Part of what makes the UFC so entertaining is the high stakes riding on every fight. One big win can launch a title chase and one ugly loss can quickly derail a ride to the top for months or even years. Rory MacDonald and Demian Maia are two fighters who have seen losses in their previous fights halt upward momentum that both had previously been riding.
MacDonald, the No. 4 welterweight in the UFC, and Maia, ranked No. 6 in the same class, will face off Saturday at UFC 170 in the Mandalay Bay Event Center in Las Vegas, looking to get their careers back on track.
MacDonald (15-2) burst onto the scene three years ago as a precocious 21-year old phenom and quickly progressed from “prospect” to “rising star” to “legitimate title contender” in the 170-pound division. The Canadian seemed to be on his way to a title shot, but he was upset by 7-2 underdog Robbie Lawler at UFC 167 in November of 2013, just the second loss of his pro career. Now, after Georges St. Pierre stepped away, “Ruthless Robbie” was tabbed for the title shot against Johnny Hendricks, leaving MacDonald to pick up the pieces of his reputation.
MacDonald, who became King of the Cage lightweight champion when he was only 19, admitted that he had lost some motivation, not only in the Lawler defeat but also in his previous fight, an uninspiring decision over Jake Ellenberger. He also contends that he’s now rededicated himself to fighting.
“When I fight, people expect to see an even better version of what they’ve seen before, and I think I disappointed in my last one,” said MacDonald, who is still only 24 years old. “People are going to be pleasantly surprised in this next fight.”
After his loss to Lawler, MacDonald spoke to the UFC brass and made known his desire for a quick turnaround and a top opponent for his next fight. He was granted both wishes, fighting just over three months after his last bout and getting to face Maia, another top welterweight contender.
As much motivation as MacDonald has heading into the matchup, however, Maia (18-5) might have even more on the line Saturday.
The Brazilian was once a top contender at 185 pounds and earned a title fight against Anderson Silva at UFC 112 in 2010. He lost that title bout in a lopsided decision and after losing to up-and-comer Chris Weidman (you might have heard of him) in January of 2012, he decided to drop to 170 pounds and chase a belt there.
Three straight victories to open his welterweight career, including two first-round knockouts, vaulted Maia into the division’s top 10 and into serious title contention. At UFC on Fox 8 in October of 2013, though, the heavily-favored Maia suffered a split-decision loss to Jake Shields.
Now, the fourth-degree Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt is 36 and time is running out for him to attain the title that has eluded him over the course of his career. He knows the loss to Shields set him back and he’s focused on returning to contention.
“A loss is horrible, and it’s even worse in the UFC,” Maia said. “I lost many positions in the rankings. Maybe I would fight for the title with a win but I’m not anymore. But I’ve learned a lot of things that will be useful if I want to be the champion one day.”
In a battle between two men with everything on the line, this fight will likely hinge on which fighter can impose their style on the fight.
MacDonald is a powerful striker who used a sublime right jab to hurt both Ellenberger and his previous opponent, BJ Penn. Both he and Maia are six feet tall, but MacDonald has a four-inch reach advantage that should clearly give him an advantage if the fight becomes a boxing match.
“I’m very excited for this fight,” said MacDonald, who had won five fights in a row before his loss to Lawler. “I think he’s a great opponent and I have a lot of respect for his style of fighting. I think it will be an entertaining fight. He poses a lot of threats—as do I—and I think it’s an exciting mix.”
When MacDonald speaks of the “threats” Maia poses, he’s mostly talking about the Brazilian’s Jiu-Jitsu skills. Maia is one of the best grapplers, not only at 170 pounds, but in the entire UFC and even helped train Frank Mir in the art. If the fight goes to the ground, he will have a clear advantage, so he will be looking for takedowns early and often.
“(Macdonald’s) an excellent athlete,” said Maia. “He has many things to prove and I’m happy to fight him. I know that a win over him brings great rewards. I’m fighting for a long time, not only in MMA but also jiu-jitsu, so I expect that my experience will make the difference in this fight.”
Regardless of how the duel plays out, one of the fighters will move back into the title mix while the other will face an even longer road back into contention. The stakes couldn’t be higher and that’s what makes this fight fascinating.
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