ATLANTA – Michael McDonald was bouncing on his toes, grinning, soaking in the moment. Surrounded by reporters and cameras, he breezed through a workout as if nothing he could be doing would be more fun.
Soaked in sweat, facing the biggest fight of his life Saturday when he takes on former World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight champion Miguel Torres in the pay-per-view opener at UFC 145, McDonald glanced at the reporters crowded around him and beamed.
"I love this," he said, wiping sweat from his brow.
Torres is a dangerous opponent and, by far, the biggest name he's faced to date, but McDonald shrugged. His countenance remains the same. At 21, nothing bothers him much.
McDonald is the second-youngest fighter in the UFC and is on an express run toward a title shot. He's 14-1 overall, 3-0 in the UFC and looking like a burgeoning star.
The UFC, though, isn't making accommodations to his age. In Torres, McDonald will face an elite opponent who turned professional when McDonald was just 9. Torres is 39-4 overall and has more than twice as many finishes (32) as McDonald has fights (15).
Still, McDonald is unfazed.
"I think he's good, and I think I'm better," McDonald said. "I think I match up stylistically well to him. I've never looked at him and said, 'If I customize myself to him and his style, I think I could beat him.' I've always said, 'Me being me, I think I can beat him as him.' I haven't watched a minute of footage because I've studied him and I already know that I can beat him, and that's all I need – just me being me."
McDonald has an instinctive knack for knowing what to do in the cage, understanding the unfolding of a sequence of events started by a single move. As a result, he's supremely relaxed when he fights because nothing is foreign or unexpected.
"I really think the best fighter a fighter can be is when they're at their calmest state," McDonald said. "Think about training in the gym. You see some people who, in the gym, would beat anyone in the world. But when you get them in a cage, they freak out and it doesn't happen for them.
"I feel like emotions cloud judgment. First and foremost, fighting is a chess match with your body. I feel emotion clouds that good judgment of where I should go, where I should move, what I should do, so I like being calm because I'm a thinker."
And as a thinker he's pondered life beyond fighting, even as his fighting career is just taking off. He's the rare 21-year-old who is making plans for the future that don't include a visit to the hottest night club.
Fighting is a part of his life, but it's not his life – It's a means to an end and he won't let being a fighter define him.
"A lot of people who are in this sport, their goal is to be champion and to stay champion," he said. "I'm going to go into psychology a little bit, but that's often to make them feel good, to make them feel special. They need some purpose to live and they feel like a fighter is who they are, not what they do. "I'm not the same. I don't feel this is who I am. This is just something I do and something I enjoy. I love fighting. It's not what I do, and my main goal is not just to be champion. My goal is, this is my job and I want to provide a life for me and my future family.
"I want this to go into other avenues. I'm not going to be able to fight forever. I want this to supplement the things that I want later. I'm here in this sport because I love it; no other reason besides this is my job and I love it. I'm not looking forward to just saying, 'When am I getting that title? When am I getting that title?' I want to stay in this company. I want to [get] paid. I want to create a platform for my ministries, my carpentry and teaching. That's what I want to do. I want to create a platform for all of the other cool things I want to do in my life."
McDonald built a wood shop behind his parents' home in Modesto, Calif., funding the project with the $70,000 Knockout of the Night bonus he got for a win over Alex Soto at UFC 139.
His only loss so far is to Cole Escovedo in 2009. "I felt my world was over," McDonald said of the defeat. But the loss turned out positively for him because it changed his approach and allowed him to focus on the things in life he loves.
"It took me getting beaten up to separate myself from who I am and what I do … Fighting was all I knew and it was all I did," McDonald said. "I felt like I was put on this Earth to fight. It was all I knew, but after I got beaten up I had to go back and get a reality check. What makes me me is not fighting. Fighting is something I do. I don't have to do this and it doesn't define me."
He makes furniture and cabinetry in his shop and said, "It is something that I really, really love."
Working with saws and hammers is dangerous for a man who, at least for now, makes his living with his hands. McDonald's already had some close calls. He was working with a table saw not long ago when the saw hit a scrap piece of metal. The force of the blade flung the metal directly at him, like a projectile.
It tore a hole through his shirt, but he was saved by the metal in his belt buckle.
"I'm just glad it didn't hit me in the crotch or the stomach," he said, chuckling.
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McDonald acknowledges the risk in his hobby; carpentry is just something he loves doing.
"My Dad's always telling me, 'The thumb! Watch your left thumb!' " McDonald said. "He's so worried about my left thumb. I do try to take proper safety measures. The table saw is probably the worst one. … There is a very low risk of cutting something off."
That's a good thing for fight fans, because with his youth talent and outlook, there are a lot of big bouts in his future.
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