For Rory MacDonald, being stuck in the "Friends" zone with Tristar Gym stablemate Georges St. Pierre means that he will never fight the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Welterweight champion.
And that's a curious position to be in, when you're as talented a 23-year-old there is in mixed martial arts (MMA).
For MacDonald, off the heels of a three-round drubbing of B.J. Penn at UFC on Fox 5 Saturday night (Dec. 8, 2012), it means more of the wait and see game. The odd nature of the wait is that it's hard to see "Rush" losing anytime soon, and equally hard to see how much longer MacDonald can operate on a kind of parallel track, biding his time and dusting off overmatched opponents.
Eventually, something's got to give, at least if MacDonald keeps showing the incremental progression he demonstrated against Penn.
Plainly put, it was a 15-minute clinic put on by the Canadian wunderkind, whose diverse striking, brilliant timing and excellent ability to chain together clever combinations had Penn at a deficit at best, and at times, seemingly on the brink of collapse, particularly in the second round where Penn absorbed a frightful series of withering body punches. But, Penn remains one of the most durable fighters in the game, and his reward was simply more punishment as MacDonald turned up the pressure.
So what's next?
Well, what's interesting is that the UFC doesn't have to protect MacDonald, a la Alexander Gustafsson, who is desperately needed as a future Jon Jones challenger, or a Michael Bisping. They can throw MacDonald in against anyone, secure in the knowledge that even if he loses -- and at this point the most likely style to beat him is a lay-and-pray style decision by an elite wrestler -- he is so young and talented that he can be rebuilt with a minimum of effort.
Given the schedule of the UFC's upcoming events and the availability of top welterweight fighters, here's what yours truly has come up with after putting on my matchmaker's hat. Each match up, and the potential outcome, are gauged in terms of how it affects MacDonald staying in the "Friends" zone, a position that time and results are only going to put more pressure on unless St. Pierre is no longer the champ, which is a long-odds bet, given how solid he looked against Carlos Condit last month at UFC 154.
MacDonald vs. Condit
After his thrilling performance in 2010 against Condit, MacDonald showed the fire and raw ability he had, only to fade late and absorb a pounding in the final seconds en route to a technical knockout loss. The upside of this match up is it's a natural -- everyone would be interested to see how MacDonald, wiser and far more experienced, would fare against Condit, whose grit and resilience against St. Pierre reinforced his reputation he forged in the WEC and in recent showings against UFC 170-pound competition.
But, the downside of this bout in terms of MacDonald being able to be kept out of the title-shot conversation are considerable. First, if he beats Condit, he's likely to beat Condit an at least as impressive fashion as St. Pierre did, which begs the question of why he's not getting a title shot next. St. Pierre basically did enough striking to buy respect, then took down and ground Condit to a five-round decision. MacDonald could probably execute that game plan (hell, he nearly did it in their first bout, and matched up better with Condit on the feet then that GSP did last month).
MacDonald losing isn't such a bad thing, as he'd surely do so in exciting fashion, but Condit re-emerges as a contender who has already lost a fairly clear-cut decision to St. Pierre. Granted, his third-round headkick stunner had the champ in trouble, but those are somewhat thin prospects with which to build a rematch on. Overall, Condit is a decent choice for an opponent, but there could be some repercussions from the match that cause unintended consequences.
So decent, in fact, the UFC President Dana White is apparently on board with idea.
I love this match because against Jon Fitch, Silva showed incredible toughness to go along with his obvious athletic gifts. He's going to be a handful for anyone in the division right now, and with the experience of a three-round bout, he'll have a better sense of how to pace himself, which clearly cost him against Fitch's grinding style. Silva is slated to face veteran Jay Hieron in February, but given the recent performances of both, it's hard to see how this won't turn out to be a big win for Silva, whose reputation as a blanket killer is well-earned.
Silva's explosiveness would make him one of the rare match ups where MacDonald wouldn't necessarily have the edge on the feet, at least not early, and the Brazilian's phenomenal upper-body strength make him a real handful to take and keep down. Sometimes, two young, exceptionally talented guys are a natural match up for the pure fireworks they generate.
Plus, regardless of who wins, it doesn't hurt the UFC. A MacDonald victory gives him another notch on his belt against a talented guy, but not necessarily a top contender (once again begging the question of why he isn't getting a title shot). And a Silva win only elevates him into elite contender status. Either way, you'd have to be crazy to not want to see this one, and soon.
I thought Koscheck got the raw end of a decision against Johny Hendricks, and despite losing handily against Georges St. Pierre in his 2010 title challenge, "Kos" remains an exceptionally tough litmus test for anyone hoping to build a case for a title shot. His wrestling, experience, and powerful striking make him a real handful (just ask Hendricks).
This would also be a good deep-water style test for MacDonald, who has yet to face a top UFC welterweight with Koscheck's wrestling ability. Koschecl always knows how to promote a fight by playing the villain, and there's no doubt he'd relish the opportunity to disrupt MacDonald's ascent.
It's also the closest Kos will ever get to beating GSP, but, hey, life is full of realizations like this one.
Koscheck would probably be forced to shoot for takedowns and grind MacDonald to the mat, especially as the striking of "Ares" against Penn was brilliantly inventive. There's not many guys Kos can't do that to when he remembers to do it, and it would be a revealing test of how MacDonald fared against this style.
Because at the end of the day, he's probably going to have to face St. Pierre. There are also limits to what we can take from the win -- Penn's better days are behind him, and he is a natural 155-pound fighter. As long as St. Pierre and MacDonald keep performing like they're capable, it's hard to see how long Rory can stay in the Friends zone and not step up and challenge the champ.
He may simply be too good to stay there for much longer.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst