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UFC 170 a proving ground for MacDonald

Compared to previous events, there is decidedly less hype surrounding UFC welterweight contender Rory MacDonald heading into UFC 170.

Before UFC 167 in November 2013, the sport was abuzz with talk about MacDonald facing his mentor and teammate, then-UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Riding a five-fight win streak, all the momentum and hype was heaped upon the 24-year-old MacDonald, St-Pierre and the Montreal-based Tristar fight team.

“All anyone wanted to talk about was whether I would fight Georges,” MacDonald said.

“Every question was about Rory and Georges,” said Firas Zahabi, MacDonald’s trainer and Tristar head coach. “I like to keep our fighters focused on the opponent at hand, but it seemed like everyone was focused on a possible Rory-St-Pierre fight, more than the actual fight [at hand]. It was distracting.”

Indeed, people sort of forgot that MacDonald still had to fight Robbie Lawler.

An overhand right and a split decision loss later, MacDonald is probably wishing he were fighting next month at UFC 171, where Lawler will fight Johny Hendricks for the vacated welterweight title. Instead, he’s fighting Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Demian Maia at UFC 170 -- to little fanfare. This isn’t a gimme. No one is looking past Maia, and St-Pierre is no longer champion.

Hype has followed MacDonald his entire career. As he's often dubbed the poster boy for a new breed of UFC fighter, MacDonald’s martial arts skill set has been sired with elite proficiency within multiple disciplines. Future greatness has been anointed on to MacDonald like no other young UFC fighter.

But there’s always been a tiny nagging suspicion about MacDonald. Is he really that good? What’s really his ceiling? Can he really beat elite competition?

Of course, you’ve seen this kind of microscope scrutiny applied to uber prospects of every sport -- Bryce Harper (baseball), Andrew Wiggins (basketball), Johnny Manziel (football). The key with these burgeoning young stars is whether they listen to the praise or detractors; whether they let any of the noise in.

“I understand people expect a lot from me; it’s nice to have those high expectations,” MacDonald said. “But it doesn’t really affect who I am or how I act. I’m just continuing on to try and accomplish my goals.”

And the immediate goal is to defeat Maia and get back on track toward a welterweight title shot.

But is he that good?

MacDonald says he would not have fought St-Pierre had both won their bouts at UFC 167. Though MacDonald insists he doesn’t let press coverage get the better of him, the looming thought of that quandary left MacDonald troubled and it showed against Lawler.

“It would have put me in a stressful situation and I think it played on my mind a lot,” MacDonald said. “It’s something that shouldn’t have happened. I should have been in control of that. But now that the door’s open and I don’t have to deal with that question anymore, it’s a lot more stress free.”

With that pressure now alleviated, there is something of a mandate for MacDonald to prove he can be the dominating force at 170 pounds that many in the industry expect him to be. But there’s that nagging suspicion again.

His five-fight win streak began after a TKO loss to Carlos Condit. He rebounded with a solid win over Nate Diaz, but MacDonald followed up with wins over retreads such as Mike Pyle, Che Mills and a way-past-his-prime BJ Penn. And MacDonald’s win against Jake Ellenberger was -- as UFC president Dana White called it -- “lackluster.” Then came the loss to Lawler.

Nonetheless, with MacDonald’s skill set, brutal ground-and-pound strategy and athletic potential, it’s understandable why the hype still hovers over him. He has openly admitted having lost motivation. Fighting wasn’t fun. But in a way, the loss to Lawler might have been the thing to shock MacDonald back into focus.

“Yeah, it was the wake-up call I needed,” MacDonald said.

And he doesn’t feel as though he has anything left to prove. “If I put on a good show against Demian, I think that’s a big enough of a statement to catapult me to the top,” MacDonald said.

In fact, one man who believes MacDonald deserves every bit of hype he’s garnered during his career is Maia. So much so that Maia believes that he could be in line for a title shot if he can defeat MacDonald.

“His hype is well deserved, and I think I could be close for a title shot if I beat him,” Maia said. “He’s good. Rory is a great fighter with excellent skills. Rory’s style is the future. The new MMA fighters will come much more complete than I was. When I had my first UFC fight, I was pretty raw in the stand-up. But today the young fighters are all like Rory -- very complete.”

However, ask Zahabi and he’ll tell you there’s only one member of that new generation of fighter -- MacDonald.

“He’s unique,” Zahabi said. “I don’t think there’s ever been a guy like Rory. He doesn’t remind me of anyone else necessarily. He just brings his own kind of style.”