Why I’ve Been Underrating Rory MacDonald

My analysis of Rory MacDonald is one of the more controversial things about my blogging since I got started, so I feel an obligation to explain myself a little further, hopefully in a clear manner. Keep in mind that so far, MacDonald has well exceeded my expectations and proven me wrong, so if you want to disregard what I say about him, that’s your prerogative.

My approach to evaluating fighters and fights is primarily data-driven. I feel that, little by little, I’m getting better at this on a month to month basis. It’s been a somewhat lengthy process, but with pretty solid recent results, I’m gaining more confidence. But since the vast majority of analysis in MMA is scouting-based, there are bound to be times that my breakdown of a fighter or fight is different from the mainstream. Sometimes, I’ll end up seeing things other people don’t, and other times, I’ll end up wiping egg off my face. This is all still a learning process for me, and still experimental, but I’m getting better at it.

So when I look at Rory MacDonald, my approach is to look at data. The first thing I look at is his record. Before fighting Penn, MacDonald had a very strong record at 13-1. His only loss was to Carlos Condit – nothing to be ashamed of, particularly since that fight was only MacDonald’s 11th in professional MMA. But MacDonald didn’t have a lot of marquee wins – his first nine fights, before entering the UFC, were mostly against fighters with poor or non-existent records. He did have wins over 13-4 Nick Hinchliffe and 15-4 Clay French, but that was about it. His UFC wins were against Che Mills, Mike Pyle, Nate Diaz, and Michael Guymon. It’s not that MacDonald had a bad resume – it really was pretty solid, given MacDonald’s status as an up and coming fighter. But it wasn’t quite consistent with what I like to see from a future champion or title contender – certainly not on par with the rising talent I usually promote, Daniel Cormier, Chris Weidman, and Johny Hendricks. Overall, MacDonald’s record was indicative of a very good welterweight, but not quite an elite one.

After I look at a fighter’s record, I break the fighter down a little more, and look at his striking, wrestling, and ground game. MacDonald’s tendencies as a fighter are typically to go for takedowns, and he has been most successful with ground and pound in the UFC. I looked at MacDonald’s history of takedowns and found that he was very good at landing them against fighters with weak takedown defense. This includes Condit and Diaz, who are both known to be very good apart from their takedown defense. MacDonald didn’t have much of a history against opponents with tougher takedown defense – he was unproven one way or the other. Since B.J. Penn has tougher takedown defense than anybody MacDonald has ever faced, I decided that MacDonald would struggle to land takedowns against him (MacDonald ended up landing one out of three).

Then there’s MacDonald’s striking. Like his takedowns, his striking has been mostly good, but when MacDonald faced a tougher striker in Carlos Condit, the data was not kind to him. It’s a perfect example of a fight where MacDonald looked better on tape than the numbers would indicate. Again, no shame in losing to Condit, but that fight seemed to show that MacDonald was a good, but not great, striker. My critical mistake where B.J. Penn was concerned was willfully ignoring the data on Penn. In particular, from Fight Metric

B.J. PENN SIGNIFICANT STRIKES

  • UFC 118: Frankie Edgar 94, B.J. Penn 36
  • UFC 123: B.J. Penn 7, Matt Hughes 3
  • UFC 127: Jon Fitch 47, B.J. Penn 12
  • UFC 137: Nick Diaz 178, B.J. Penn 88

Obviously this shows a trend of Penn being out-struck badly by his opponents. But even if I had accounted for that, I would likely have underestimated MacDonald here. I certainly didn’t anticipate that MacDonald would out-strike Penn 116-24 overall. Instead of taking a sober look at the numbers, I let the B.J. Penn hype get to me (even as I was diligently refusing to get caught up in the Rory MacDonald hype).

The overall picture I had of Rory MacDonald was of a good, well-rounded fighter who was being overrated because he had fought a series of UFC opponents who were either below-average for the UFC (Guymon, Mills) or who MacDonald matched up well with (Diaz, Pyle, Condit). I felt Penn would be able to match MacDonald strike for strike and thwart his takedowns. Penn was largely successful with his takedown defense, but MacDonald didn’t really need to land takedowns since he battered Penn standing.

Even now, I’m hesitant to label MacDonald as a future champion, or as an elite welterweight fighter. That’s because, as impressive as MacDonald’s win was (and he did everything that could have been asked of him outside of finishing the fight), I now see B.J. Penn as a badly faded and declined opponent, as I should have before the fight (hindsight is 20-20).

Based on what I feel is “true talent level” or ability to win fights, here are who I feel are the best ten welterweights in the UFC right now (and this was after some careful thought):

  1. Georges St-Pierre (who is slipping)
  2. Johny Hendricks
  3. Carlos Condit
  4. Jon Fitch
  5. Rory MacDonald
  6. Martin Kampmann
  7. Jake Ellenberger
  8. Josh Koscheck
  9. Nick Diaz
  10. Demian Maia

As you can see, I’ve gained a ton of respect for MacDonald already. I’ll tell you what… if MacDonald beats one of the toughest wrestlers at welterweight – Hendricks, Fitch, Ellenberger, or Koscheck – I’ll throw in the towel, admit I screwed up, and get behind a Rory MacDonald title shot. Until then, he still has something to prove, at least to me.

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