- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
Editor’s note: This story was originally published ahead of Jorge Masvidal’s fight against Nate Diaz at UFC 244. On July 11, Masivdal will face Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title at UFC 251 on Fight Island.
MIAMI — Jorge Masvidal is standing in the parking lot of an apartment complex, his eyes scanning the top of a five-story building for his old balcony. The exterior of this building used to be “flamingo pink,” he says, but the paint has peeled over time, giving way to the dull gray that’s before him.
“I don’t know about this color,” Masvidal deadpans.
There are three buildings around the lot, and within five minutes of Masvidal’s arrival, he’s drawn the interest of an elderly woman on the second floor of one of them. She cracks her balcony door and yells something down to him in broken English — which Masvidal deciphers effortlessly.
“No, not me. I no fix nothing mama,” Masvidal calls back. “I sorry. Blessings be unto you.”
He turns to explain. “She wants to know if I’m here to fix the plumbing.”
From age 7 to 13, Masvidal lived in this complex with his mother — Mama Dukes, he calls her — selling beads to help make ends meet. Today is his first visit in nearly 20 years, even though he’s never lived outside of Miami. And before he can even think about the many stories that happened here, he has to know if the elevator works.
“So many times, getting here with groceries and that elevator was broken, walking up five flights of stairs,” Masvidal laughs. “I don’t know why that was a constant theme, but once a month the elevator was down. Out of service. Probably why I’m good at running staircases.”
As Masvidal rides to the fifth floor of his old building — the elevator is in fact working — he can’t contain a smile. He has a lot of fond memories here, tough as it was.
Jorge “‘Gamebred”‘ Masvidal has always been a bad m—–f—–. Anyone who has followed his career knows. And those who don’t will find out this weekend. Historically, the UFC doesn’t do “gimmick” championship fights — but Nate Diaz fighting Masvidal for the BMF title was so popular, the promotion made an exception. It even booked the fight to headline one of the year’s biggest events: Saturday’s UFC 244 pay-per-view inside Madison Square Garden.
But what about Masvidal himself? When did he realize he was a BMF? If he has to pin it down, yeah, this is probably it. Right here, in this apartment complex.
“This is where I started realizing that when it came to fight time,” Masvidal says, “something was different about me than everybody else.”
COMING INTO THIS year, no one would have predicted Masvidal would be in this position. When 2019 began, Masvidal was relatively well-known. He was also well-liked. But he wasn’t a star.
Look back through Masvidal’s UFC career, and you’ll have a hard time finding the 34-year-old’s face on a poster. Prior to 2019, he had headlined exactly one UFC event. One.
“I was very upset about that,” Masvidal says. “I was like, ‘What’s going on here?’ They’re kind of downplaying me.”
Masvidal lost that headliner by split decision to Benson Henderson on Nov. 28, 2015, and after losing his next fight, he won three straight, capped off by a brutal TKO of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone on Jan. 28, 2017.
“I had some stand-up performances in [2016 and 2017] and I still wasn’t getting what I thought was fair,” Masvidal says. “This fight, for the first time in my life I would say, I’m getting what I deserve.”
Masvidal knew it would take more than wins to get what he wanted in 2019. It would take viral moments, which Masvidal has manufactured more than any other fighter in the past 11 months. He flew across the globe to beat up Darren Till, one of the sport’s hottest prospects, and he got into an altercation backstage on the same night. He has dropped some of the most infamous one-liners in combat sports history, and he broke the UFC record for fastest knockout. Mainstream finally came calling, and it liked what Masvidal was selling.
“It’s surprising that it didn’t happen a long time ago, with his ability and personality,” says Mike Brown, Masvidal’s head coach. “But it’s like, kind of the perfect storm now. It’s all developed and the dude is bigger than anybody expected. He’s one of the biggest stars in the sport.”
WHEN MASVIDAL WAS 14, he suffered one of the worst beatings of his life. He’s been in so many altercations, he says it’s impossible to recall every one. But what he does remember is that in this specific encounter he was outnumbered, and it landed him in the hospital.
“This was the only time in my life I got into a fight and my mom didn’t add an extra hit on me,” Masvidal says. “She was like, ‘They already f—ed you up.'”
He says his ear “exploded,” and there was gravel embedded into his face from getting stomped on the ground.
