How Jorge Masvidal, the backyard brawler from Miami, finally broke through

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/soccer/players/434669/" data-ylk="slk:Jorge Masvidal">Jorge Masvidal</a> has two career-defining knockouts in in 2019. (Steve Flynn/USA Today Sports)
Jorge Masvidal has two career-defining knockouts in in 2019. (Steve Flynn/USA Today Sports)

Midway through UFC 241 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, Jorge Masvidal wended his way through the bowels of the arena and found himself in the media center. He nonchalantly answered a series of questions, including the one that most fighters dread:

Who do you want to fight next?

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They’ve heard it repeatedly, from reporters and friends and family, on social media and in interviews, when they’re out for a night on the town or, in this case, when doing some PR.

Masvidal mentioned the winner of the Kamaru Usman vs. Colby Covington fight that was planned but not scheduled, as well as former champion Conor McGregor. Almost as an afterthought, he added Nate Diaz.

“If Nate Diaz wins tonight, [I’d like to fight him] … ” Masvidal said an hour or so before Diaz stepped into the cage with Anthony Pettis. “[A] Nate Diaz [fight with me] would go down in history because I think it’s something everyone here would pay their hard-earned money to see.”

A bit later that evening, Diaz dominated Pettis and won a unanimous decision. As he was being interviewed in the cage by Joe Rogan, he turned toward where Masvidal was seated as he spoke about his three-year absence from fighting.

“The reason I was off is because everybody sucks,” Diaz said as the crowd roared. “There was nobody to fight. But with this belt, I want to defend it against … Jorge Masvidal had a good last fight. All respect to the man, but there ain’t no gangsters in this game no more but me and him. So I know my man’s a gangster, but he ain’t no West Coast gangster.”

And so the battle for the so-called “Baddest Mother[expletive]” belt was born, and it will go down on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, PPV) at Madison Square Garden in front of a sell-out crowd that is expected to include President Donald Trump.

It finally vaulted Masvidal to that rarefied air that only a few have ever reached in the UFC: One-name recognition.

There was Nick and Nate, Chuck and Tito, Randy and Rampage, Conor and Ronda and, of course, Dana, with perhaps a handful of others. And now, add to that list, Jorge.

The kid who learned to brawl by fighting for money in backyards in Miami, that would end up getting millions of views on YouTube, is now one of the headliners of arguably the biggest show of the year.

This is a guy who was perfect for the counterculture movement of the 1960s, who was dropped into the 21st century almost untouched. He looks like he could have been plucked right off the campus of UC Berkeley in 1971, but he’s emerged as one of the biggest stars in mixed martial arts.

Before this year, he’d only headlined one card for the UFC previously, a Fight Night card in South Korea designed to showcase Benson Henderson, who is of Korean descent.

He was the headliner for a Fight Night against Darren Till in March, a bout that was a showcase for Till coming off a loss in a welterweight title fight to Tyron Woodley.

Masvidal burst into prominence at that show, brutally knocking Till out. Then, as he was being interviewed backstage by Laura Sanko, he calmly walked off the set as Leon Edwards taunted him. He slowly approached Edwards with his hands behind his back, only to throw a flurry of punches at him. Afterward, he said he’d given Edwards “the three-piece with the soda,” which prompted the creation of T-shirts with the line on it.

That gave Masvidal cult-hero status among a portion of the UFC’s fan base. But it was his devastating knockout of Ben Askren at UFC 239 and his defense of his actions afterward that propelled him to stardom.

Leaning against the cage with his hands clasped behind his back seconds before the bout began, there was no hint of the violence that was soon to ensue. When the bell rang, Masvidal roared out of his corner as if he were an Olympic sprinter, leaped into the air and kneed Askren squarely on the jaw. Askren was instantly out, but his punishment didn’t end there. Masvidal pounced on him before the referee could push him away and delivered two massive hammerfists to the head.

It was one of the most, if not the most, emphatic knockouts in UFC history. A video the UFC posted on Instagram of the finish has more than 5.4 million views and more than 30,000 comments. A shot of the announcers’ reaction on Instagram has more than 2.4 million views. And a clip of Masvidal’s media session following the show has more than 722,000 views.

“I think I bring a very real thing to this fighting thing, and that’s just baptizing people,” Masvidal said after knocking out Askren. “I’m not God, but I’m putting mother[expletives] in another planet when I’m done with them.”

After 47 MMA fights, one boxing match and too many unsanctioned street fights to count over the last two-plus decades, the 34-year-old Masvidal arrives at UFC 244 finally a star.

He’s appealing because he’s Diaz without the hype, without a popular older brother to boost his brand. All of the things that have made Diaz popular — flaunting authority, doing things his way no matter what, fighting with a fury few can attain — is what defines Masvidal.

And like Diaz, he took a long time off from the game before coming back with a bang. He was off for more than 16 months before returning to stop Till and Askren and earn this shot with Diaz.

There was talk at one point during his absence that Nick Diaz would return and be paired with Masvidal, a potential match that got Masvidal’s juices flowing. Nick Diaz decided not to return to competition, and that put Masvidal into something of a funk.

But that funk is definitely a thing of the past.

“I was coming off of two losses and I was in the darkest of the dark places I’ve been to, and I get into some dark places from time to time,” Masvidal said. “So I slowly but surely started coming out, knowing that the person who came out of that dark place is not the person who went into that dark place.

“That person is no longer with us. That old ‘Gamebred’ expired. The new one here is just ready to go. He was missing fighting. He also reminded and remembered how much fighting is in my DNA, from everything I’ve done from childhood to now. It’s just who I am, you know?”

If we didn’t know before, we certainly know now after the violence inflicted on both Till and Askren.

And while Masvidal professes nothing but the utmost respect for Diaz, you don’t understand him well if you think he wants to do anything other than bludgeon Diaz once that bell sounds.

“If you look through my career, I put an end to a lot of guys never been knocked down, never been stopped,” Masvidal said. “So another tough guy to knock out or a guy who’s never been knocked out, I don't care about him. I never care about my opponents, especially now. I care about ‘Gamebred,’ and ‘Gamebred’ is only going for the off button. That the only thing I'm trying to do, is to take this guy out of consciousness for a while. That’s my job. That’s entertainment.

“That’s the only way I can get the bills paid. Let me tell you something. I did this sport for so long, and if you look at some of my masterpieces that I've painted in the past, people didn't appreciate s--- of it. They could care less whether it was a decision, I won or lost, they didn’t give a damn. All they want to see is pure violence, me put people to sleep in a very bad way, and that's all I'm going to do. I understand my role in this life and my job is just to hurt people and get them out of there.”

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