-again Christian.
“I feel like God has really called me the last little while,” MacDonald continued. “It’s changed my spirit, changed my heart, and it takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain and stuff, and I don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore.”
As the interview continued, it became clear that MacDonald’s interest in competing 1.5 months later in the next round of the tournament was dwindling.
“I have to get out of here and re-evaluate. We’ll see what happens,” MacDonald told McCarthy.
“The Red King” clarified his comments in a Twitter post days later.
this is my statement to clarify what i said in my post fight interview on saturday pic.twitter.com/1fF3znX7SN
— Rory MacDonald (@rory_macdonald) April 30, 2019
“To be clear I am not retiring from my professional MMA career,” MacDonald wrote in the post. “I’ve always been true and honest in the sport and I spoke from the heart. ”
“As for my career at the moment, I am going to move forward in this tournament and compete boldly against Neiman Gracie in New York at MSG June 14.”
Understanding Rory MacDonald’s situation
The entire development after the Fitch fight came as a shock to many. In order to understand MacDonald’s perspective, one must take a few factors into account.
To start, MacDonald found faith. As he said in his Twitter post, he “used to fight with anger within myself from pain [he] had experienced in [his] past,” something that has since been alleviated by his newfound beliefs. Without that fire inside, MacDonald felt like fighting with Fitch was “more like a job” compared to previous fights in which he gained pleasure and enjoyment.
The Bellator champion isn’t the first fighter to hold religious beliefs, but his sudden adoption after spending most of his career without them clearly made a difference in his approach to the sport.
On top of his faith, MacDonald started a family. He married, and now he and his wife have one child with another on the way.
Such big life changes almost certainly weighed into MacDonald’s decision to be upfront about his feelings, but they don’t quite tell the whole story.
At just 29-years-old, MacDonald has already turned in a storied career. He has been a professional fighter for nearly half of his life, debuting at 16 years old. He has competed in 26 fights and put together a 20-5-1 record.
In that time, “The Red King” has delivered numerous memorable performances, with his most notable being the rematch with Robbie Lawler for the UFC welterweight title at UFC 189. The two fighters went to war for just over four rounds. After the fight was stopped one minute into the fifth, both fighters stood broken and battered, a part of each of them left forever in that cage.
Injuries adding up
MacDonald’s battle scars from his legendary bouts quickly piled up, the most notable being his nose.
Lawler broke MacDonald’s nose in their second fight. A straight left hand on the bridge of it is what ultimately crumpled MacDonald in their 2015 war.
Since then, broken noses have been a theme of MacDonald’s fights. He broke it again in his next bout with Stephen Thompson, his last UFC fight. He told MMAFighting he fractured his nose more than once in training prior to the fight with Thompson and expressed frustration over the injury.
“I broke it actually a couple times before this fight,” MacDonald said. “I have no idea what to do. I gave it time, it kept breaking. I don’t know if surgery is gonna be the best route. I really just have to take time. I’d probably at least look into surgery, see if that can make it stronger, because just time off didn’t do sh*t.”
MacDonald managed to avoid breaking his nose in his Bellator welterweight title bout with Douglas Lima, but still came away with a leg injury, which he described as the worst injury he’s ever had to MMAFighting.
“The Red King” again broke his nose in his failed attempt to capture the middleweight belt from Gegard Mousasi.
He escaped fights with Paul Daley and Fitch with the usual bumps and bruises, but four major injuries in six fights, coupled with more in camp, is nothing to scoff at. Knowing that he still has a lifetime of fatherhood ahead of him, MacDonald is surely taking each injury into account.
Is this it for Rory MacDonald?
The upcoming fight with Gracie provides a litmus test. Gracie is a world-class jiu-jitsu specialist who has proven himself in MMA, as evidenced by his perfect 9-0 professional record. When squaring off against Gracie, his game plan of attacking with submissions is clear from the start.
MacDonald experienced this type of fighter earlier in his career. As a 24-year-old competing in his ninth UFC fight, he faced Demian Maia. Maia smothered MacDonald after landing his first successful takedown in the first round, but he would only be able to drag MacDonald down once more for a brief moment in the third round. By the end of the fight, MacDonald racked up 20 takedown defenses on his way to earning the unanimous decision win.
“The Red King” can expect a similar attack out of Gracie. While the fight may not play out exactly as his bout with Maia did, MacDonald can use this fight to gauge just how much he has left to give. He isn’t facing off against a powerful striker or forward-plodding brawler, so he has a good chance of avoiding another severe injury.
Gracie is a dangerous opponent and a proven finisher though. If MacDonald feels the same sense of dissatisfaction he endured in the Fitch fight, his hesitation to engage could cost him the fight and his title.
As is the case with any fighter, it all comes down to MacDonald. Only he knows how he feels both mentally and physically come fight time.
If MacDonald is back to his normal self, the Fitch fight was just an anomaly. He can get right back to his quest to stay at the top of Bellator’s strong welterweight division.
If he’s internally grappling with his morals and can’t pull the trigger again, the reign of “The Red King” could be over for good.
Shane Connelly is a journalism student at Penn State with a passion for sharing the stories of MMA fighters.