Tristar product and mixed martial arts (MMA) wunderkind, Rory MacDonald, is set to scrap with Karate master, Stephen Thompson, this Saturday (June 18, 2016) inside TD Place Arena in Ottawa, Canada.
In MMA, the idea of the "new breed" of fighter has been around for a pretty long time now. Essentially, some fight fans believe that at some point, generations of fighters will simply grow up training MMA from the start of their careers — rather than with a base in one martial art — that will allow those athletes to dominate their peers.
Interestingly enough, the generation that grew up watching MMA and starting training in the sport young has already come, and the results have been middling. For the most part, these fighters either end up pretty mediocre in every area or burn out by their mid-20s.
MacDonald is the exception. As one of the few fighters truly elite in each aspect and in transitions thank to his background of MMA, MacDonald stands out from the rest.
Let's take a closer look at his skill set:
One of the other main benefits of "The Red King’s" background is that he’s a very adaptable fighter. While he has habits and preferences like every other fighter, MacDonald does an excellent job of switching up his style to overcome individual opponents.
The biggest constant in MacDonald’s game is his excellent use of the jab. Tristar is the best camp in the world for training fighters to jab properly, and MacDonald is no exception. The Canadian uses this tool diligently to maintain range and punish his opponent, as well as build his combinations.
For the most part, MacDonald likes to work from the end of his long range. He’s definitely solid in the pocket, but MacDonald has the build and distance tools to give his opponent’s hell. In particular, MacDonald does a very nice job walking his opponent into the fence and breaking his foe down.
The most basic examples of this came against Jake Ellenberger and Tyron Woodley. Against both wrestlers, MacDonald denied their takedowns and shut down their attempts to power punch with the jab. While he occasionally broke into combination, he was able to largely control the pace and range of the bout with the simple jab (GIF).
As a member of the same camp and weight class, MacDonald frequently draws comparisons to Georges St. Pierre. While there are ultimately quite a few difference between the two, one of the more positive for MacDonald is that his cross is quite strong. "GSP" never quite perfected how to throw a tight cross with power, but MacDonald’s crisp right commonly follows up his jab and stings his opponents from the end of his range.
While attacking his foe trapped along the fence, MacDonald understands the value of feints. Since his opponent cannot retreat, MacDonald will open up with random hand movements and kick feints, forcing his opponent to flinch and allowing "The Red King" to precisely find openings.
Besides the jab, MacDonald’s most important range tool is his kicking arsenal. Kicks have proven to be some of MacDonald’s most devastating weapons, having hurt a number of recent opponents.
MacDonald does excellent work with standard roundhouse kicks. While kicking hard obviously helps, what sets MacDonald apart is his intelligence and strike selection. For example, against fighters who are also Orthodox, MacDonald will utilize switch kicks or shifting punches to momentarily take advantage of the outside angle. Against BJ Penn, one of these combinations nearly ended the fight (GIF).
Opposite Southpaw fighters like Demian Maia and Robbie Lawler, MacDonald can fire the kick more freely. Usually, he can just toss out a single punch to raise his opponent’s guard before kicking, a strategy which stunned the champion (GIF). Opposite Maia, MacDonald’s body kick likely won him the fight. After getting dominated on the mat by the jiu-jitsu master, a powerful kick to the mid-section at the start of the second round sapped a significant portion of the Brazilian’s gas tank (GIF).
MacDonald will also look for the front snap kick often. While this technique initially looks like a roundhouse kick, the foot instead shoots straight forward into the mid-section. It makes both strikes more difficult to defend and is an excellent weapon to maintain range and work the body. Against a Southpaw or opponent trapped along the fence, MacDonald is particularly effective with the this technique.
MacDonald’s bout with Tarec Saffiedine is of particular relevance to his upcoming fight. Against the kickboxer, MacDonald did not choose to strike from the edge of his range, instead stalking his opponent and moving into the pocket. By taking away his opponent’s best weapon — the low kick — MacDonald was able to make him uncomfortable, force him into exchanges, and eventually knock him out with crisper combinations (GIF).
