Michael McDonald is the best fighter you haven’t heard of before, but that should change by the time the weekend is over.
Saturday night at Wembley Arena, McDonald steps into the cage to challenge Renan Barao for the interim UFC bantamweight title in a clash of two surging twentysomethings who deserve much more time in the spotlight than they’ve been receiving to date. If he’s able to halt Barao’s incredible 29-fight winning streak, McDonald will supplant Jon Jones as the youngest champion in UFC history.
It’s not surprising that the 22-year-old standout from Modesto, Calif., has flown under the radar.
Though he’s earned a 4-0 mark in the UFC since debuting with the company in May 2010, just one of McDonald’s fights has found its way onto the main card — his UFC 145 first-round knockout win over former WEC champion Miguel Torres. The fight before that — at UFC 130 against Alex Soto — was featured on Spike TV, but lasted just 56 seconds — while his first two trips into the Octagon were delivered to the masses via Facebook.
Even prior to his arrival in the WEC, hardcore fans and pundits who watched his progression under the Tachi Palace Fights banner pegged McDonald as a future champion, and everything he’s done in the last three years has only served to validate those beliefs.
From a skill and development standpoint, the 15-1 McDonald is similar to welterweight Rory MacDonald, another fighter with the “future champion” label affixed to his lapel.
Like his Canadian welterweight counterpart, the American bantamweight talent began training mixed martial arts in its totality at a young age, and is equally potent standing or on the ground, though he tends to favour throwing hands. Also like MacDonald, the Oakdale MMA product McDonald progressed through the regional ranks quickly, arriving in the WEC as a 19-year-old before debuting in the UFC less than a year later.
Unlike the promising young Canadian, however, McDonald hasn’t received nearly as much attention from the media or as strong a push from the UFC.
Part of that can be attributed to the fact that “Mayday” competes south of welterweight, and fighters in the lighter weight classes have historically received less attention than their colleagues who fight at 170 pounds or greater.
But it feels like it runs deeper than that.
The two young upstarts shared space on the UFC 145 main card, and while McDonald’s impending collision with Torres, a former champion, was a buzz-worthy bout for hardcore observers, MacDonald’s mismatched pairing with Che Mills landed him in the co-main event, and served as the real starting point for talk of his championship potential.
McDonald was the UFC’s first choice to replace Dominick Cruz opposite Urijah Faber last summer, but a hand injury prevented him from stepping into the UFC 149 main event with “The California Kid.” Consequently, the surging bantamweight still hasn’t been able to really connect with fight fans and get the kind of media attention you would expect someone with the kind of talent and championship potential McDonald possesses to receive.
That should change after Saturday night.
With his consecutive first-round knockout wins over Soto and Torres, McDonald has shown the kind of ferocious one-punch power fans often say is lacking in the lighter weight classes. He’s quick and agile in the cage, gifted on the ground, and explosive in his striking, with the potential to be a fixture at the top of the bantamweight division for an extended period of time.
While holding a UFC title — especially an interim belt — doesn’t guarantee stardom, it does carry with it certainties about fight card placement and a greater promotional push, the two things McDonald needs to move from being a potential star to being recognized as one of the elite talents in the sport today.
A place amongst the top pound-for-pound fighters in the UFC is not too far off for McDonald, even now.
He was only the second man to knock out Torres, and just the third to stop the one-time pound-for-pound fixture. If his 15-1 mark, which includes avenging his loss to veteran Cole Escovedo, isn’t enough for him to merit consideration already, becoming the first man to have his hand raised opposite Barao would have to begin to sway that judgment.
The Brazilian has been nearly untouchable over his last three appearances. A teammate of featherweight champ Jose Aldo at Nova Uniao, Barao has gone back-to-back-to-back against Brad Pickett, Scott Jorgensen, and Faber, getting the nod for all but one round over his last two fights after submitting Pickett in November 2011.
Though some will be tempted to diminish Barao’s impressive winning streak on the basis of many of those fights taking place in his native Brazil, he’s been competing on the biggest stages in the sport for the last three years, and still no one has been able to stop him.
Barao is the real deal, and if McDonald is able to do what the last 30 men before him have not, there will be no way to deny him the recognition he should have been getting all along.