Anytime you have the potential to take the job of Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran and MMA legend B.J. Penn, you must be doing something right.
Oakdale MMA fighter and upstart UFC sensation Michael McDonald knows the feeling all too well, as he and three other poplar UFC fighters were selected for a contest to take Penn’s current job as the spokesman for Edge Shave Gel.
McDonald is currently in second place in a four-way battle to become the “Face of Edge” after online voting has secured him 30 percent of the tallies in the race between himself, Phill Davis, Brian Stan and Chad Mendes.
Mendes leads the contest for a big promotional contract with 44 percent of the votes, but McDonald is already guaranteed marketing opportunities from one of the UFC’s biggest sponsors and beating out names like Stan and Davis is nothing to frown at.
McDonald is certainly deserving of the attention. The Oakdale fighter (13-1) is currently ranked No. 10 among all 135-pound (bantamweight) fighters on the planet by mmaweekly.com.
He won a $55,000 Fight of the Night bonus with his victory during a UFC debut in March and added a second straight UFC win when he stole a split decision victory over Chris Cariaso at the end of May.
With a bum hand and shoulder before and after his latest fight, McDonald wisely chose to give both some rest before an expected third fight in the UFC later this year. The break gave the UFC’s youngest fighter a good opportunity to delve into his favorite hobby and speak with The Leader during a long interview earlier this month.
McDonald talked about his introduction to the fight game, the big changes in his life and growing up with two other fighters in the household (older brother Justin Smitley and younger brother Brad McDonald).
“Justin beat me up, so I beat Brad up sometimes,” McDonald remembered with a grin.
Where It All Began
Believe it or not, McDonald wasn’t born with a chiseled jaw and stubborn facial hair fit for a shaving gel commercial.
He was born and raised in Modesto, where youth sports and neighborhood pickup games of football, baseball, Frisbee, ping pong and pool left interests open for McDonald to stroll into Oakdale MMA as a 14-year-old undisciplined athlete with a big heart and a thirst for knowledge.
After a month of kickboxing, instructor Tom Theofanopoulos convinced McDonald to begin sparring with his son and Oakdale High graduate Bill Theofanopoulos. As the instruction picked up in intensity, McDonald began to become inspired by the new friend and teammate. A casual trip to the movie theatre broke ground to release a temperament and jovial attitude that McDonald is now known for.
“I remember Bill invited me to the movies, and when I saw him in street clothes for the first time, he was in skinny jeans and flip flops,” McDonald laughed. “Here was a well respected member of a fighting gym who can beat up anyone I know dressed like someone that would get picked on at school.
“It was then that I realized that I can dress how I want and I don’t have to act tough. I can just be myself.”
Soon, McDonald’s personality and attire, which had previously mirrored that of ‘tough’ kids at school (some of them gang members), now reflected the youngster’s own character.
And the influence wasn’t just a mental one. Instructor Tom, Bill and his brother Frank Theofanopoulos steadily developed the beginning stages of training into a fight career for the Modesto teen.
At just 14 years of age, McDonald saw his first amateur fight against a 22-year-old opponent. The match went to a draw (amateur fights aren’t scored or judged), and paved the way for eight more amateur contests before McDonald turned 16.
And the fights went well.
McDonald had garnered some attention as a hard-hitting aggressor with plenty of talent and skill across all corners of the combat triangle (striking, takedowns and jujitsu).
He was named the top athlete at Davis High by the school paper his senior year, despite having never played a high school sport.
McDonald The Professional
One of the contacts McDonald made during his amateur career was a fight matchmaker by the name of Richard Goodman, who scheduled cards for Cage Combat, Gladiator Challenge and Tachi Palace Fights.
Goodman landed McDonald a professional fight at just 16 years of age, on November 11 of 2007 at Gladiator Challenge 71 at the Eagle Mountain Casino in Porterville. McDonald won that fight after a triangle choke submission just a minute and 17 seconds into the fight, and garnered his first real taste of serious competition.
“The only thing I was worried about was these really small gloves we were wearing, because at the time anything that looked like MMA gloves was allowed,” McDonald said. “I didn’t want to get hit with those things, but one thing I have learned is that you are going to get hit.
