It seems as though every time Rory MacDonald fights we are bombarded with comparisons with his stablemate, Georges St-Pierre.
While it gets incredibly tedious if you are a religious viewer of UFC events, as I am and I know that many of my readers are, the comparisons are sometimes quite apt. While I am not ready to buy into MacDonald as a world-beater, he does share at least one invaluable quality with the great welterweight champion: He is extremely good at doing what he is told.
The true talent of Rory MacDonald is that he, like Georges St-Pierre, is a perfect conduit for his coaches' strategies. Every other week we hear of some fighter moving camps to Jackson's MMA, Black House or Tristar, and many times—outside of improved cardio, a couple of neat tricks on the ground or in the clinch, or occasional sharper stand-up combinations—it rarely makes nearly as much difference as the public or the fighter think it is going to.
Leonard Garcia was at the camp known among fans for producing some of the best game plans in mixed martial arts, Jackson's MMA, for years and it didn't make a damn bit of difference to his fights because of the way he opted to fight.
If a fighter is focused on getting a knockout with only his hands or headhunts exclusively, or is only worried about being exciting (and they are often the saddest ones to watch waste their immense talent) then training with elite strategists is going to count for diddly squat.
Now the Tristar Gym has had it's fair share of fighters come and go, but Rory MacDonald and Georges St-Pierre stand out because they are not guilty of becoming fixated on one particular method or on throwing away a dominating, if mundane, victory for an entertaining crapshoot. They are well-rounded fighters who come in following their coaches' specific instructions and consequently win most of their bouts in dominating fashion.
They don't make for the most exciting personalities and they don't sell a fight all that well—a look at MacDonald's embarrassing post-fight call-out of Carlos Condit or tweets this week will show that—but a disciplined, rounded and receptive fighter is the most a coach can ever really hope for.
To demonstrate MacDonald's ability to follow a game plan, I'll use his most recent bout against B. J. Penn.
Analyzing fighters is a little harder than some realize, and the coaches who are really good at it stand head and shoulders above the others. That is not to overstate the importance of what I do in my articles; I simply point out merits and flaws in fighters; I don't go about fixing them or training fighters to exploit them—that is the truly hard part!
B. J. Penn for quite some time was written off as someone who had to be held down or against the fence to be beaten, but as time went on the cracks began to show.I speculated for some time before Penn's fight with Diaz that Penn seemed to struggle in the face of body shots, but the only evidence to suggest this had been Hughes' brief ground assault on Penn's ribs, and St-Pierre's body jabs and punches from guard.
Nick Diaz certainly tested that theory (if you ever want to know if a man can take a body blow, put him in against Diaz) but MacDonald—who had never previously shown much aptitude for hitting the body—went about attacking Penn's abdomen with such certainty that it is unquestionable that his coaches picked up on this weakness in Penn.
From the beginning of the bout MacDonald sprinkled in a lovely left hook to the body which he had otherwise never shown. It clearly hurt Penn, as did the body kicks that MacDonald landed later in the bout.
Another weakness in Penn which was obvious from his first bout with Frankie Edgar, but could have been assumed all along based on his boxing-based stance, is his difficulty dealing with low kicks and in fact most types of kick. He stands long and narrow with his lead foot turned in, much like Diaz and Junior Dos Santos, in order to maximize reach on his jab and lead hook.
This means, however, that the slightest low kick will buckle Penn's knee joint and hinder his movement, and that he lacks the wide base necessary to be taking powerful kicks on the forearms or shins while remaining in position to counter.
Boxing and kickboxing are two completely different games: Boxing in MMA works wonderfully when opponents want to punch, but the finer points of a pure boxing game are negated by decent kickboxing.
Additionally, throughout the bout MacDonald was able to effectively land jabs on Penn which immediately drew comparisons with that of the great Georges St-Pierre, who also handily out-jabbed Penn in their second bout.
Now obviously Rory was able to follow his team's game plan and was even able to get creative later in the fight as he beat on a gassed and bewildered Penn, bringing out everything from counter elbows to Brazilian kicks to the least awe-inspiring Ali shuffle I have seen in a while.
Now I do not want readers to undervalue the idiocy of Penn fighting at welterweight. It is not simply that he is underweight at that weight class but that he has a style of stand-up, based around the jab and around counterblows, which relies on having a reach advantage or at least an even reach.
On the occasions that Penn has slipped jabs at welterweight and looked to come back with his counterpunches, his opponent has just been too far away. With the exception of Matt Hughes, a poor striker and a similar length to Penn, B.J. has not out-boxed a welterweight since Georges St-Pierre, back when the latter didn't understand that Penn was going to slip and counterjab every time St-Pierre jabbed.
Penn giving up reach is a bad start, but against an opponent who will strike his body, throw kicks at him and not simply headhunt with punches, his boxing game is almost completely impotent.
Now Rory MacDonald's height and reach advantages and excellent team game-planning culminated in a brutal beatdown, but the performance was hardly flawless. Rory would feint his jab excellently, which was very important to throwing off Penn's timing on the counter-jab, something which so few of his lightweight opponents managed to get their head around, but when he did step in with the jab his chin would come up and extend in front of him, then he would pull his head straight back.
There were simply so many occasions in the bout when it was clear that Penn's reach disadvantage cost him good punches, as Rory's defense got sloppy and he resorted to hopping straight back after any attack. If Penn had low kicks or could rush opponents as he followed them out of their attack rather than just plodding after them as he always has, the fight might have been less of a massacre.
Still, it is Penn's choice to fight with a reach disadvantage, and the weight disadvantage seems to be more of a bragging point than a smart career move. Whether Rory MacDonald's striking will look anywhere near so impressive against opponents who have a build more suited to welterweight, let alone competent, rounded strikers, remains to be seen.
There is absolutely no trait in combat sports as valuable as discipline and receptiveness to coaching. In this respect it is clear that Firas Zahabi and the Tristar team are molding the finest clay available where many gyms—even those with elite strategists—are often working with athletic silly putty.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.