Six years ago, Rory MacDonald and Robbie Lawler engaged in one of the bloodiest and savage fights in MMA history. They had clashed years prior in a close and competitive fight that saw Lawler get his hand raised, but the stakes were higher for this one. The winner would take home the title of the best welterweight in the world. The fight was a classic and ended with Lawler shattering MacDonald’s already mangled nose in the 5th round to defend his title.
In the week following the bout, I started to become enamored with the skillset MacDonald possessed. He was so talented for a 25-year-old, and he had been practically born into the sport. It seemed like he was bred to become a UFC champion. The hype around the Canadian was massive, and I was entirely on that bandwagon.
Fast-forwarding to today, MacDonald never reached the success in MMA people thought he would, as he never won a belt in the UFC and is currently on a two-fight losing streak under the PFL banner. Many people have also questioned the formerly highly touted Canadian’s heart and desire to fight. MacDonald is not the first big prospect in MMA to not live up to expectations. Fans have seen a trend with many fighters hailed as the next big thing not living up to expectations. Names like Aaron Pico, Paige VanZant, Sage Northcutt, Darren Till, and many others have gone from future champions to forgotten wonder kids that failed to live up to lofty expectations.
Now we can pick apart these individuals’ skill sets and develop different reasons why all these fighters failed, but I think there’s a more significant reason why so many fighters fail to reach expectations. Many of these younger fighters were thrown into the fire early, lost, and completely ruined their confidence. For the most part, everyone loses in the sport, it’s just part of the game, but when you’ve gone through your whole life labeled as a winner, it makes that realization that you won’t always win difficult.
As a competitor, you want to take on and beat the best because when everyone is in your ear telling you you are unbeatable, it gets difficult to stay grounded. Many of these fighters would benefit from taking their time and regrouping mentally and physically, but many don’t. Still, the sad reality is that this sport moves fast, and it will leave you behind if you’re not successful quickly.
An excellent example of knowing when you’re ready is current middleweight champion Israel Adesanya. He was offered a contract in October of 2015 in which he would have been 25. He initially declined, waited two years to finally accept, then tore through the middleweight division to become a champ in only two years. When Adesanya eventually did lose, he took it about as well as possible, then came back months later to win his next fight convincingly. Adesanya took his time and knew when he was ready.
Major MMA promotions love to push these young athletes into these big fights, and they usually backfire. Northcutt was thrown into an awful matchup with Cosmo Alexandre and was brutally KO’d. Northcutt hasn’t fought since then, and it seriously derailed his career. That fight was two and a half years ago. You can say the same for fighters like Till and VanZant. It doesn’t mean these fighters aren’t talented enough or will never compete with the best; it just means they need time.
It would benefit many of these prospects to take their time before jumping into these big promotions like the UFC, Bellator, ONE Championship, etc. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you aren’t ready and taking your time. It’s an unforgiving sport where things move quickly, and the weight of expectations can be heavy, and it takes a specific type of person to bear that.