Early risers

IT'S EASY TO PINPOINT when MMA fans knew that Jon Jones was destined for stardom. Matched against iron-chinned brawler Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94 in January 2009, Bones landed spinning elbows at will, casually completed judo throws and suplexes and fired his trademark bony legs into Bonnar's rib cage. In only his second UFC fight, which he won by decision, Jones was a composed 21-year-old with a 7-foot wingspan and no ceiling. Two years later, when he became the youngest UFC titleholder ever, no one was surprised.

That's how it feels now with Michael McDonald and Rory MacDonald in what could prove to be the Year of the Young Fighter. The two are the undercard up-and-comers to watch at UFC 145, the April 21 pay-per-view event during which Jones will defend his belt against archnemesis Rashad Evans. McDonald, a 21-year-old bantamweight with heavy hands in a division not known for power, takes on former WEC 135-pound champion Miguel Torres. The 22-year-old MacDonald, a welterweight who already has imposed his will on far more experienced opponents, fights former British welterweight champ Che Mills.

MacDonald is 3-1 in UFC action, while McDonald is undefeated in three fights. In his lone loss, at UFC 115 in June 2010, MacDonald was seconds away from decisioning interim welterweight champion Carlos Condit before getting caught in an exchange. Despite their ages, both fighters already have produced breakout moments: MacDonald's came at UFC 129, when he blasted Nate Diaz with German suplexes and artisan striking, and McDonald's came when he knocked out Alex Soto at UFC 139 in 56 seconds.

So is it crazy to think that Jones soon will be replaced as the youngest champ ever? In 2006, the average age of a UFC titleholder was 32.7; now it's 28. If MacDonald has his way, that number will keep dropping. "I want to be world champion by the time I'm 24," says the Canadian, who trains with Georges St-Pierre in Montreal. "And that's not my only goal in this sport. I'm going to accomplish things that nobody else has done."

MacDonald has reason to be cocky. He's a master of balance, a fantastic jujitsu player and a dynamic striker with range. As with Jones, it's hard to spot a weakness.

The same goes for McDonald, who boasts curtain-closing hands and freelance adaptability. There's not an opponent in
the 135-pound division who can match his explosiveness. "If you study the martial arts and how to use your body, you can generate incredible power," he says.

McDonald has been fighting as a pro since age 16, and a dozen of his 14 victories have come via knockout or submission, a staggering number for a bantamweight. The guy at the top of the division, Dominick Cruz, has finished off just one opponent in his past six bouts.

If McDonald beats Torres, he could be in line for a shot at Cruz and the opportunity to supplant Jones as the youngest UFC champion. Well, that is assuming MacDonald doesn't beat him to the punch.

No one would be surprised.

Chuck Mindenhall is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter, @ESPNmag, and like us on Facebook.