Michael McDonald stands at the pinnacle of his sport, a young man poised to make history. One more win and he'll become the youngest champion in UFC history by more than a year.
The life-altering opportunity arrives just six years after he says the sport "broke him," when he was a young and confused boy who was treated like an adult because of his preternatural ability to fight.
He'll meet interim champion Renan Barao for the bantamweight championship on Feb. 16 at Wembley Arena in London in the main event of UFC on Fuel 7. If McDonald beats Barao, he'll be 22 years, one month and one day old, and will take Jon Jones' record as the youngest UFC champion. Jones won the UFC light heavyweight title on March 19, 2011, when he was 23 years, eight months and one day old.
McDonald turned professional in 2007, a few months shy of his 17th birthday at an awkward period in his life. He'd beaten all of the amateur opponents there were to beat near his Modesto, Calif., home and was clearly on a different level in terms of ability and technique.
If he planned to continue to fight, the only option was to go pro. And so turn pro, he did.
Life should have been good. He was popular among his classmates at Grace M. Davis High School. He was unbeaten as an amateur and quickly became an elite fighter.
He was the envy of many who were close to the fight game in central California. His classmates voted him most likely to succeed and best athlete.
Yet, McDonald was miserable, running away from his faith and not sure how to handle the pressures of his life.
"I was 16 and I had grown men telling me I was their hero," McDonald said. "I was just a kid. I had people come up to me and saying, 'If you can't make it, we can't make it,' and 'the pride of the school is resting on your shoulders.' I had a grown man come up to me and ask me to teach his son how to be a man. If I went to do something, people would come up to me and say, 'No! No! What are you doing? You can't do that.'
"I never was allowed to have those stupid teenage years. I never went to a high school football game. I never went to a dance. The only dance I went to was my prom, and that was kind of by surprise. All of the things that normal teenagers do, I didn't do. I had a lot of pressure on me from the age of about 15 to 18. I tried to run away from it, and it was very difficult for me."
McDonald said he has "totally awesome, wonderful parents," who were "as good as any parents could be. My father has literally broken his body to give our family a great life."
But, "I wasn't very happy," he said. "On the outside, I had all of these beautiful things that everyone wanted. Everyone wanted to be me. But on the inside, I just wanted to be a normal person. I wanted people to get off my back and for them to leave me alone. I wanted to do what I wanted for the first time in my life. If I failed, I had to answer to this person, this person and this person."
By the midpoint of his senior year in high school, he was 7-0 and was already being talked about as a potential MMA world champion. It was a loss, though, that ultimately helped McDonald turn his life around and become the man – yes, man – that he's grown into.
Only a few weeks before he was to graduate high school, he signed to fight Cole Escovedo. Few knew of the torment McDonald was carrying with him each day, but he knew things were about to come to a head.
Escovedo stopped him in the second round of a May 8, 2009, match in Lemoore, Calif. He didn't realize it at the time, but the defeat was the best thing that could ever have happened to him.
It would, though, take a while before even McDonald realized it.
"My first loss to Cole Escovedo, it broke me," he said. "I said to myself, 'Wow! Not only am I suffering and not happy, but I was doing all of this that made me unhappy so I could win. And now I lost and I have no happiness whatsoever.' It broke me as a person."
After the loss to Escovedo, when he was at his lowest point, McDonald said his relationship with God strengthened and grew. That, he said, is what turned his life in the right direction.
Even bad things, then, seemed to work the right way. McDonald developed an aneurism in his head and a doctor told him he'd never fight again.
"He said, 'You're playing a game of death,' " McDonald recalled.
McDonald said he put his faith and trust in God. Not long after, he had another doctor medically clear him to fight.
He's gone on to fight successfully and, most importantly, safely.
Along the way, McDonald said his relationship with God taught him to not allow others to burden him with their problems. McDonald said he asked God for a hard life and knows now that God won't give him anything he is unable to handle.
"God allows me to speak through my fighting," he said.
Never was that more true, he said, than he when he faced Escovedo in a rematch, on July 9, 2010. Everything went right for him that night, he said. Escovedo chose to stand and slug, which was in McDonald's favor. Even when Escovedo landed what should have been a knockout blow, McDonald just shook it off.
McDonald won the fight somehow and realized that God was there with him and speaking through him.
"I feel like I've always been a good person and that I had the heart that I do, but I feel that I've always been driven, but it hasn't always been in the right direction," he said. "The guidance that had been presented to me, I refused and I wanted to do things the way I wanted to do them. It just didn't work out.
"But by accepting God and allowing God to lead my life instead of me leading my life, that's the biggest change. That's why I'm happy now, through Him showing me through my fighting, my finances, my body, everything in my life, that He is capable of all things."
McDonald is 15-1 and, with a win, will become a major celebrity in MMA. He's not concerned, though, that he'll once again lose his way.
God, he said, now has full control of his life. He sees himself as a God-fearing man and not a star athlete and, win or lose against Barao, that's not going to change.
"This might sound ridiculous," he said, "but I don't think about fighting and the UFC and stuff like that. I keep my job and my identity separate. My job and fighting and the UFC, that's my career. I think of it little, actually. Martial arts are my life and I think of those, but I like to think of how I can serve God and do what will please Him. That's what I think about most."
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