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Rory MacDonald: Cream of the Crop?

Rory MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler Analysis

Photo Courtesy of Bleacher Report

“Rory will be champion. He has all the attributes mentally and physically, he is the new guy, new generation. He is the cream of the cream.” – Georges St. Pierre

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These are the great words of GSP, and with his authority they are difficult to deny. Jokes aside, this in-depth article assesses Rory’s technical prowess and whether he’s truly cream of the crop. Rory’s coming matchup with Robbie Lawler will also be discussed in Part II.


Section 1: Discussion of adaptive fighters

Section 2: Jake Ellenberger and Rory’s tendencies in recent bouts

Section 3: Discussion of variables in Rory’s bout against Jake Ellenberger

Section 4: Post-fight discussion

The Most Adaptable:

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

MMA is an extreme depiction of Darwinian terms- evolve or be weeded out. It is an intense version of competition where only the elite shine and only a few stay relevant. Time and again we see fighters with great potential “underachieve”.

We also see fighters lose an important bout and never look to perform the same again. Yet it’s equally true that we see fighters rise from the ashes to soar after a loss. These unique individuals come back stronger, learn from their mistakes, and use their failures as a stepping-stone to future victories.

Failure and mistakes:

“Success is the result of perfection, hard work, learning from failure, loyalty, and persistence.” Colin Powell

“I’ve come to believe that all my past failure and frustration were actually laying the foundation for the understandings that have created the new level of living I now enjoy.” Tony Robbins

On paper, when assessing a fighter, the biggest indicator of failure is a loss. But a fighter must not remain ignorant of his mistakes or become complacent in victory- such behavior will result in quick exploitation. The term “he’s always getting better” is easy to throw around, but harder to apply and see in execution.

Rory MacDonald is one unique fighter to display this “hard to see” concept. If you can’t intuitively sense that he’s improving, I’ll point out some of the technical in detail.

Jake Ellenberger’s Last Three Fights:

Jake Ellenberger was arguably Rory’s most dangerous opponent thus far. The name Juggernaut accurate depicts Jake’s abilities: aggressive, powerful base, power in both hands, and powerhouse wrestler. Of his 29 wins, 18 were by T(KO).

To be more precise though, Jake is dangerous in a very specific range: the exchange and medium range. Practically all of his highlight reel knockouts are from hooks. Look closer and you will see that he has difficulty establishing straight punches. Nonetheless, he is a still a fighter that has the ability to push a fighter back and deliver a knockout blow, or deliver it through counters and setups.

Other fighters have attempted to deliver a blueprint to defeat Jake, and they have failed:

Nate Marquart:

Nate appeared to have a game plan coming in to fight Jake. His game plan looked like this:

1. Utilize a lot of movement

2. Use long-range attacks:

a) Utilize straight punch range

b) Kick

The Jackson’s camp applied good strategy in theory, except three major problems:

a) Nate is not very good at the straight punch range – he is better at brawling in exchange range, which happens to be Jake’s area of strength. This means that Jake is a bad stylistic matchup for Nate. His jabs don’t land against Jake, and he telegraphs and throws a right hand after poorly feinting his jab. His inability to execute straight punches led to punishment.

b) He stopped following the initial strategy and went into chasing/exchange mode as soon as he caught Jake’s low kick and off-balanced him; Nate landed a few punches. Moments later, Nate lost an exchange and got countered as he went for a takedown.

Nate then changed to a kicking mode where he almost always backed up… A general principle is that when you are backing up it becomes very difficult to kick effectively. *See Jack Slack’s Barboza article or just watch the Crocop vs Fedor fight.

c) Nate’s kicks are predictable, relatively slow, and quite technically flawed. It lacks proper balance during kick recovery and often had no defence. Against an explosive power puncher, you are asking for trouble by kicking in this manner.

These three major problems create a recipe for disaster against Jake, and it’s precisely why the fight ended the way it did.

How the fight ended:

Nate landed several kicks and was able to avoid the hook range, up until he got backed up against the cage. After Jake felt that he would get the better of the exchanges, he pressed forward, using a heavy and loaded base to back Nate up. Perhaps with “ring or octagon craft” *a term often utilized by Jack Slack, Jake threw a missing left hook that shifted Nate to the cage.

To follow up, Jake threw the right straight to the body, setting up a left-right hook combination. The right straight to the body didn’t really land, but the function was to have Nate back up against the cage and set up an entrance for his following punches.

With the entrance setup and tactic being successful, Nate had no more room to move back. While already out of position, Nate decided to respond with a poorly executed roundhouse, simultaneously allowing Jake to unleash his best weapon- landing solidly with his right hook that ultimately ended the fight.

This was deliberate offensive execution that was combined with porous defence from his opponent.

Gif of how and when not to not throw a roundhouse

Jay Hieron:

Nate, with Jackson’s camp, obviously didn’t go into the bout with a blind game plan. Jake’s fight with Jay Hieron showed that Jake often leads with his right hand, allowing himself to be hit effectively with straight punches. The most important lesson is how Hieron would often disrupt the entrance and rhythm of Jake with his jabs.

Equally interesting was how Hieron used high kicks to pin Jake’s right hand- making it difficult to punch. This was done often and Jake had little response in dealing with this.

With these tactics, he was relatively successful at maintaining distance and disrupting Jake’s rhythm. Hieron lost the fight because of 3 main reasons (29-28 Decision):

1. Gets caught when he tries to lead with a non-straight punch

2. Gets caught when he goes for a takedown.

3. Just that he gets taken down by Jake.

These are great lessons to inspire future opponents, and I hypothesize that this fight was a great influence on Nate’s (poorly executed) strategy.

Martin Kampmann:

Despite Kampmann had won, this fight also showed exactly what not to do against Jake: move back in a straight line without disrupting Jake’s punches.

Juggernaut Mode Juggernaut Mode 2 Juggernaut Mode 3

Blueprint to beat Jake Ellenberger:

1. You must either be better than Jake at the medium range, or avoid it. Seeing as Rory has a willingness to trade and test his abilities before opting for other options (Che Mills), this option is extremely risky.

2. Be competent at throwing straight punches: remain disciplined in throwing them. A straight punch will more often than not cause disruption and give (non-setup) arced punches problems. Rory has the ability to do this, given that he displayed straight punches quite effectively against BJ Penn.

3. Kick with technical defensive competence: while Rory has some tricky kicks, choosing to kick as he has against other opponents poses many threats to himself.

4. Know when to circle out of exchange range. The range must be controlled very carefully, and the Rory must be patient.

Problems Rory displayed:

Cage Use: Against BJ, when he is close to the cage, Rory threw badly positioned and off balanced left kicks with poor hand positioning.

*First time he threw a left kick he showed some cage awareness; the second time he did not.

Common issue: reliance on southpaw stiffarm to escape from a porous kick.

Base and Balance:

Left kick base and hand positioningA display of Rory’s spin kicking base and balance ; A horrible display of the Ali Shuffle

a shuffle or switch actually requires a good solid base and balance, not just fast feet.

Despite that you may believe that the first GIF is a slip- it may be- it’s nonetheless pretty conclusive and surprising that Rory doesn’t actually have smooth kick recovery, solid kicking balance, or a stable kicking-base in any kick that isn’t a low kick. He actually does not have technical defence in any of his kicks aside from (sometimes) swinging his arms across.

An Even More Concerning Tendency

The most concerning of all these exploitable tendencies is that when he gets backed up by BJ, Rory proceeds to throw a badly positioned and off balanced left kicks with poor hand positioning. Guess who else did this?


Almost déjà vu: Rory was pushed back towards the cage, and BJ tried to set up the entrance with a right straight to the body to back Rory up even more to follow with a left hook. Like Nate, Rory threw a simultaneous left kick during the setup / entrance.

Though BJ’s hook did not land heavy, Rory’s hands were very out of position. *About the only good thing Rory did do here was that he had some cage awareness and put his forearm / hand on the cage to support his balance [another indication of non-stable base / balance].

But later on during the fight, he repeats the same kick and mistake with no cage awareness. BJ wasn’t able to capitalize on this, but Jake has shown to be extremely dangerous here. Not only is he dangerous when he has you against the cage, he is much more dangerous if you try a silly kick like that. Rory absolutely cannot do anything that even resemble this tendency in his fight against Jake, unless he wants to sleep.

Against Che Mills:

Rory displayed that he will back up towards the cage, get trapped, and use a defensive southpaw stance to move out.

*I’m not suggesting that a switch to southpaw defence with a stiff-arm cannot be used effectively. Rather, I’m pointing out the problems with how Rory does it. The problem exists because he uses it to compensate for his off-balance and tries to employ it off an awkward position.

Rory has not shown to be competent in striking from such a stance, an indicator that he does not have a comprehensive understanding of the angles and timings while in southpaw. This means that he is in a purely defensive mode- when you are not of threat and lack competent defence, the odds are really stacked against you.

Post- Fight Analysis:

Rory’s tendencies:

1. Feinted his jabs about 3x per actual jab, and used a variety of jabs as expected from previous bouts

2. Very disciplined in positioning the right hand to block the left hook and to easily parry a jab

3. Drew hooks with feints and jabs and backed away leaving Jake more and more hesitant

4. Utilized stiff-arm to keep distance (and to deflect hooks)

5. Did not low kick, performed 2-3 mid-section roundhouses, 5-6 front kick mid section or higher, 3-4 high roundhouses (mainly right leg). **The lack of low kicks and mid-section kicks were very deliberate.

Rory threw roundhouses only in the long-kicking range as Jake was backing up. His teeps were properly timed. *He did not off-balance himself in a dangerous position a single time in this fight. And although Rory’s arm was not in proper defensive position, Jake was in a purely defensive mode and out of position to capitalize.

6. High elbow block, angling the head off the hooking line

7. Utilized shoulders consistently to deflect punches

8. Stayed away from cage

9. Engaged clinch when in dangerous exchange range

10. Feinted the right hip pretty often

To sum it up….

Rory and his camp effectively employed their “chaos removal strategy” via these methods:

1. Emphasizing the jab

2. Limiting sloppy kicks and low/mid-section kicks

3. Employing competent stiff-arm, hand positioning, elbow and shoulder defence.

The game becomes overwhelmingly simple when a fighter has the skill-sets and is disciplined in using them. In this fight, we saw exactly that. Rory and his camp were aware of his flaws and how it may be exploitable by Jake. This showcases the trait of adaptability and hence victory.

Not only did they go with safe options, they made it even safer by emphasizing defence. It’s clear that Rory’s camp did a lot of work on what kicks to throw and how to avoid danger near the cage.

Not once was Rory in dangerously out of position (after a kick) like he was in his previous fights. He also avoided the cage for the most part. This is a display of open-mindedness and willingness to improve by acknowledging your flaws.

Jake’s one-dimensional striking game can be effectively countered by the jab alone. There isn’t a need to take risks in throwing other punches (not only is it more risky, Rory is also less competent with them).

It’s quite clear that Rory worked on his exploitable tendencies and that his camp made sure to correct it. It’s also quite clear that Jake lacked sound strategy as he established close to nothing in this fight. He didn’t have a plan B since his whole game plan revolved around his usual hooks. The outcome of this fight was decided by this as well as the sound strategy employed by Rory.

I have nothing against people who think fighters should take more risks to make the fight “more entertaining”. However, being very technical and executing a sound strategy ought to be acknowledged. Even more than that is a young fighter who displays strict discipline (against his usual demeanor / willingness to exchange).

A fighter who has elite skills, sound strategy, and the discipline to execute them is a fighter of championship caliber. In my opinion, the fight variables displayed against Jake does indicate that Rory is “cream of the crop.”

Thank you for reading. The next section will detail Robbie Lawler and how he matches up against Rory MacDonald.