There's a reason Michael McDonald is matched up with former World Extreme Cagefighting champion Miguel Torres at this Saturday's UFC 145 in Atlanta -- the promotion suspects he's ready and capable of great things.
Three strong performances in the UFC's bantamweight division over the past year have set the 21-year-old McDonald (14-1) apart from a cluttered, indefinable pack somewhere behind champion Dominick Cruz and perennial contender Urijah Faber. A win over the seasoned Torres (40-4), a proven commodity known for his frenetic pacing and attacks, would be the start of great things for McDonald.
But McDonald's ambitions exceed a championship belt. For a devout non-denominational Protestant Christian, he believes great things include the spreading of God's word where one wouldn't expect it -- in mixed martial arts.
Immediate comparisons to Tim Tebow are welcome.
"I'm a big fan of what he's doing," said McDonald. "I know what it's like to step out in the limelight like that and basically put yourself on the line and say, 'This is what I stand for.' On a much smaller scale, I understand."
McDonald isn't the first fighter to bring up religion -- God is thanked more than Greg Jackson in post-fight addresses and interviews -- but he's one of the first to lead with faith as an integral part of his image. So far, the results have been mixed.
"My manager has approached potential sponsors and mentioned my name, and they'll say, 'He's pretty Christian, isn't he?' and pass," said McDonald. "On a personal level, people look at you differently and judge you. They're always watching to see why anyone would want to be a Christian."
McDonald, the middle son of an automotive mechanic and a house cleaner, emphasizes the importance of keeping a strong relationship with God the way another fighter talks about staying on UFC President Dana White's good side.
When asked to explain how he's able to reconcile his beliefs in a sport where men get paid to hurt one another, McDonald draws inspiration from great wars described in the Bible. Intent is also a vital factor in his reasoning.
"I consider it very similar to playing a game of football," said McDonald. "People might say, 'How can you do that? You're hurting people.' When I'm fighting, I'm not looking to hurt somebody. I'm playing a game of speed-chess with my body, just like you would do in football."
Religion has always been a part of McDonald's life. One of his earliest memories is of his uncle tossing him in the air and catching him at their church near Modesto, Calif., where he grew up. "My mom raised us in church," said McDonald.
McDonald's mother must have been beside herself when all three of her sons became professional fighters.
"My mom always thought I'd grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer, but never a fighter," said McDonald. "Of the three of us, Justin and Brad would be fighting and I'd be off in a corner taking toys apart and putting them back together."
McDonald's older brother, Justin, introduced him to combat sports at 10 years old, inviting him to tag along to a kickboxing class. At 14, he followed his brother again, this time into jiu-jitsu classes. His first amateur MMA bout happened later that year.
MMA's grip on McDonald tightened quickly. He didn't participate in any traditional high school sports, even when wrestling could have been a great asset. McDonald figured he couldn't make the time commitment.
"I went to school until 3 o'clock, and then it was off to the gym until 9, which left me a little time to do my homework afterward," said McDonald, who trains at Oakdale MMA, alongside both his brothers.
By 16, McDonald had his first pro bout at a local show held at an Indian-run casino out of regulatory reach. High school couldn't compare to the education professional fighting offered, and McDonald said he skated by on B's and C's with little effort.
McDonald attended Modesto Junior College as a business management major for three semesters, but that, too, became a distraction from fighting, so he left.
On the local California circuit, he fought seven more times until mid 2009, when he lost to former WEC champion Cole Escovedo (17-9). McDonald later avenged his only career loss and caught the eye of WEC matchmakers. He made his WEC debut in November 2010.
Under the Zuffa banner, which owns both the UFC and now-dormant WEC, McDonald has won all four of his fights. He's been generous with his success.
After he earned a $55,000 "Fight of the Night" bonus at UFC Fight Night 24 for a unanimous decision over Edwin Figueroa (9-1), he gave $30,000 to his parents to erase all of their debt. "I lived with my parents all the way up to the beginning of this year, so I wanted to give back to them," said McDonald. "I wanted to help them like they helped me."
Like Tebow, McDonald also abstains from drinking and drugs ("I'd be afraid to do drugs because I think I might like it," he admitted), and doesn't advertise his fighting to the other parishioners. Those that do know about it are supportive, he said.
"At my men's group meeting last Sunday, they all prayed for me," said McDonald. "They all gathered around, laid hands on me and prayed for God's protection on me to get me home safe. I have an amazing support group that God has given me."
With his last UFC performance bonus (this one for a 56-second knockout against Alex Soto at UFC 139 last November), McDonald built himself a woodshop, stocking it with the latest tools and gadgets. After fighting, he plans to pursue carpentry, and when enough money is raised, McDonald wants to delve into ministry full-time. But for now, there's MMA and spreading the word.
"I really believe that God put me in this sport to create a platform to tell people about God in a way that others don't do, to shine a light in a place that very few lights get to," said McDonald.
It remains to be seen how McDonald's divine aspirations will be received in the sport. Vitor Belfort and Fedor Emelianenko have spoken about the role their faith plays in their careers, but it doesn't define them as fighters. Religion is a subject mostly brushed over in MMA.
McDonald may be different. He openly discusses his faith with anyone who asks about it, which is becoming a more regular occurrence, he says. McDonald wants to be associated with his religious beliefs, and Zuffa hasn't asked him to tone it down yet.
Zuffa is more interested in seeing how McDonald handles a hungry Torres, and if the 21-year-old finisher is as versatile and polished as his last performances suggested.
Is McDonald championship material? That is one of Saturday's burning question.