Bellator 202’s Michael McDonald: “I will never become a character”

Bellator 202 Michael McDonald
Michael McDonald (left) Credit: Bellator MMA

Michael McDonald was once diagnosed with a career-ending condition, and it is why he refuses to play into the politics of the fight game even as he approaches a title shot at Bellator 202.

Bellator bantamweight Michael McDonald is fighting former champion Eduardo Dantas on July 13 in a bout with major title implications. “Mayday” made his promotional debut last year after being a perennial top-ten contender in the UFC and challenging for the interim world championship. A shot at gold would appear to be next should he win at Bellator 202, but for him, it is far from what is most important.

After the turmoil of the last several years, the inconsistencies of the fight game have led to McDonald keeping his focus near-sighted. He states that he has not watched any of Dantas’ fights nor even those of current champion Darrion Caldwell. At the time of the interview, McDonald even stated that he was unaware that Caldwell was moving up to the featherweight division for his next bout in August. “When I get home from training and working on my skills, it’s family time. It’s time for me to be with my wife and focus on what’s more important. I do not make it a point to watch everyone’s fights and know what’s going on in the media. I didn’t even know (Caldwell) was moving up in weight class and I’m happy for it. It lets me put more time into the gym and to be with my family.”

“The reason I’m not a character, the reason I’m myself and I’m not willing to become a character at any price, no matter what that price would be, is because of my testimony.” – Michael McDonald

It goes against one of the unspoken rules of being in professional sports, to sound against the platform that gives you the attention that so few are ever granted. But McDonald isn’t compelled to play into the promotional machine. He doesn’t discuss fighting big names or winning the trophies that the sport offers. Why? Because he knows how easily all of it can fade away.

“Years ago, when I was going from the WEC to the UFC, I had a doctor tell me I had an aneurysm in my brain. I could never fight again. If I did want to fight, I would have to have surgery. There was a 25% chance I would die in surgery. There was a 25% chance the surgery would be successful and a 50% chance it would be unsuccessful. But that’s my testimony. God is the one that delivered me from that. There was nothing that I could have done. We worked for hours and hours and hours to get this fixed. It was a said-and-done deal, I was never gonna fight again. I hear God’s voice and he said ‘Pull over and give it to me. Give it to me.’ Within ten seconds of giving it to him, the head doctor whom I’d never seen before called me and says ‘Hey there’s been a mistake. You’re healthy and I’m going to sign your papers. You’ll have a long, great career. I’m so sorry for these morons.’ Three other doctors said I wasn’t going to fight again. Only God can do that.”

Today, McDonald makes it clear that fighting is supplementary to the life he already he lives. He has a successful business as a woodworker in Northern California and it gives him a stable income for his growing family. Even as his fighting career continues, he makes it clear that it is something he has no intention of stopping. “Just like Stipe Miocic is a firefighter and says he is never going to stop being a firefighter, I am a custom-woodworker. I’ve been woodworking as long as I’ve been fighting.  I’d say I’m just as good at it as I am at fighting. I have my own business where I’m the boss and I build custom cabinets. In general, that pays my bills from month to month and then my fighting checks become investable.”

The struggles of the last several years are well-documented. He required numerous surgeries to repair broken hands that contributed to a two-year absence in 2014. He also discussed the financial struggles of the business following his loss to John Lineker in 2016, telling ESPN that he could not afford the costs of a training camp and thus could not take a fight. McDonald went into discussions with the UFC but communication would eventually hit a wall and he was granted a release from his contract in 2017. He signed with Bellator quickly afterward.

The Modesto native spends hardly any time ingesting MMA as a spectator. “We [McDonald and his wife] don’t go to fight shows unless it’s for a job. I haven’t gone to a fight show for fun, like where one of my teammates wasn’t fighting, in about four or five years. I don’t watch fights on weekends or stuff like that. There’s a lot of changes that we’ve made, and honestly, life is better for it.”

Michael McDonald Bellator 202
In 2013, McDonald was the youngest fighter to ever compete for UFC gold when he faced Renan Barao for the interim bantamweight title. Credit: Dave Mandel/

A topic that comes up frequently with McDonald is timing and preparation. His UFC run, where he debuted as the youngest fighter in the company and later became the youngest fighter to ever challenge for UFC gold, has plenty of moments he has learned from. As he puts it, there were several times in his UFC run where he was more focused on the goals that he had set for himself rather than making the best decision. “When I was fighting in the UFC, there were several times where I fought far sooner than I should have. When I fought Chris Cariaso, I literally could not lift up my left shoulder. And I needed hand surgery so that was a fight I should have never done. It was the same with Urijah Faber. I was dealing with so many injuries and that should not have been a fight that I took. But I did, and I needed hand surgery afterward.”

McDonald only does what is necessary in terms of his digital presence. He admits that he has someone to help him run his social media accounts and funnels MMA-related communication through his manager. He knows that success will come with more requests on his time, but says that he appreciates where he is for the time being. “I like the amount of hours I have right now and I like the amount of involvement I have in the MMA industry right now.”

Being so close to a title shot, however, beckons the question of how the more reserved McDonald would approach possibly being a Bellator champion. Just as in other situations in life, he sees it as a situation he does not want to rush unless he is prepared. He openly states that he is not sure if winning the belt is something he is seeking at this time. “I honestly don’t know what it entails to be Bellator’s champion. I don’t know how many media requests they’ll want. I don’t know how many appearances they’ll want. So it’s not something I look forward to like, “oh I want to be there.” Because I don’t know what it would look like.”

The young prospect knows that there is a benefit to the attention that being champion would bring. “There’s a benefit there, of more people hearing my story that Jesus saved my life and that I was a broken sinner who wanted to die and now I’m not. Now I have a fantastic marriage and a fantastic life and I’m generally successful and enjoy the people around me. There’s a benefit that I can say that and that more people can hear me.”

Whether he hypes it up or not, there is a fight on Friday. Former champion Dantas would like nothing more than to win impressively and try to force a rematch with Caldwell. But McDonald sees the entire fight differently. “When it comes to fighting, people think the competition is me versus Eduardo Dantas and it’s not. It’s not me versus him. It’s really me trying to be the best me that I can be. You never win when you’re thinking ‘it’s me versus this person’ in my opinion.”

One might wonder, if McDonald is opposed to the public part of the fight game, then why does he continue to fight? He goes back to his faith, and to use the platform to spread the message that saved his own life. “This is why I do what I do. To hopefully introduce someone else to the God who created all of us and who saved my life multiple times. I just hope somebody else can be introduced to him and that’s why I do what I do.”

Michael McDonald will face Eduardo Dantas in the co-main event of Bellator 202 this Friday, July 13, on the Paramount Network.