Professional mixed martial arts fighter Michael "Mayday" McDonald hasn't stepped into the octagon in nearly 10 months, not since dropping Miguel Torres in the first round at UFC 145 in Atlanta last April.
That changes today when the Modesto native meets interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao at London's Wembley Arena in the main event of a 12-bout card that will be broadcast on Fuel TV (available on DirecTV, Dish Network and AT&T U-verse). Undercard fights begin at noon.
Though McDonald (15-1) has been out of the Ultimate Fighting Championship spotlight for nearly a year, he remains one of the sport's hottest up-and-coming stars.
That's apparent by the buzz this fight has created and the manner in which McDonald — barely out of his teens and fighting for a world title after just 16 pro fights and a lengthy layoff — has utterly charmed the press since his arrival in England on Feb. 10.
The 2009 graduate of Davis High School is quick to smile and share stories, talking freely to reporters about his fight strategy. Or lack thereof.
"I don't know what I'm going to do. I have no strategy for any fight," McDonald told Ben Blackmore of ESPN.co.uk after Wednesday's pre-fight press conference. "It's almost scary and sometimes right before I'm about to walk out, I'm like, 'What am I even going to do? I don't even have a strategy.' "
Blackmore later tweeted that McDonald " is arguably the most fascinating fighter I've ever spoken to in MMA. He sees MMA through a higher power!"
So taken with McDonald's laid-back, California cool, Blackmore decided to buck the odds and pick the 3-to-1 underdog.
"We've recorded a podcast where I've predicted Renan Barao is going to win the fight," Blackmore told Gareth A. Davies of London's Daily Telegraph on ESPN's UFC podcast. "Having spoken to Michael McDonald, I think I'm changing my opinion."
Davies, who predicts a McDonald victory, called him "intriguing and brilliant." He was described in London's Daily Mirror as the "cerebral American." The New York Post referred to him as "athletic and explosive," but "also extremely cerebral."
"He has no tactics whatsoever," Blackmore said in the podcast. "He just improvises, and he is something really, really special in the sport."
Should McDonald prove Blackmore prescient, he would become the youngest champion — 22 years, 32 days — in the 20-year history of the UFC. To put that in perspective, Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) was 22 years, 39 days old when he ascended to the world heavyweight boxing throne in February 1964.
But for now, McDonald is focused solely on Barao, not history.
Asked if he'd allowed himself to steal a glance at Barao's belt — on display at the center of the dais during Wednesday's pre-fight press conference — McDonald gave a startlingly honest reply.
"I don't care it's there," said McDonald, who trains out of the Oakdale MMA club and is getting his first title shot. "That's not what it's about for me. This is just like any other fight."
Well, maybe not like "any" other fight. Barao is 29-1 (with one no contest) and hasn't lost since his professional debut in 2005. He's coming off an impressive win over Urijah Faber last July for the title at UFC 149 in Calgary.
And, at 25, he's already headlined a UFC card and has previously fought in England, which gives him experience in dealing with adjustments brought on by travel and time change.
"I don't feel I have an advantage over him on this," Barao said through a translator at Wednesday's press conference. "I'm just 100 percent focused and just want to go out there and do my job."
Barao earned the interim 135-pound title with his unanimous decision over Faber. They were matched when it became clear that champion Dominick Cruz would be sidelined nearly a year after blowing out his knee in December 2011. There had been speculation that McDonald and Faber would meet for the interim title, but an injury to McDonald's right hand ended that talk.
McDonald had surgery on the hand last summer, receiving replacement ligaments from his arm. In fact, the middle knuckle on his fist still looks like it just went 10 rounds with an anvil.
Contrary to popular belief, McDonald didn't injure the hand in his April 2012 knockout of Miguel Torres or in training for a potential duel with Faber.
"This has been a two-year-long injury," he told Ariel Helwani of the "MMA Hour" podcast. "It wasn't that I injured it during the (Torres) fight, it was that after every fight that I've had the last two years, I've needed one to two months of resting my hand and not punching, until I could train again."
Eager to get back into the mix after beating Torres, McDonald pressed the issue and returned to training three weeks later. He knew right away he'd overdone it.
Now that the hand is healed and ready to be put to the test against Barao's chin, there's another setback that could hinder him.
Tom Theofanopoulos, McDonald's coach and owner of Oakdale MMA, revealed that McDonald had the flu and couldn't train for four days last week — a critical juncture in a fighter's training schedule. The layoff could affect McDonald's endurance.
"We're hoping for a first- or second-round knockout," said Theofanopoulos, who flew to London on Thursday. "If it goes longer, there could be an issue."
McDonald's last two bouts — the win over Torres and a victory against Alex Soto at UFC 139 in San Jose back in November 2011 — came via first-round KO.
Bee staff writer Joe Cortez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2302.