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Canadian welterweight Rory (Red King) MacDonald, a former Bellator champion and UFC title contender, opens a new chapter in his MMA career Thursday when he makes his Professional Fighters League debut against (Curtious) Curtis Millender.
It marks the first fight for the 31-year-old MacDonald, a native of Kelowna B.C., who now makes his home in Montreal, since Oct. 26, 2019, when he lost his Bellator title to Douglas (The Phenom) Lima.
MacDonald (21-6-1) says the break has made him a better fighter.
"I got to work on a lot of things and make improvements and get stronger in different areas," he said in an interview. "I felt like the biggest thing was for me to take a mental break from the sport and come back fresh."
Millender (18-6-0) promises "high-level striking, crazy speed and crazy creativity."
MacDonald and Millender are headlining PFL 2 at the Ocean Casino Resort in Atlantic City, N.J.
The Professional Fighters League, formerly known as the World Series of Fighting, works on a set schedule unlike other MMA promotions. The 2021 campaign, featuring six weight classes, started April 23 with each fighter having two bouts during the promotion's "regular season."
The first half of the schedule takes place on cards in April and May with the second half set for June.
Fighters earn performance-based points, with three points for a win, plus bonus points for knockouts and submissions. They are seeded in standings for their weight class based on their point totals.
The top eight in each division advance to the single-elimination playoffs in October, where fighters must fight twice and win twice in the same night to advance to the finals. The 2021 PFL World Championship is slated for New Year's Eve with the winners each earning US$1 million for being crowned PFL champions.
MacDonald was originally set to face David (Bulldawg) Michaud. But the 32-year-old Michaud revealed April 8 that tests had revealed a congenital heart defect.
"Fighting puts me at risk for an aortic dissection -- a tear in the aorta. That would be fatal under almost all circumstances. For this reason I will not be able to fight Rory MacDonald on April 29th, and unless anything changes, ever again,'' he wrote in a social media post.
Michaud (18-6-0) reached the 2019 PFL welterweight final, but was stopped in the second round by Ray (Bradda Boy) Cooper III.
The 33-year-old Millender has lost three of his last four MMA fights. He won his first three in the UFC before losing the next two and moving to Bellator where he split his last two outings.
"He's a much different fighter," MacDonald said of Millender. "But I'm the type of guy that can adjust on the fly. I didn't get too bent out of shape about it. It's a new style but I'm going to go in there to fight my fight."
Millender calls it "hands down the biggest fight of my life."
"So I'm ready to go in and cash in and make the most of it."
MacDonald will also have to get used to the PFL cage which he says is a "lot smaller" than he is used to. He also was not too happy at having to arrive 2 1/2 weeks ahead of the fight to be part of the PFL bubble.
"And I expressed that to them. But at the end of the day, it's their show and it's the way they wanted to run it," said MacDonald, who spent two days isolated in his hotel room and needed two negative COVID test before being allowed to end quarantine and training at the PFL facilities.
MacDonald is 1-2-1 in his last four fights. While he beat Neiman Gracie before losing to Lima, he fought veteran Jon Fitch to a draw and lost by TKO to Bellator middleweight champion Gegard (The Dreamcatcher) Mousasi.
MacDonald signed with the PFL in December 2019 but had to wait for his debut after the promotion cancelled its 2020 season due to the pandemic.
He has been training at Florida's Sanford MMA in Deerfield Beach, having liked what he saw in a week-long stint there in early 2020 before the pandemic hit.
"Basically restrictions kept getting worse and worse in Quebec and it was really hard to train," said MacDonald, who in the past has trained at both the Tristar Gym in Montreal and Toshido Mixed Martial Arts in Kelowna.
With the PFL season approaching, I needed to make a decision of where I should do my training camp. So I decided to move me and my family down to South Florida," said MacDonald, a father of two.
MacDonald, who expects to return to Canada after his second PFL fight, says he liked the hard-working, no-ego environment at Sanford.
"It's a great team environment" he said. "I really enjoyed my time with them. And obviously a very high level of talent in that room."
Other welterweight bouts on Thursday's card include Cooper versus Jason Ponet, Gleison Tibau versus Joao (The Brazilian Samurai) Zeferino and Sadibou Sy versus Nikolai Aleksakhin.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press