One of the more interesting facets of MacDonald’s game is his use of elbows. Against opponents looking to reach out and control his jab hand, MacDonald does a nice job of changing the tide by folding his hand over into an elbow strike. Alternatively, MacDonald can simply step into the elbow, hiding his chin behind his shoulder and closing range in the process (GIF).
MacDonald is a very talented wrestler and top control fighter. Additionally, he’s very difficult to drag to the mat, as only Demian Maia found any success at taking and keeping the Canadian on the mat for more than a few moments.
First and foremost, MacDonald’s wrestling is made far better thanks to his excellent striking. He understands how his distance control effects wrestling, both offensively and defensively.
It makes him a very difficult fighter to best.
While MacDonald doesn’t look for offensive takedowns quite as often as he did early in his career, he does still have a few go-to takedowns. Mainly, he relies on a nice, simple double leg that is effectively largely due to his set ups. For example, MacDonald took Tyron Woodley down after pinning him to the fence and keeping his attention up high with punches in bunches. Thanks to his positioning and previous strikes, the level change and finish came easy.
Alternatively, MacDonald showed himself to be quite skilled at catching low kicks against Saffiedine. While pressuring the Belgian kickboxer, MacDonald would cause him to panic and low kick despite being too close. From there, MacDonald was able to grab on pretty easily and force his foe to the mat.
It’s been a little while, but MacDonald has also proven to be a powerful clinch wrestler, both with trips and body lock throws. In fact, MacDonald picked up a bit of notoriety early in his career by tossing Nate Diaz around from the clinch repeatedly (GIF).
It should also be mentioned that MacDonald is terrifically violent from top position. A long fighter who knows how to control his opponent while posturing up and delivering punishment, MacDonald is one of the best at brutalizing his opponents from a dominant position (GIF).
Defensively, MacDonald is an extraordinarily difficult fighter to take or keep down. For the most part, his striking keeps him well out of range of most takedown attempts. Plus, he’s too physically strong and skilled to really work over from the clinch.
Basically, most fighters who come into the fight planning to take MacDonald down end up stuck at the end of his jab and never touch his hips.
While MacDonald is a jiu-jitsu black belt with six finishes via submission, he hasn’t really relied on his offensive grappling all that much. In fact, his only submission inside the Octagon came in his debut back in 2010.
That sole submission win was a pretty interesting though. Opposite Mike Guymon, MacDonald attempted an americana and forced his opponent to surrender the back mount. Rather than hop on the back — where he had secured a majority of his finishes prior — MacDonald abandoned the americana and snagged the other arm. From there, he fell back into the armbar, cranking before his opponent could sit up.
The finish can be viewed on UFC’s website HERE.
Since MacDonald is rarely taken down and usually just mauls his opponents with ground strikes when initiating the shot, there isn’t much to break down. However, his bout with Maia did show just how excellent MacDonald’s defensive grappling is.
Like many other fighters in his generation, MacDonald has recognized the value of the butterfly guard in standing back up. Against the average opponent, MacDonald is able to simply elevate his opponent with the butterfly hooks and stand up quickly.
Unfortunately for most fighters, Maia is a master of disarming the butterfly guard and passing into mount. Usually, he takes advantage of their attempts and turns it into his own offense. That’s what happened to MacDonald early on, as the Canadian found himself mounted in the first round.
Unlike most fighters, MacDonald successfully used jiu-jitsu to defend himself. First, he repeatedly elbow escaped back to his guard, an accomplishment on its own. Eventually, he managed to work back to his feet near the end of the round. Similarly, an excellent scramble from the butterfly guard allowed MacDonald to return to his feet in the third round, which ended up earning him the victory (GIF).
There’s a lot on the line for MacDonald, who’s been toying with the idea of free agency lately. With a victory, he’s coming off a "Fight of the Year" loss and a victory over the division’s hottest contender. That’s a considerable bit of momentum and should give MacDonald all the leverage he needs moving forward.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.