After years of displaying an almost superhuman ability to both withstand and dish out pain, Rory MacDonald experienced an identity crisis in his last fight.
Somewhere in the middle of a five-round draw against Jon Fitch in April, MacDonald started to wonder if he still wanted to do what he was doing.
“I don’t know if I have the same drive to hurt people anymore,” said MacDonald after retaining his Bellator MMA welterweight championship against Fitch.
In the time since, MacDonald, 29, claims to have figured it out. He says he’s become more religious in recent years, and fighting doesn’t provide him the same release of anger that it used to. He does want to continue his career, however, and will meet Neiman Gracie in the main event of Bellator 222 on Friday inside Madison Square Garden in New York.
MacDonald’s honesty is refreshing in a sport that stereotypically demands machismo. It’s also cause to really pay attention to him this weekend, however. Because even though his opponent this week is not known for hurting his opponents — Gracie (9-0) has zero knockouts in his career — if MacDonald wins, his next opponent will be much different.
Friday’s winner will face Douglas Lima in the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix finals. If that winner is MacDonald, and he has any kind of identity crisis while he’s in with Lima, he’s liable to pay dearly for it.
By the numbers
4: Age of Gracie when his uncle, Royce Gracie, won UFC 1.
8: Submission victories for Gracie among his nine career fights. His other fight was a unanimous-decision win in which he was dominant.
0: Number of submission losses on the record of MacDonald, who has been knocked out three times and dropped two decisions.
511: Days it will have been, on fight night, since MacDonald last won a bout. In the time since he defeated Douglas Lima for the welterweight title in January 2018, he has lost a middleweight title challenge against Gegard Mousasi that September and fought Jon Fitch to a draw less than two months ago.
17: Experience gap, in terms of number of professional fights, between MacDonald (20-5-1) and Gracie (9-0).
A look back
Five vs. Five
“I don’t have that killer inside. It’s really hard to explain. I hesitate a little bit now. … It takes a certain spirit to come in here and put a man through pain and stuff. I just don’t know if I have that same drive to hurt people anymore. I don’t know what it is. It’s confusing.” –Rory MacDonald, speaking inside the cage after his draw with Jon Fitch in April
And the winner is …
MacDonald’s postfight comments in April aren’t the kind to inspire a ton of confidence in his mindset, but he’s a veteran at this point (despite his relatively young age) and, stylistically, he knows how to beat an opponent like Gracie.
Brett Okamoto’s pick: MacDonald via decision.
Waiting in the wings
This one is easy. It’s a tournament, and sitting there on the other side of the bracket is Douglas Lima, just waiting to find out the identity of his opponent for the final. He’ll take whoever survives, but you know Lima would love another shot at MacDonald, who last year took away the Brazilian’s 170-pound belt.
What to watch for (beyond the main event)
Chael Sonnen explains why he likes the idea of co-promotional matchups, but these fights won’t be exciting until the UFC gets involved.
Champion vs. champion traveling show
The main event is not Bellator 222’s only championship fight. There’s also Darrion Caldwell vs. Kyoji Horiguchi. Call it champ vs. champ. Call it a cross-promotion. Call it a rematch almost six months and nearly 7,000 miles in the making.
Back on Dec. 31, Caldwell, the Bellator bantamweight champion, traveled to Tokyo to challenge Horiguchi, the Rizin Fighting Federation champ. Horiguchi (27-2) won by third-round guillotine choke for his 11th straight victory and 20th win in his 21 fights dating back to 2012. His lone defeat during that time was an unsuccessful challenge of then-UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson.
Caldwell (13-2) now gets a chance at redemption — while putting his Bellator belt on the line — on more familiar turf. He was born and raised in Rahway, New Jersey, not too far from Madison Square Garden.
If Caldwell wins, which promotion (and continent) would host the rubber match?
Before fighting him, Chael Sonnen talks Lyoto Machida
Odds ‘n’ ends
WHAT NEXT?: Aaron Pico will be looking to get back on track, coming off a knockout loss in January. The featherweight prospect’s opponent is Adam Borics, who is 12-0, including three Bellator wins, all finishes.
ALL IN THE FAMILY: Robson Gracie, younger brother of Renzo Gracie (which would make him an uncle to main event fighter Neiman Gracie), has his second pro fight, facing welterweight Oscar Vera, who will be making his professional debut.
HE’S BACK: Dillon Danis (1-0) will be in the cage for the first time since the end of his suspension, which stemmed from last November’s brawl following the UFC fight between Conor McGregor, his training partner (and role model for his loquacious style of self-promotion), and Khabib Nurmagomedov.