"I want to do something unique with my life, and the
only way I’m going to do something special is if it’s a hard life." - Michael McDonald
“As a child I said, ‘God, I want a hard life.’”
The genesis that spawned that unusual wish? Young Michael, intuitive beyond his years, observed a curious trend in the world. It involved the decimals of human civilization who have etched their names in the history books.
“Anyone whose name is still remembered from years past,” McDonald said, “they either did something really bad, or something really good. But they have one thing in common: They all had a hard life.
“Most people just want to skate through life and satisfy their needs in the easiest way. I want to do something unique with my life, and the only way I’m going to do something special is if it’s a hard life.”
By his own account, McDonald’s quest for a rocky road has been granted. The Modesto, California, native is a professional fighter, and less than one percent of the population can truthfully say that. It is an often unglamorous life filled with grueling training sessions that often push you to the limit physically, mentally and spiritually. Fear is a common companion. Sacrifice and discipline are musts. Frequent partying and living on the wild side are potential career killers.
The interesting thing is, though he’s been training since he was a teenager and even turned pro at the exceptionally ripe age of 16, McDonald (13-1) says he didn’t choose the fighting life. It chose him.
“Fighting was never in my plan for myself,” said the deeply religious McDonald, who at 20 years old is the youngest fighter among the UFC’s roster of 303 athletes. “I wanted to be a counselor, I wanted to be a cabinet maker, I wanted to be a preacher, I wanted to be a martial arts teacher. Fighting was never something I wanted for my own life. But in time it came to be. This is what God put in my life and this is what I need to do right now. It might not have been the plan I had for myself, but this is a good life. It might be hard – but I asked for a hard life. This is the plan that He has for me. This is my ministry right now.”
Regarded by many as a future star-in-the-making, McDonald is 3-0 under the Zuffa banner and chases his fourth straight win on Saturday when he faces unbeaten Alex Soto (6-0-1) at UFC 139. The bantamweight battle harbors a potential redemption of sorts for McDonald, in his own eyes at least. One of the division’s most dangerous finishers, McDonald’s potent right hand has ended seven of his fights. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt has also submitted four foes. But his last two UFC foes (Chris Cariaso and Edwin Figueroa) have been stubborn, taking McDonald the distance and making him settle for judges’ decisions. That doesn’t sit well with McDonald, even though he said a shoulder and knuckle were badly injured before his Cariaso fight.
“Everyone has bad and good nights; that fight with Chris Cariaso was not a good night for me,” McDonald said. “I consider it a loss in my book. I think I should have been able to finish Chris Cariaso. I’ve only had two decisions in my life. I do not want to go to another decision. Alex Soto seems very well-rounded. Someone who is so well-rounded and aggressive, with a crazy gas tank, you can’t plan exactly what you’re going to do. So I really don’t have a gameplan. I just want to finish the fight and I’m going to go out there and play it by ear.”
Certain fighters, like Clay Guida and Wanderlei Silva, are adrenaline junkies who relish the energy of a frenzied live arena and fight to entertain fans. McDonald is different. A self-professed “perfectionist,” he is well aware that some people have branded him The Next Big Thing at 135 pounds. In fact, McDonald has at times let his mind wander, comparing himself to other phenoms who achieved incredible success in their early twenties such as Rory MacDonald (now 22), Erik Koch (23), light heavyweight champ Jon Jones (24) and featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo (25). McDonald concedes that envy and even jealousy have seeped into his thoughts from time to time, but he’s determined to rise above that kind of competitiveness.
“This is a little bit of the psychology behind Michael,” he says with a chuckle. “No one has ever asked me that but actually I do make those comparisons. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but it’s been a defect of mine. Growing up I always thought that when I did something I was special. And what made me special was never the fact that I was good. What made me special was the fact that I was good – AND I WAS YOUNG. Yeah, there are people that can do what I do, but no one can do it as young as I can.
“I still struggle with it occasionally. When I see other young people in competition that are good at something – I want to hate them. That’s my automatic reaction, because they are taking away from my specialness, so to speak. But now that I’m getting older and more mature I can stop and see that it means nothing. I have to keep a check on that. I should be learning no matter who the person is. I need to respect all these people and their awesomeness. So I’m learning to have a more appropriate mindset about it. I realize now that I’m not special because of what I do, or because someone tells me. I’m special because of the way God made me.”
Along the same lines, McDonald refuses to bear the heavy load of outside expectations. He has succumbed to that burden once before, two and a half years ago, when he lost his only pro fight via TKO to Cole Escovedo. A deep depression followed.
“I ran away and pushed everyone away,” he said. “It led me down a miserable road and I don’t ever want to do that again. Now I have a much healthier mindset about it. I’m not doing this for the people. If I can help people along the way then that’s great, but I’m not doing this for other people. I’m doing this because my God, my father, gave me a mission and this is what he put in front of my life.”
If you can’t already tell, fighting is not McDonald’s favorite topic. It’s his aforementioned ministry. In his mind, similar to No. 1 lightweight contender Benson Henderson, fighting simply gives him a large public platform to spread God’s message.
“A lot of people think that when I speak at church I’m going to talk about being a fighter and my successes, and I don’t. Because I’m not something special. I didn’t do something extraordinary. I ruined my life,” McDonald said. “I was miserable … I looked in the mirror one morning and I didn’t like who I saw. I always thought that I would be a good person when I grew up and I wasn’t. I hated my life. I became a liar. I had everyone fooled. I was a phony. I was a manipulating bastard. That was the main reason I hated myself. No one really knew me -- I didn’t know me. That’s what I’ve been talking about in my testimony. I hated myself and didn’t really want to stay on this planet anymore. God took me at that point and he turned me into a good person. Now I get to talk about my screw-ups and God’s victories in my life. Fighting is not about me being the best, it’s not about me being rich. To me, it is my ministry right now.”
Our time is almost up. There is one more question for Young Man McDonald. What is the upside of being only 20 years old and days away from your third UFC fight?
“The upside … ummm…I guess the upside is knowing that I have a long ways to go until I’m the best I can be,” he said. “A lot of people in the organization have a very small window of opportunity to generate income from this. That’s not the case for me. I probably have 15 or more years left, give or take a few years. So I feel comfortable and I’m not in any rush to get the title or get to the top right now. Other fighters might be of a certain age so they’re in a rush and they need it soon; I don’t. I can be as patient as I want. I’m putting my money on the fact that Michael McDonald at 25 will be better than Michael McDonald at 20. So that is making my career go a lot smoother.”