When Ryan MacDonald found out his friend, Grant Dawson, was going to be on Dana White’s Contender Series 6, he was excited. After all, it could mean two Nebraska guys earning UFC deals in one night.
Dawson earned his contract after finishing Adrian Diaz with a rear-naked choke in the second round of his featherweight scrap. MacDonald, however, didn’t get his.
He never even got to fight.
“I had to withdraw from my Contender Series bout because my brother’s funeral was actually the day I was supposed to fly out,” MacDonald told MMAjunkie.
At 29, MacDonald’s eldest brother, Kyle, took his own life. And just like that, instead of heading to Las Vegas to fight Jamie Alvarez for the chance of a lifetime, the 24-year-old MacDonald was back home, mourning and helping his family in the aftermath of a tragic loss.
While the thought of going ahead with the fight crossed MacDonald’s mind, he had a variety of reasons not to go. Pragmatically, the lowest weight he’d fought at up until that point was 130 pounds. So he knew making the 125-pound limit would take some added dedication.
“We had to clean my brother’s house, which took three days in its own,” MacDonald said. “That’s valuable time that would’ve gone toward my weight cut and probably would’ve made me go behind on it. And probably ended in a bad performance.”
And, of course, there is all that sits outside the practical realm of things in such an unspeakably sad situation. Ryan and Kyle had always been very close, enough that the very musical Kyle had not only gotten Ryan into playing the drums – he, then in high school, even allowed his middle-school brother to join his band.
Sitting it out was a tough decision for MacDonald (7-0), who’d already done medicals and pre-fight interviews for the DWCS bout. But he knew it was the right call, even if that meant watching from the sidelines as his would-be opponent won and two other men, including his close friend and occasional training partner, got their UFC deals.
“The one thing that was the toughest in the world to do was to watch the Contender Series,” MacDonald said. “When I was watching it, it was choking me up a little bit. There were a couple of nights when I had to go for long runs, because I was so angry and upset.
“From there on, you have those inner-battles. And I told myself what I did was the right thing. Because if I would have missed all that time with my family, I don’t think I would ever let myself forget about that. I don’t think I would forgive myself.”
Following the withdrawal from the fight, MacDonald briefly withdrew from the world altogether. MacDonald not only owns the gym where he trains back at home, but he coaches its MMA program and teaches its advanced muay Thai classes. And as the resident of North Platte, Neb., with a population of 30,000, the faces around him are quite often known ones.
When tragedy struck, it wasn’t easy to address them.
“A lot of it was I didn’t want the questions, more or less,” MacDonald said. “So I took a solid two weeks off. And this is going from coaching three times a week to not going to the gym, all because I didn’t want to answer the questions. Or I wasn’t ready for them yet.
“I had to take that time. A lot of times I would have the girl I was seeing go get something from Walmart for me or something.”
While the thought of a two-week break might not seem like much, it was certainly meaningful for someone who’d not only been involved in martial arts since his teenage years, but had made it into a business and a career choice for himself and others.
“One of the main reasons I’ve not left where I’m from is because it’s such a fight town,” MacDonald said. “They’ve embraced me and helped me with sponsorship. My buddies, the guys we’ve brought up, they’re all hard-working guys. And strong-willed.
“They’re always in the gym and trying to get better with me. We have about four pros right now, and we’re all consistent in the gym every day. We bounce ideas off each other, and we’ve got a really good thing going.”
When MacDonald was ready to make his way back to the outside world, it proved to be a therapeutic experience.
“After I got back to the gym, it was huge,” MacDonald said. “Because that’s my life – martial arts. Without it, I kind of go crazy. It’s my way of coping with the world, and I have fun when I’m in the gym.”
‘I remember how much of a dreamer he is, and I know he’d want me to accomplish my dreams’
Now, MacDonald prepares for his first fight since losing his brother in August. And it’s not just any fight.
Friday’s Midwest Championship Fighting 14 featherweight meeting with Chad Obermiller will not only mean MacDonald’s first stab at a belt since his pro debut, it will headline an event entirely in memory of Kyle.
With the fight, MacDonald hopes to not only provide his brother with a proper memorial piece, but get some form of closure. But before he gets to step in the cage, MacDonald has found his own ways to honor Kyle – and to make sure the emotions around his early departure find the proper channels to manifest themselves.
“He has kind of marketed himself as a musician, so he has KASM T-shirts – which are his initials,” MacDonald said. “I’ve worn those to practice and wore the little ashes in the little necklace or whatnot, so that it would, rather than make me emotionally invested, it kind of motivated me to work hard.
“My brother was a very big dreamer. And my mom hated that, because she is a very hard worker. My brother would work hard at his job but only to throw every single dollar he had into his music. And I’m kind of the same way with martial arts. I work really hard but only to give my last dollar to it.
“Seeing his shirt or looking down at my necklace before practice, it just makes me work harder. Because I remember how much of a dreamer he is, and I know he’d want me to accomplish my dreams.”
The fight with Obermiller, which streams live on FloCombat.com, will be a rematch. MacDonald had earned a second-round submission over Obermiller in August of 2016. Originally, MacDonald wanted the second one to be a five-round affair. But his opponent, MacDonald says, was the one who convinced the commission otherwise.
“I don’t think he stayed in the gym,” MacDonald said. “He’s an older guy, 38 years old, and martial arts can kind of get taxing when you don’t enjoy doing it. I feel like he’s only taking this fight – maybe he needs some money, maybe he wants to right his wrong in a sense. Or whatever it is.
“I’m going to be in much better shape. And I think he’s just going to be chasing fighting shape. So, for that, he’s not going to be where I’m at technically.”
MacDonald says he’s improved since their original encounter – and after going back to it, he believes he’s found ways to make the second affair more brutal. He’s counting on Obermiller to come strong early and gas out.
“From then on, I think I can finish him with whatever I want to,” MacDonald said.
‘I’m just going to keep doing my thing. And if somebody recognizes it, then I’m excited and happy’
MacDonald doesn’t quite know what’s in store for the future. Considering the reason he had to pull out of his DWCS 6 encounter, he was told the promoters were sympathetic and understanding – and had indicated he would at least be on the radar for next season.
Of course, there’s always the chance that, with a local belt and an eighth straight win, he’d end up going straight to the octagon at some point. But while that’s a scenario MacDonald would be comfortable with, it’s not one he’s losing sleep over.
“I think if I go out and score a vicious knockout and something fans want to see – which I plan to – I think that will give them more of an opportunity or more of the want to pick me up earlier,” MacDonald said. “But, then again, I’ve seen Dana White turn down 9-0 guys just because of experience and stuff like that.
“So if it comes, it comes. But I’m not going to dwell on it. I’m just going to keep doing my thing. And if somebody recognizes it, then I’m excited and happy.”
There’s not much good that can be extracted from the type of ordeal that MacDonald and his family went through in the past couple of months. But, amid the heartbreak, there’s at least one thing he knows his eldest brother would be happy to see.
“My mom and my dad are divorced. So my mom and my dad’s side of the family, they didn’t get along,” MacDonald said. “Everybody kind of came together and made amends. And now everything is perfect, like he would want it to be. Me and my older brothers have always been the mediators of the family.
“Keeping everything calm, trying to make people talk and trying to make people happy. And it just never worked. But now everything seems to be going good, and everybody’s talking. In a sense, from a bad circumstance, it made good between the family.”
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