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MacDonald leaves legend in his wake

SEATTLE — In the second round, Rory (Ares) MacDonald reared back and buried a punch in B.J. Penn’s side — as if looking to embed a treat in a ball of dough.

The 33-year-old Hawaiian grimaced and turned away. For a moment, it seemed like he might call it a night. But Penn kept fighting. And the beating continued.

MacDonald showed his championship credentials in a unanimous (30-26, 30-26, 30-27) decision over Penn, a former lightweight and welterweight title-holder. In so doing, he literally treated the future Hall of Famer as a punching bag.

Still the young Canadian rued not stopping Penn earlier.

“It’s bittersweet because the job wasn’t finished,” he said later. “But that’s just my outlook to fighting.”

MacDonald’s approach to mixed martial arts involves hurting people.

“When I look across the Octagon at somebody, it’s just another body to me. Legend or not. I’m going in there to hurt him,” the 23-year-old Montreal-based fighter said Saturday night.

Job done, as a battered Penn was sent to hospital afterwards.

“At the end of the day, his main focus in that fight was to damage B.J. Penn,” said friend and training partner Mike Ricci. “That’s Rory’s thing — damage. That’s all he wants to do, whether he’s in a clinch, standing or on the ground, he comes out there to hurt guys. He’s not there to win rounds. He wins them because he does so much damage. He’s not there to play the game and score points and fight these strategic fights. He goes out there, he keeps his game plan extremely simple and just tries to hurt his opponent.”

The fight at KeyArena was third on the bill but had a main event feel. MacDonald was the villain of the piece, booed as the stone-faced fighter walked to the cage to Lupe Fiasco’s “Lightwork.” The catcalls turned to wild cheers as Penn followed, to the melodic sounds of his traditional entrance song “Hawai’i 78” by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole.

The atmosphere was electric. The fight that followed was one-sided. According to FightMetric, MacDonald had 57 significant strikes to just seven for Penn in the second round, Overall the total was 116-24 in the Canadian’s favour.

Consider those numbers and the fact coach Firas Zahabi considers MacDonald “probably the hardest-hitting athlete pound-for-pound I’ve ever trained” — he switches sparring partners every minute and a half or two minutes back at the gym to save them from abuse — and you have an idea of how much punishment the undersized Hawaiian took.

Zahabi said most fighters would have broken in the face of MacDonald’s onslaught, an attack fuelled by brutal body blows.

“We very much trained in body strikes,” he explained. “It will slow any man down. B.J.’s got an incredible chin, he’s got a head like a brick. His ability to move forward is incredible. It’s stunning, actually ... The body is where you’re going to slow a man down.”

Penn came out of retirement to fight MacDonald, an opponent he hand-picked. UFC president Dana White told Fuel TV that MacDonald had probably sent back Penn into retirement.

Penn is now 1-4-1 since the start of 2010.

“Rory looked better than he ever looked,” White said. “The body punches he threw, you don’t see punches like that in mixed martial arts. He really put it to B.J. tonight.”

Cesar Gracie, head coach to Nick and Nate Diaz, was also impressed.

“He was just too big for B.J.” Gracie said. “Rory’s a big 170-pounder, he could probably fight at 185. He’s a big guy, he’s very athletic, he’s very strong. It was just too much for B.J. Penn.”

Ricci likened the fight to a dance, with the six-foot MacDonald pulling the strings so he could always maintain the proper distance to control the action.

With the five-foot-nine Penn unable to find his range, MacDonald went to work.

After the MacDonald win, another veteran took a beating at the hands of a young gun as rising Swedish star Alexander (The Mauler) Gustafsson manhandled former light-heavyweight champion Mauricio (Shogun) Rua en route to a 30-27, 30-27, 30-26 decision.

In the marquee fight of the night before a sellout crowd of 14,412, lightweight champion Benson (Smooth) Henderson dominated Nate Diaz in a lopsided 50-43, 50-45, 50-45 decision.

It was a mature, impressive performance by the 155-pound champion, who has struggled to win respect since beating Frankie (The Answer) Edgar in two close title fights earlier this year. Henderson showed all the weapons in his arsenal, and then some. In the third round, he essentially did the splits to evade a submission attempt.

MacDonald (14-1) has now won four straight and is 5-1 in the UFC. He has set his sights next on Carlos (Natural Born Killer) Condit, who handed him his only loss in June 2010.

While he introduced himself as a championship contender Saturday, MacDonald has many fans to win over outside of Canada.

His icy take-no-prisoners demeanour — especially against a beloved veteran like Penn — is hard to embrace. Some have dubbed him “Canadian Psycho” for his attitude towards fighting and penchant for elegant clothes.

In truth, MacDonald is more complicated than that.

Intense and very focused, MacDonald has been driven to succeed in the cage since he took up MMA at the age of 14. He had his first pro fight at 16 in Prince George, B.C., with his parents signing a waiver.

Some young athletes are whipped on from an early age by parents. MacDonald is his own master — a young man on a mission.

“I’m not the same person you’re seeing right now when I fight. I’m not a nice person,” he explains. “I feel like most of the time I’m a pretty nice guy but I have that capability of switching to that other person.”

Away from the gym or cage, MacDonald is not kicking puppies or stealing his friends’ lunch money.

“Junk food, candies and sweets will make Rory MacDonald smile,” said Ricci. “A good joke will make him smile as well.

“There’s not much that makes that man smile,” Ricci then added, between laughs. “Me and him, we crack a lot of jokes and we get a lot of laughs in. I’ve seen him laugh him quite a bit.”

A discussion with a Daily Telegraph reporter over suits also made him chuckle following the post-fight news conference.

MacDonald’s love for clothes comes partially from the fact that he had one outfit growing up — jeans and a hoodie — and was teased about it. He can afford more these days.

An example of how Macdonald is easy to misunderstand was shown when he did the Ali shuffle late in the fight.

The crowd booed, thinking MacDonald was mocking a fading Penn. MacDonald explained later it’s not showboating, just something he does to relax and distract his opponent.

MacDonald also can come across as aloof, as when asked about the boos he got Saturday night. He just doesn’t sugarcoat his answers.

“Doesn’t matter. I don’t fight for them, I fight for me,” he replied. “People can love me or hate me. I fight for myself and because I love it. It is what it is.”

 
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