When Masvidal returned to school, he swore that nothing like that would ever happen again. He began carrying a “gadget” with him, which he describes as a tube sock with a lock stuffed in the end, something that could “bust a head wide open.” He even started to plan his revenge.
“I had to come up with a master plan of like, ‘I’m going to eliminate all these guys,'” Masvidal says. “And I thought, ‘Who should I ask [for advice]?’ Let me ask my dad.”
Jorge Masvidal Sr. was born and raised in Cuba, until he immigrated to the United States in 1971 in his 20s. According to Masvidal Sr., he and two others left Cuba on a tractor tire and were stuck at sea for seven days before ultimately ending up in Miami. He got a job in construction, but needed additional income.
In 1989, when Masvidal was 4, Masvidal Sr. was arrested on federal drug charges and sent to prison, where he would remain for the next 18 years.
But between the ages of 4 and 13, Masvidal says he had no idea his father was in prison. His mother, wishing to spare him the truth, told him his father was in the army — until she finally revealed the truth to Masvidal as a teenager.
“I got kicked out of school. … I caused a lot of turbulence throughout those years,” Masvidal says. “All that was happening and my mom’s like, ‘You’re going to end up just like your dad.’ I go, ‘Pshh. He’s in the army. He’s like, some f—ing general or some s—.’ And she goes, ‘He’s not in the army. He’s in [prison].'”
Once Masvidal knew the truth, he began visiting his father regularly. Masvidal Sr. wanted to tell his son the truth during those nine years apart, but he didn’t out of respect for his mother.
“His mother don’t want to tell him,” Masvidal Sr. said. “So, I said, ‘You want to keep it like that? I’ll keep it lied down.'”
The reunion with his father turned into a blessing for Masvidal. There were numerous times in his teenage years when he was on the verge of a life-altering decision, but his father intervened. For instance, that time when he was ready to seek out the kids who had beat him down so badly.
“Luckily, my dad talked me out of it,” Masvidal recalls. “He’s like, ‘Man, you’re going to end up in here.’ That probably impacted my life a lot.”
Masvidal’s relationship with his father continued with regular visits in prison until 2007, when Masvidal Sr. was granted a supervised release. Masvidal vividly recalls embracing his father that day. It was the first time in more than a decade that they’d had that much physical contact.
By that time, Masvidal had been fighting professionally for four years. Masvidal Sr. watched the majority of his son’s early career on a television in prison, on replay. He never managed to catch one live.
Three months after his release, however, Masvidal Sr. attended his son’s knockout win over Yves Edwards in Trenton, New Jersey.
Having his father in the building was especially meaningful for Masvidal, not only because of the influence he’d had in keeping him out of trouble — Masvidal has had several run-ins with the law, but nothing that resulted in serving major time — but also because Masvidal credits his father as the first to truly support his fight career. The first to see the BMF inside him.
“I had a lot of plans, and when I told him, he was the only person who said, ‘Let’s do it,'” Masvidal says. “He already knew who I was, better than anyone.”
IN 2003, REYNALDO Fuentes was in his mid-20s, working as a bouncer for various nightclubs in Miami. His friends referred to him as Rey.
Rey was always looking for an opportunity to score some extra cash, which is how he came to meet Kevin Ferguson, aka “Kimbo Slice,” and Ferguson’s manager and close friend “Icey” Mike Imber. Rey knew about Ferguson’s “internet fights,” knew he was making money off them — and asked if he could get in on the action.
Rey won the first three fights Imber set up, at which point Imber booked him two fights in one day. The deal, as Rey recalls was $1,000 per win. So, if he could score two knockouts in one day, that’d be a nice payday.
Rey won the first matchup, a knockout win that was over before it really began. The second fight, against a younger kid named Jorge, lasted a lot longer.
“I had no idea who Jorge was,” Rey says. “I didn’t know he had any training background, but nobody knew who I was, either. I’d been in gyms since I was a kid. It’s almost like, you get put in with a lion that could possibly have a lot of skill, and you never know. You didn’t know who the guy was.
“You just knew he was willing to go at it.”
After a back-and-forth fight, Rey threw in the towel. The action was so good, Ferguson and Imber arranged a rematch a few months later, which Masvidal also won. Combined, the two fights have accumulated more than 12 million views on YouTube.
Unlike Rey, who initially asked Ferguson and Imber to fight, Masvidal had been recruited. Ferguson saw him at a local gym and offered an opportunity to fight for money. He didn’t know Masvidal well, but he obviously saw the type of BMF he was looking for.
Masvidal didn’t need much convincing. He was already looking to fight professionally and had been involved in unsanctioned bouts around Miami for years. His friends played the role of promoter and matchmaker during that time, finding a group from another neighborhood and challenging their best fighter against Masvidal. The two sides would place bets on the outcome, and if Masvidal won, he said he would “go crazy at the McDonald’s dollar menu.”
Occasionally, though, fights were hard to come by. Or the payoffs weren’t as high. Masvidal, who was living on his own by then, couldn’t pay rent and was forced to sleep in his car, a Pontiac Bonneville with no AC and only two windows that rolled down, parked outside the gym.
Masvidal can look back on that time fondly now. He knew he was pursuing the right thing.
“I would envision it back then, as I lay in the car sleeping,” Masvidal says. “One day, I’m going to have this, this and this. I’m going to open the fridge, and it’s going to be filled with food. I’m going to do whatever the hell I want.”
NATE DIAZ COULD have called out anyone.
One of the UFC’s biggest stars since his two blockbuster fights against Conor McGregor in 2016, Diaz (21-11) returned from a three-year absence to defeat Anthony Pettis at UFC 241 on Aug. 17. That return was the biggest story of the summer, and Diaz was primed to call his shot immediately afterward.
He could have called for a trilogy bout with McGregor or a lightweight title shot against Khabib Nurmagomedov. He could have gone outside the box and challenged Georges St-Pierre to come out of retirement. Instead, he called out Masvidal, who stood, beaming, in the front row.
“The reason I was off was because everyone sucks, there was no one to fight,” Diaz said in his postfight interview. “Jorge Masvidal had a good last fight [knocking out Ben Askren]. Good last fight … There ain’t no gangsters in this game anymore. Nobody does it right but me and him.”
Diaz’s callout of Masvidal would have made sense any year prior to 2019. They have both been around the game for a long time. But it would not have set the MMA world on fire as it has this year. Part of that is, of course, attributed to the star power of Diaz. But another real part of it is how Masvidal has changed over the past 11 months, becoming a must-see attraction in the UFC.
In March, after Masvidal knocked out Till in the main event of UFC Fight Night in London, he got into a backstage altercation with Leon Edwards after Edwards mouthed off to him during an interview. Cameras caught Masvidal landing several punches on Edwards before they were separated.
When asked later that night to describe what happened, Masvidal told ESPN it was Edwards who instigated, and he simply responded by giving him the “three-piece with the soda.” When Masvidal returned to the U.S. later that month, fans were wearing T-shirts with that phrase printed on them.
“That’s when I started to notice like, ‘Oh, we’ve made a little ripple in the water,'” Masvidal says.
Four months later, Masvidal followed that performance with a five-second, flying knee knockout over the previously undefeated Askren — the fastest knockout in UFC history. Askren, who antagonized Masvidal in every interview leading up to the fight, was clearly knocked unconscious from the knee, but that didn’t stop Masvidal from throwing two additional punches before the referee could pull him off.
When it was brought to Masvidal’s attention at the postfight news conference that those punches might have been unnecessary, Masvidal responded that they were “super necessary.” The social media hashtag #supernecessary has become commonplace among MMA fans ever since.
“Coming into this year, I was in such a great place,” Masvidal says. “I had one thought: Enjoy the journey. Just have fun, you know? Because I had almost forgotten I love to do this.”
IT’S A WEDNESDAY night in late September, less than two months from the biggest fight of Masvidal’s career.
The schedule calls for Masvidal to sprint up the 12 stories of stairs at a parking garage and then hit pads with his boxing coach on the roof. It’s Masvidal’s favorite way to work on his cardio. He can’t explain why.
Maybe it really does have something to do with that temperamental elevator of his youth. Running groceries up to the fifth floor with Mama Dukes.
Abe Kawa, Masvidal’s manager, is waiting for his client on the roof of the garage with a camera crew when Masvidal calls and tells his manager to deliver a message.
“Jorge wants to remind you he’s been doing this for 10 years,” Kawa says. “He’s been running these stairs the last 10 years, and people are only finally interested in it now.”
Masvidal never quite comes out and says it, but the message is received.
He might be fighting for the BMF title Saturday, but the reality is, he has been a BMF for a long, long time.
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