Free of GSP questions, Rory MacDonald ready to seize welterweight title

Rory MacDonald, of Canada, pins Tyron Woodley, of the United States, to the mat during the welterweight bout at UFC 174 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Saturday, June, 14, 2014. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward)

If Rory MacDonald is about to fill Georges St-Pierre’s shoes as Canada’s next mixed martial arts superstar, it’s a role he’ll assume with reluctance.

“I don’t want to be a superstar,” MacDonald said Saturday night after dispatching Tyron Woodley at UFC 174 in Vancouver. “I just like to fight and hopefully I’ll be a dominant champion and represent Canada well.”

Whether or not he wants to take the baton, however, MacDonald may not have much of a choice. The 24-year old welterweight, who trains out of Montreal’s Tri Star gym with St-Pierre, went home to British Columbia and was greeted with a hero’s welcome on Saturday. While UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson was the nominal headliner, it was clear MacDonald, whose unanimous decision over Woodley was the evening’s co-headline bout, was the real draw for the crowd of 13,506 at Rogers Arena.

“The response was great,” MacDonald said at the post-fight news conference. “I feel like I am falling into a groove. Something is clicking.”

Really, who can blame MacDonald for feeling that way? A year ago, MacDonald appeared to be on the brink of the stardom he seems to shy away from. He was 15-1 after picking apart former two-weight-class champion B.J. Penn on national television and speculation rose as to whether he was in line to face his teammate St-Pierre for the latter's welterweight title.

But then came the road bumps. He improved to 16-1 with a one-sided win over Jake Ellenberger last July in Seattle, but the fight was so lackluster that MacDonald was all but booed out of the building. Conversely, with the win the pressure to fight St-Pierre escalated.

Then came the cataclysmic UFC 167 in November. First, MacDonald lost to a resurgent Robbie Lawler. Then came GSP’s controversial split-decision win over Johny Hendricks, which led to a chain of events that ended in St-Pierre vacating his title and taking time off from the sport.

If nothing else, when the dust settled, MacDonald realized the pressure was off and he was free to go back to the drawing board, free from the pressure to fight GSP.

“It’s quite nice not having to answer that question after answering it almost every single interview,” said MacDonald. “It’s a pressure lifted, a distraction that’s gone.”

Rory MacDonald pins down Tyron Woodley during their welterweight title fight. (AP)

A win over veteran Demian Maia at UFC 170 put MacDonald back in the win column. Hendricks’ narrow victory over Lawler at UFC 171 to claim the title vacated by St-Pierre was the next domino to fall. A handful of fighters are jostling for the next shot at Hendricks’ title. Saturday night was MacDonald’s chance to state his case.

“I think this is probably my best performance of my career so far,” MacDonald said. “I’ve got to watch the tape, but the feeling I have right now I’m pretty happy right now. Except closing the fight I didn’t get the finish, but things went well.

“I wanted to get in there, I wanted to mix it up and I wanted to stay busy,” he continued. “I wanted to close the fight, I came in really good shape and I was looking for the finish tonight.”

The flip side of the coin is that Woodley fell flat in one of the biggest opportunities of his career. The 32-year old St. Louis native had openly campaigned his way into the welterweight picture, asking for, and receiving, a fight with Carlos Condit, which Woodley won via injury TKO at UFC 171 in March.

Against MacDonald, though, Woodley looked lost. MacDonald pressed forward and mixed up all sorts of strikes, leaving Woodley backpedaling and second-guessing himself. Woodley has been critiqued for running out of gas in his fights, and in the third, MacDonald effortlessly took down Woodley, a former college wrestler, and kept him there.

Certainly, Woodley (13-3) isn’t the only fighter MacDonald has thrown off his game, but the person who holds the key to his future, UFC president Dana White, was far from impressed.

"[Woodley] choked in the big fight tonight," White said. "He needed to come out and try to rip that head off in the third round and he didn't even do that. He threw a few punches, missed and didn't knock him out. He just sort of sat back into the way he fought the rest of the fight."

Sounds like bad news for Woodley. For MacDonald, though, the sky once again appears to be the limit, whether he wishes to soar to the greatest heights or not. The next shot at UFC welterweight champion Johny Hendricks has been promised to the winner of a July 26 bout in San Jose between Lawler and Matt Brown. But these sort of things are never quite etched in stone in the UFC, and MacDonald is lying in wait, should anything muck up the works between now and then.

“I just wanted to say I respect the decision of the UFC,” MacDonald said. "There’s two guys ahead of me, but if that fight’s a stinker I’ll be ready. They should know I’m ready. One day, very soon, the belt will be mine.”

Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA