Michael McDonald refocused as he prepares for Bellator MMA debut

Michael McDonald signed with Bellator MMA earlier this year. Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

It doesn't seem possible Michael McDonald could be only 26 years old. Not after everything he has been through in his career.

McDonald (17-4) returns to the cage for the first time in 17 months on Friday, when he meets bantamweight Peter Ligier in the main event of Bellator 191 in Newcastle, England. It will be McDonald's first trip to the Bellator cage and the latest chapter in a career that has taken several turns.

McDonald, of Modesto, California, was considered a phenom as a teenager. He has fought for a UFC championship ... and went broke while sitting on the sideline due to injury. He asked for and was granted his UFC release earlier this year due to a contract dispute, and then he quickly signed with Bellator. All of this has happened over the course of a 10-year career, before his 27th birthday.

"Man, as a whole, I think I've experienced and learned some things you just can't learn from other people," said McDonald, on his career so far. "These are lessons you have to learn for yourself.

"I think about someone like [UFC welterweight] Robbie Lawler and how he transformed into this incredible veteran -- mentally strong, super aware, confident. That has to do with him starting young. I like where my career is now, and I think it's on the up."

McDonald was 15-1 when he fought Renan Barao for the UFC's interim bantamweight title in 2013.

Unknown to anyone at the time, McDonald was starting to lose his focus around that fight. He was competing against the best of his weight class but struggling financially between bouts.

The situation came to a head in 2017, when he asked the UFC to restructure his deal in a way that would hopefully allow him to fight more frequently. Ultimately, both sides agreed to part ways.

"Bottom line, I had a number that I went to the UFC with of what I thought I was worth and what I needed to fight," McDonald said. "They weren't willing to pay it. Bellator was.

"My older brother, who's my best training partner, told me he hasn't seen me zeroed in on the target like this since [2010]. I used to have this zeroed-in focus, but then we hit the drama. And when there's money in the pot, it complicates things."

McDonald says things are simplified now. He has overhauled his personal finances and longtime woodworking business.

He says he's not necessarily in a hurry to realign his career -- he has fought only twice since 2014 -- but believes he finally has the experience, contract and health to realize the potential he's long flashed.

"I'm convinced the most success you can ever achieve is through a grind and a repeat process," McDonald said. "I can't do what I did before, where I was saying, 'Oh my gosh, I have to fight so often and everything else will take care of itself.'

"Everything in my life was squared before I accepted this fight. After this fight, things will be a little behind. So, as soon as this is over, I'll go home, get everything back to square and repeat the process."