Michael McDonald won’t be 22 years old until January. There’s a chance -- if the cards fall in his favor, and his hand is healthy enough to chin-hunt, and UFC matchmakers throw him a bone -- that by the time “Mayday’s” birthday rolls around, he’ll be accessorizing with UFC gold.
It’s a lot of “ifs,” and a few asterisks -- but it’s possible, and the scenario isn’t all that hard to fathom.
Jon Jones was 23 years and 8 months old when he defeated Mauricio Rua for the light heavyweight belt. If Mayday gets a fight with bantamweight interim titleholder Renan Barao in December -- which is the month McDonald has circled for his return -- he could usurp Jones’ feat of becoming the youngest fighter to be a UFC champion. By a full year and a half, no less.
Yeah, yeah -- even if it’s a placeholder belt that is mostly illusion, while the genuine article remains off-limits until Dominick Cruz returns from his ACL injury.
But first things first. The only jones McDonald is dealing with is the one to crush a heavy bag without wincing.
“I’m dying to start punching something again,” McDonald told ESPN.com this week. “I was going to get permission to start punching again about a month ago, but my doctor wanted to go a more conservative and safe kind of route. Just to make sure it was 100 percent. But I feel great. It’s hard for me to go into the gym and watch everyone else train, and just grapple, and not being able to spar with the guys.”
McDonald has been rehabbing his hand, which for the past couple of years has been nagging him. After defeating Miguel Torres at UFC 145 in April, a fight in which his fists did plenty of the work, the hand wasn’t healing properly for him to begin training again. So rather than perpetuate the situation, he decided to call the UFC and let them know what was going on.
So, what exactly was going on?
“I don’t know the correct terminology, but there’s almost like a protective film over the back of your hand,” he says. “What I did, was I hit somebody in the gym and it split right down the middle between my ring and my middle finger [on the right hand]. And every time I make a fist, that protective film rolls over and exposes my bone. So my bone was unprotected, and I was punching literally with nothing protecting my bone by skin, and the tendon was rolling over, so the whole thing was screwed up but I was punching with it for about two years. After Miguel Torres, it just wasn’t going down at the rate I wanted it to, and I wasn’t able to punch.”
It was off to surgery for McDonald, but as of the middle of next week, he should be cleared to punch again. And that means able to train, and available to be booked by the UFC’s smaller division matchmaker, Sean Shelby.
With champion Dominick Cruz still out with a bum knee, and Urijah Faber coming off a loss to Renan Barao, and Barao in limbo holding the interim title waiting to find out how this all plays out ... well, McDonald and Barao might dovetail nicely into a title fight.
Should that happen, McDonald -- who is 15-1 in MMA, and began fighting when he was 16 years old -- would have a chance at history.
“It has crossed my mind, but it’s not something I dwell on,” he says. “Me, I just focus on what matters. A lot of people will say this is what I’m going to do, that I’m going to be the champ, and they say I’m the greatest, and they say all these things that really don’t matter. The only thing that truly matters in my opinion is just ability as a martial artist -- who’s a better martial artist is going to win.
“I think that’s the only thing that matters, and I try and keep my mind centered on that. It does cross my mind, ‘Oh, these are the possibilities.’ It is possible if everything goes as planned, I could be the youngest champion. Things like that do cross my mind, but I can’t dwell on them, because it would just take my mind away from what really matters, and what really matters is just being the best martial artist I can be.”
McDonald threatening to win the belt at 21 years old is one thing, even if he’s only indulging glorified speculation just to be polite. But the surprising thing is that this 21-year-old is powered by a sense of Zen-like bearings, and he comes off as honest, direct, non-sanctimonious, practical and, of all things, wise. Having two brothers who compete in MMA -- younger brother Brad McDonald, and older brother Jason Smitley -- helps him stay rooted in the gym.
Yet there’s more to it. If McDonald has the big picture in his mind, he doesn’t wear rose-colored glasses when looking it over. He doesn’t comb the rankings. He doesn’t even keep up with what’s happening in the bantamweight division, nor any of the divisions.
“To put it very bluntly, I really don’t care,” he says. “I learn everything about my career through other people. My friends will tell me, ‘Dude, you’re in the paper,’ and I’m like, ‘What?’ I didn’t talk to anybody. I don’t keep up with anything that happens. I just stick to myself.”
Just what's sticking to oneself does depend on the person. But for McDonald, he’s become a priority man at a tender age. In fact, he’s got his priorities straight before priorities would seem to have time to mature into an order. It’s simplistic, really.
“My love is in training, in the gym, in martial arts,” he says. “That’s my love. Fighting as a job is a very hard thing to do. And I’ve had times where I’ve questioned whether I wanted to do it, I’ve had times where I didn’t want to do it.
“But I’ve never once questioned whether I wanted to be a martial artist. There’s things about being a fighter as a job that I don’t exactly like. Sometimes I don’t want to have to get up and put on a happy face and meet people and be really jolly when I just had a really bad day. There’s things about being a fighter that are very difficult. Missing out on holidays ... not being able to eat food on Thanksgiving. These seem small, but they wear on you.
“Being a fighter is not where my love is. Being a fighter’s my job. But my love is being in the martial arts, and I’m going to be doing martial arts until the day that I die. When it comes to the aspects of being a fighter and the fight game, I’m a fan of fighting, but I’m not a fanatic of fighting.”
So let’s rephrase this: There’s a chance -- if the cards fall in his favor, and his hand is healthy enough to chin-hunt, and UFC matchmakers throw him a bone -- that McDonald could become the youngest martial artist to ever be champion in the UFC.
It’s an important distinction for a young guy on the verge of something so distinctive.