But there they were, on their feet for the entirety of the first round of Friday's welterweight championship main event of Bellator 222 at Madison Square Garden. And while MacDonald was getting the better of the exchanges, with jabs and the occasional kick, he was by no means the aggressive purveyor of violence that fans had come to know.
Yet when the fight went into Gracie's world, on the canvas with the Brazilian seeking submissions, MacDonald was game enough to hold his own in the other man's game.
As a result, MacDonald earned a clear unanimous decision to move into the final of the Bellator Welterweight Grand Prix, where he will face former champion Douglas Lima, whom he defeated last year to take away the belt.
MacDonald (20-5-1) has been the subject of concern of late. In the aftermath of his last fight, a draw against Jon Fitch in April, the 29-year-old questioned whether he still had the killer instinct necessary to continue fighting.
That remains an open question after Friday. MacDonald controlled the standup and did land a few overhand rights, but he did not pressure Gracie with the aggression one would have expected of the old MacDonald. That could have been out of respect for his opponent's virtuosic ground game -- Gracie came in at 9-0 with eight submissions -- but when the fight did hit the canvas, MacDonald was willing to engage there.
Gracie had a few submission bids -- most notably a leglock in the second round and an armbar later in the fight -- but for the most part he played defense as MacDonald attempted to inflict ground-and-pound. The Brazilian's face was a little marked up at the end, but he did not suffer any significant damage.
"I feel pretty good," MacDonald said after the decision was announced, a smile on his face as he looked around the Garden. "It's such an honor to be able to compete in an arena like this in New York City."
His next challenge will be against Lima, and MacDonald knows what he is in for. "That's a tough one," he said, "but I'm looking forward to it."
He'll get no argument on that from Lima, who entered the cage, shook hands with MacDonald and said, "This is what I've been waiting for."