After years of following in GSP’s footsteps, Rory MacDonald carving his own path in Bellator

It was a bit of fantasy matchmaking which never quite panned out: What if Georges St-Pierre squared off with Rory MacDonald?

That storyline was all the rage about five years ago. St-Pierre was in the midst of a five-and-a-half year reign as UFC welterweight champion, and the up-and-coming MacDonald, his training partner at Montreal’s TriStar Gym, was anointed the next one at 170 pounds.

But both fighters took detours from their expected collision course. St-Pierre vacated the championship in Dec. 2013 and went into a long sabbatical. MacDonald, for his part, came within a hair of winning GSP’s old belt before signing with rival Bellator MMA last year as a free agent.

Within the next few months, though, the duo could find themselves world champions in a short span. St-Pierre returns from an absence of nearly four years to challenge Michael Bisping for the UFC middleweight title on Nov. 4 at UFC 217 at New York’s Madison Square Garden, while MacDonald challenges underrated Bellator welterweight kingpin Douglas Lima in a recently announced bout that will be held on Jan. 20 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif.

“It’s funny how it all worked out looking back,” MacDonald told Yahoo Sports. “I never had any intention of fighting him anyway. I knew Georges could come back and I know he’ll be a champ again. I told him the longer he stayed out, the bigger his return was going to be, and I’m looking forward to seeing it as much as anybody.”

While St-Pierre and MacDonald (19-4) will likely cross paths at the gym in Montreal at some point in the near future, it’s not likely they’ll be too engaged in one another’s training for their respective bouts.

For one thing, the fights are far enough apart that their full-on training camps don’t overlap.

“I’m not sparring right now,” MacDonald said. “It will be awhile. We’re both in TriStar, but he’s known for bringing in people from all over, he’s going to find people who can mimic Bisping’s style and that’s not really me. If there’s anything I can help with when I’m around I will but we won’t be a big part of each other’s camps.”

Rory MacDonald (above) will meet Douglas Lima on Jan. 20. in Inglewood, Calif. (Getty)

There’s also the practical matter of MacDonald’s new manner of handling his camps — part-time in Montreal, and part-time in his hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia, where he started out in the sport.

MacDonald instituted the approach for his debut Bellator fight, a second-round submission of Paul Daley on May 19 in London, and is ready to make it his routine.

“It worked well,” he said. “I felt comfortable. I’m still getting my time in at Tristar but I get to spend time at home and not feel trapped in the big city. It put me in the right frame of mind to fight.”

That’s fortuitous for MacDonald, because his meeting with Lima is considered by many insiders to be, on paper, the best matchup Bellator has put together since the memorable pair of bouts split by Eddie Alvarez and Michael Chandler in 2011 and 2013.

Lima (29-6) is one of the game’s great finishers. The 29-year-old from Brazil, who is now based out of Atlanta, has 13 knockouts and 11 submissions to his credit. He’s 8-1 in his past nine and avenged his only loss in the span, a title defeat via decision to Andrey Koreshkov in 2015, regaining the belt via first-round knockout a year later.

The champ scored a one-sided decision over recent high-profile UFC signee Lorenz Larkin at Madison Square Garden in June, and he believes this is the fight which will put him over the top.

“The hardcore fans already know about me, about who I am,” Lima said. “But Rory MacDonald, he’s one of the best in the world, some people say he is the No. 1 welterweight in the world. I respect what he’s accomplished in the sport but these fighters who come in from the UFC, they set them up and I knock them down. He’ll be the next one. This is the stage where I’ll show everyone what I can do.”

MacDonald, needless to say, disagrees.

“His fight against Larkin was boring,” MacDonald said. “Douglas can hit hard but he played it safe. Larkin doesn’t have the tools I have, he’s not going to push the pace like I can, he can’t mix it up like I can. This is going to be an exciting fight and the fans are going to enjoy it and someone’s going to get finished, but it’s not going to be me.”

Of course, MacDonald was involved in a legendary matchup, his UFC 189 bout with Robbie Lawler that some consider the greatest mixed martial arts fight of all time. MacDonald came up just short in that one, but come January, both he and GSP could be champions after all … without the pressure of constantly being asked, “Are you guys going to fight?”

Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter and Facebook

Georges St-Pierre, pictured at the Official F1 Heineken Party After The Canadian Grand Prix, on June 12, 2016 in Montreal, Canada, will return to the Octagon at UFC 217 against Michael Bisping in one of the biggest fights of 2017.