Bellator 206: Rory MacDonald's journey from the 'The Next GSP' to the first two-division champion in Bellator history

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Rory MacDonald (Getty Images)

As Rory MacDonald readies to step into the cage and challenge Gegard Mousasi for the Bellator MMA middleweight title on Saturday night, everything in the Canadian standout’s life has finally fallen into place.

Debuting in the UFC at the age of 20 at the vanguard of the young wave of talent who trained in mixed martial arts from an early age, MacDonald was immediately ticketed for greatness. In his second fight with the promotion, he put it on former WEC champion Carlos Condit for the first ten minutes before “The Natural Born Killer” rallied to defeat the British Columbia native in his home province, much to dismay of the partisan crowd who packed GM Place to the rafters for the first UFC event in Vancouver.

Fighting in the welterweight division and moving to Montreal to train at the Tristar Gym accelerated the comparisons to French-Canadian superstar Georges St-Pierre, who was in the midst of his historic reign over the 170-pound ranks at the time.

MacDonald was saddled with the “Next GSP” label and forced to answer more questions about his talented teammate and training partner – and whether he was willing to fight him – than his own opponents. The constant line of questioning irritated the up-and-coming fighter and when coupled with his lack of interest in the promotional side of the sport, made him come off as cold and distant to fans and media, who dubbed him “The Canadian Psycho.”

What was always lost in the narrative about the 20-something who wasn’t particularly fond of the media was that MacDonald operated with a singular focus and everything else was largely inconsequential to him.

From the time he first walked through the doors at Toshido Martial Arts in Kelowna, British Columbia, he wanted to be a world champion and his life revolved around making that dream a reality.

He set a goal to accomplish the feat by the time he turned 25 and came incredibly close, battling Robbie Lawler for the welterweight title in an instant classic at UFC 189 on July 11, 2015, 11 days prior to his 26th birthday. MacDonald would come up short, his body succumbing to the accumulation of punishment doled out over 21 epic minutes of battle. He would then leave the organization a year later after suffering a second straight loss.

Signing with Bellator MMA signaled the start of a new chapter for MacDonald and in just over two years with the promotion, the now 29-year-old standout has started to accomplish some of those dreams he set out for himself half a lifetime ago.

“(Winning the Bellator welterweight title) meant a lot,” said MacDonald, speaking with Sporting News earlier in the week. “I’ve been working for this world championship for a long time.

“I fought Paul Daley and Douglas Lima, who are top dogs in the welterweight division, and I feel like a world champion. Also, the fact that I’ve beaten the current UFC champion, that says a lot, and if I win this middleweight championship, that will speak volumes as well.”

Even prior to beating Lima in January to claim the title, MacDonald voiced his interest in competing in different weight classes and pursuing championships in other divisions, another of the ambitions and ideas he’s carried with him from the start of his career. He was intrigued by the possibility of sharing the cage with Mousasi, who followed MacDonald to Bellator after his contract with the UFC expired, and won the middleweight title in May.

As soon as the belt was around his waist, Mousasi issued a challenge to MacDonald, one the Canadian was quick to accept.

“It’s going to be a milestone in my career, for sure,” he said of this weekend’s “Champion vs. Champion” clash, which airs exclusively on DAZN. “These are the kinds of fights I’ve wanted to be a part of since I was a young kid in this sport, so God has blessed me with a great opportunity and so many great things that I give all thanks to God for making it come together. 

“The fact that it’s against Gegard is awesome,” he added. “I consider him to be one of the best middleweights. He could easily be UFC champion right now. In fact, I think he would win the UFC championship if he went back; he’s got a very good chance. So I’m fighting one of the best, which motivates me. I always want to fight the best guys and I’m happy I get to face him.”

MacDonald is also happy with the stylistic changes he’s made over his last two fights; adjustments that further illustrate that the welterweight titleholder has reached a point in his career where he is far more comfortable and secure in speaking his mind.

While he continues to train under Firas Zahabi at Tristar and David Lea at Toshido in Kelowna, British Columbia, MacDonald set the blueprint for how he wanted to approach his fights following his UFC exit.

After beginning his career with a free-flowing style built around his natural aggression and well-rounded skill set, the diligent student of the game and dedicated martial artist became more technical and tactical after making the move to Montreal, experimenting with different styles and tamping down some of the “read and react” elements that highlighted his rise through the regional circuit and into MMA’s major leagues.

“A couple years ago, I said, ‘I want to get back to the roots a bit more; stop experimenting with stuff and get to what we know works for me, what I enjoy doing and it’s been getting better and better as time goes on,” explained MacDonald, who made quick work of Daley in his promotional debut before claiming the welterweight title from Lima in hard-fought, gritty battle. “At the point I was at, I had almost learned too much – it was blocking my vision – so it was time to clear the road a little and let me just work.

“My last loss, I fought with a style I was experimenting with and I lost the fight, which left a bad taste in my mouth. I’ve had that even in fights I’ve won, fighting with experimental styles, so it’s just nice to have that piece of mind to fight with my self-expression, with the skills where I know I’m strongest  – it gives me confidence and I’m happy to compete like that.”

And it’s that refreshed style and approach that he plans on bringing to the cage with his this weekend as he seeks to make history and become the first two-weight world champion under the Bellator MMA banner.

“I think I need to step into that cage with the mindset of not caring who is standing in front of me and be very focused on applying what I know works,” he offered in regards to Saturday’s headlining turn opposite Mousasi. “Not getting too ahead of myself and being stressed; being relaxed and fighting hard. Having a relaxed mindset, but also determined to take the fight to him.

“I definitely want to go in there and take the fight to him – work through it as I see what is in front of me and find the finish somewhere along the line.”