Expectations can be like a large stone: you can either use them as a pedestal on which to stand above the crowd, or have them drag you down like an anchor at sea.
While 22-year-old welterweight Rory MacDonald faced a worthy opponent in Englishman Che Mills on Saturday night in UFC 145, the bigger opponent was the expectations that have been heaped on the Canadian rising star. UFC president Dana White called MacDonald the next Georges St. Pierre, a reference to the current welterweight champion and one of the most popular and dominant fighters in the sport.
MacDonald burnished his image and raised expectations even higher with an impressive TKO over Mills in a fight that was never close.
Mills was bleeding two minutes into the first round as MacDonald took him to the mat and pounded a deep gash over Mills' right eye and another on his right cheek. The powerful close-quarters punches and elbows made the canvas look an episode of "True Blood."
Relentless and indefatigable, MacDonald's punches come in flurries with the last packing just as much power as the first.
Mills went to the ground early in the second round and MacDonald continued the pounding until the referee mercifully stopped it at the 2:20 mark in the second.
"I made some mistakes, which is a blessing because you can learn from them," MacDonald said, although most knowledgeable fight watchers viewed the performance as near flawless.
But he also felt what everyone who watched the fight saw. "I just stayed on him," he said. "I knew he was hurt from the first ground and pound. But he was very tough, hard to put away."
It was a night for the UFC to showcase their most talented youngsters. Light heavyweight champion Jon Jones successfully defended his belt at the ripe old age of 24, and now has a record of 16-1.
MacDonald is 13-1 in mixed martial arts, although this was only his fifth fight in the UFC.
But despite impressive wins over Mike Pyle, Nate Diaz and Mike Guymon, MacDonald entered this one in an unenviable position. Even though Mills came into the night with a 14-4 MMA record and one TKO victory in the UFC, MacDonald was supposed to win. In fact, many pundits wondered why he wasn't fighting a more "worthy" opponent.
That added pressure unlike anything the youngster had never experienced. "The media wasn't giving much respect to my opponent," he said. "So you look bad when you lose."
But he didn't lose, and if White and others are correct, there are many more victories in MacDonald's future. This one was, as expected, a lesson in talent and technique.
"Whenever I do something on the ground full power like that I know the fight is pretty much over," MacDonald said, not in the cocky voice of a 22-year-old who is full of himself, but like a mature man who understands his potential. "It took longer than I expected (to win), though, even though I'm in good shape."
MacDonald also displays wisdom beyond his years, especially when speaking about expectations, which he understands must be cultivated like roses, and managed to the last detail.
"I want to stay busy," he said. "I need to train properly, stay focused and continue to grow as a fighter."
When asked what he hopes that growth will look like, the young man smiled. "Three fights a year," he said. "That would make me happy."
He didn't mention a shot at the title. Everyone expects that to come soon enough.