“You just want to hit the other guy more often than you get hit.”
McDonald said the nerves didn’t really get to him until his second fight, another first triangle choke round submission for Gladiator Challenge.
“In my first fight I was kind of clueless.” McDonald said. “After I got punched in the face a couple times I knew what I was in for when the next one came around.”
Nerves did little to batter McDonald’s success during seven straight first-round victories to open his career, the last a big knockout over then 8-3 standout Jason Georgianna of Oregon in less than three minutes.
Seven consecutive first round victories in two years were great for McDonald’s record, but soon stole the motivation for a career that had seen his dogged pursuit with passion and enthusiasm since he was 14 years old.
Four years of missing high school football games, his friends and a ‘normal’ routine weighed heavy on a young adult in search of new happiness.
So McDonald moved in with his girlfriend, and began to dread the steady pace of instruction and training. When he entered the cage for a highly anticipated showdown with former World Extreme Cagefighting standout Cole Escovedo, McDonald was nowhere prepared for an 11-4 veteran who had traded blows with the likes of Jens Pulver and Urijah Faber in two his previous three fights.
“He almost knocked out my front tooth, gave me a black eye, split me open a couple of times and busted my lip straight open to where I had to eat soup for two weeks,” McDonald said. “But it was one of the best things to ever happen to me. A lot of maturing happened to me by losing that fight, and I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
A few months later, McDonald moved back in with his family and re-dedicated himself to MMA. He set new standards for his own workouts and promised himself he would never visit the gym again unless it was something he wanted.
“There are some things where you can just suck it up and do it whether you want to or not, but fighting is not one of those things,” McDonald said. “Fighting is one of the most crappy things you can do on this planet if you don’t enjoy getting punched in the face.”
A New Man
McDonald’s return to the gym came with a new desire and aggression to improve his own skills. Suddenly aspects of McDonald’s game that were already strong, were being seasoned to serious weapons in the cage.
He dismantled Carlos Garces on his return to the Tachi Palace and surprised fight fans when he upset former WEC champion Manny Tapia with a first round knockout.
The win paved the way for McDonald’s rematch with Escovedo (then 16-4), who was on the brink of a five-fight win-streak with an expected tune-up via McDonald before his likely re-entrance into the WEC.
But it was McDonald who stole the limelight after a furious flurry left Escovedo battered and broken in front of WEC general manager Reed Harris in July of last year.
Harris soon signed McDonald to a three-fight WEC contract, which quickly became a UFC contract when the lower weight fight league merged to form title belts in new divisions with the biggest combat league in the world.
“I must either be the luckiest person on the planet or I have a God that loves me,” McDonald said. “I remember walking up to weigh-ins with (Edwin Figueroa), who I was scheduled to fight the next day, and we both said ‘Dude, we’re at the freaking UFC!’
“We were like kids at a candy store.”
In Oakdale For Good
With two brothers in the thick of successful fight careers, McDonald is big on family, and he knows he has one in Oakdale. McDonald couldn’t speak more highly of instructor Theofanopoulos, and has the utmost respect for his teammates and the community they fight for.
“I really consider Oakdale more my home than I do Modesto,” McDonald said. “Modesto represents some stores that I go to and the roads that I take, but the people of Oakdale have made this town my home.”
And despite his success, McDonald has no plans of big moves to more well-known fight camps.
“I don’t know why some fighters build a career, then leave the place that got them there,” he said. “You should only leave when training becomes stagnant and no one is motivated. Everyone at our gym is motivated to better themselves and professor Tom is always open to suggestions.
“If I told him I wanted to move to the mountains and train with the bears for three months he would say ‘let’s talk about it, and I’ll send you up there’.”
Oakdale residents can rally behind their local fighter by supporting his quest to become the “Face of Edge” at edgeshave.com/ufc. Email accounts can vote up to five times a day,
“My mom and (Tom’s wife Lori Theofanopoulos) have around 20 email accounts each,” McDonald said, laughing. “I have some good supporters.”