Georges St-Pierre’s departure from the welterweight scene, temporary or otherwise, changed the playing field for everyone in the UFC’s 170-pound weight class.
None more so than Rory (Ares) MacDonald. The 24-year-old can finally chase the title unencumbered.
MacDonald, ranked No. 2 among welterweight contenders, trains at the same Montreal gym as the former UFC champion. St-Pierre has been one of his mentors. They share coaches and training partners.
As MacDonald rose up the rankings, he and St-Pierre were constantly asked about whether the allies would ever fight.
“It was pretty much any interview I did,” said MacDonald.
Now the landscape ahead is clear.
“I feel like I’m on my own path now,” he said in an interview this week at Quebec City, where he was making appearances for the UFC around The Ultimate Fighter Nations finale card. “As much as I didn’t think it was bothering me at the time, it was. It’s a distraction, it’s always something in the back of your head. I never wanted any drama there, anything like that, but at the same time I wanted what I wanted — the (championship) belt.
“So right now, the way it all worked out, I feel a lot less stress about it. I just feel like I’m having fun, enjoying my time.”
MacDonald returns to his home province June 14 to face No. 3 Tyron (The Chosen One) Woodley in the co-main event at UFC 174 in Vancouver’s Rogers Arena.
The 32-year-old Woodley, an explosive former two-time All American wrestler from the University of Missouri, went 8-1 in Strikeforce before moving into the UFC.
He opened his UFC account with a 36-second knockout of Jay Hieron. After a split-decision loss to Jake Shields, he bounced back with wins over Josh Koscheck and Carlos (The Natural Born Killer) Condit.
The winner between MacDonald (16-2) and Woodley (13-2) will likely get a title shot at Johny Hendricks, who is recovering from bicep surgery and a fractured shin following his championship win over (Ruthless) Robbie Lawler at UFC 171 in March.
MacDonald said he is happy to fight again before a possible title shot.
“I wanted to. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines anyway,” he said. “I think me against Tyron is a great matchup for a No. 1 contender shot. We’ve both had good wins and good showings in our UFC careers.”
MacDonald watched the Hendricks-Lawler title fight from Hawaii where he was vacationing with his father and brother.
He saw it as a close contest that came down to the fifth round.
“I was really pulling for Lawler because I fought him in the past and have a lot of respect for the guys I fight,” MacDonald said. “Obviously I was excited to see him do that well.
“I just think Hendricks was the better man in the very end of the fight. He pushed it. He pushed through being tired, being hurt. That’s what a champion does. .. He finished hard, he won that last round. And that’s what won him the fight in my opinion.”
MacDonald lost a split decision to Lawler at UFC 167 last November, when GSP won a controversial split decision over Hendricks.
MacDonald admits there was a time before the Lawler bout when he did not enjoying fighting.
“I had a lot of injuries I was battling through,” he said. “It weighs on you.”
Looking back, he says he probably should have pulled out.
“They (the injuries) were pretty serious. But I was sick of doing that,” he said. “I was sick of getting injured before a fight, pulling out. I think fans were really annoyed with me doing that. I just had to fight through that.”
His only other loss was to Condit in June 2010 — a TKO with seven seconds remaining — at UFC 115 in Vancouver.
It was MacDonald’s second fight in the UFC and the adrenalin was pumping. He dominated the early going but the veteran Condit rallied in the final round.
His first fight was a small televised event in January 2010 in Fairfax, Va., where Macdonald submitted Mike Guymon.
The frenzy of the Condit fight — and audience — took MacDonald by surprise.
“People were going insane,” MacDonald recalled in an earlier interview. “I never heard that level of noise in a building ... I was super-shocked and it just got me fired up to a point where it was, like, bad. If you watch that fight you could see the intensity that I was bringing and I don’t think that was my style. And I paid for it.”
The loss was humiliating for MacDonald.
“Because I was just laying there getting beaten on,” he told reporters after his December 2012 win over B.J. Penn in Seattle. “My face looked like I was a guy from The Goonies after. I was embarrassed, I was embarrassed about my performance and how I held myself. It did a lot of damage and I don’t think I’ve been the same person since.”
The loss changed MacDonald. He moved from Kelowna, B.C., to Montreal in the aftermath to train with coach Firas Zahabi, St-Pierre and other elite fighters at the Tristar Gym.
He also focused on fighting without emotion, reasoning that it contributed to the loss in Vancouver.
MacDonald was slated to meet Condit again at UFC 158 in March 2013 but had to pull out due to injury. Hendricks stepped in and won, setting up his title shot against St-Pierre.
MacDonald, meanwhile, rebounded from the Lawler loss with a unanimous decision over Brazilian submission ace Demian Maia at UFC 170 in February.
Talk to MacDonald these days and you notice how big he is. The six-footer may fight at 170 pounds but its a weight he serves only occasionally.
He walks around at 200 pounds.
“I’m big right now. I’m not dieting but I’m in shape,” he said.
MacDonald was just 14 when he started training in MMA. Born in Quesnel, B.C., MacDonald started training with David Lea in Kelowna. He had his first pro fight at age 16 in Prince George, because it was the only place to let him fight. Even then, his parents had to give their approval.
He won the King of the Cage Canadian lightweight title at 18 — in his sixth fight — and the King of the Cage world 155-pound title in his next outing a year later.
MacDonald became the UFC’s youngest fighter when he signed on at 20 in the fall of 2009.
Years later, he is comfortable in his own skin and happy with his fighting career. And while he is in a sport that often rewards self-promoters, MacDonald does things his own way.
“I’m not here to talk,” he said. “I’m not a great promoter but I believe I am one of the best fighters in the world. And I’m going to be the best fighter in the world eventually. And I think people are going to appreciate what I bring to the cage.”