Masvidal's rough road to the UFC
There is no one path that leads a man or woman to the Octagon.
Over the years, innumerable avenues and backgrounds and experiences have intersected and filtered those that write the words “professional fighter” in the box label “Occupation” on their tax returns, census forms, and doctors office questionnaires.
We’ve seen plenty of former college wrestlers and competitors with a background in one (or more) of the traditional martial arts. The new breed of fighters is a bunch of twentysomethings that have been training in various disciplines with slant towards MMA application from the get-go.
There have been former football players, Olympic medalists in wrestling and judo, former dancers, self-taught tough guys that never lasted very long, and James Toney.
Jorge Masvidal’s path to a career in mixed martial arts weaved through the same backyard street-fighting scene in Miami, Florida that helped turn a former high school football player named Kevin Ferguson into an Internet sensation named “Kimbo Slice.”
While the rise, fall, comeback, and final departure of Kimbo has already played out in a series of moments that are memorable for all the wrong reasons, Masvidal’s trajectory to this point in his career has remained mostly under the radar to casual fans.
Ardent followers of the sport, those who devour anything and everything to do with combat sports, have seen the two grainy videos where the now 28-year-old UFC lightweight trades bare-knuckled punches and the occasional kick with a Kimbo protégé known simply as Ray.
They watched his rise from the regional circuit through Bellator and towards the top of the 155-pound weight class in Strikeforce, the latter portion of which was documented as part of the short-lived (but extremely well-crafted) series, Miami Hustle.
Upset wins over the previously unbeaten Billy Evangelista and former champion K.J. Noons elevated “Gamebred” into a title match-up with Gilbert Melendez, that ultimately went the way of the champion, but Masivdal hung tough throughout, giving “El Nino” the best fight he’d had outside of his battles with Josh Thomson.
Nine months after getting back into the win column, the American Top Team product made his UFC debut, earning a unanimous decision win over Tim Means on the preliminary portion of the UFC on FOX 7 card from “The Shark Tank” in San Jose, California. Though it wasn’t his best performance, the victory gave UFC fans their introduction to the former street fighter, and set him on a course towards bigger fights with bigger names in the deep and talented lightweight division.
After enduring extended breaks between fights during his second tour of duty with Strikeforce, the born and raised Miami, Florida resident climbs back into the cage for the second time in three months on Saturday night, filling in for Reza Madadi against former Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa in the final bout of the UFC on FOX 8 televised preliminary card.
Climbing the divisional ladder is as much about performance as it is about recognition and visibility; some would even argue that the latter two elements carry more weight, and it would be hard to disagree. That’s what made stepping into this match-up with Chiesa such an easy decision for the laid back South Florida-based fighter.
Though not necessarily the biggest name in the division, a bout with Chiesa represents an opportunity to square off with someone who already is an established name within the UFC fan base. While the prime real estate on FX was initially meant to serve as a chance to put the undefeated Chiesa in the spotlight, don’t think for a minute that Masvidal won’t use this chance to claim the stage as his own, and look to vault himself into contention in the 155-pound ranks.
In a division with a number of fighters that stand out thanks to their signature style in the cage, Masvidal’s quiet, technical boxing is backed by underrated wrestling and doesn’t stand out, but it’s proven to be exceptionally effective. He out-struck both Noons and Evangelista, two fighters thought to be the superior strikers in those pairings, and showed his ability to exploit a weakness by repeatedly putting Means on the canvas last time out.
As Chiesa said in a recent interview with UFC.com, “He’s very composed, he’s very seasoned, and he’s well-traveled.”
Composed and technical doesn’t necessarily excite the larger fan base, a collective that craves highlight reel finishes and larger than life personalities. Masvidal doesn’t necessarily give you either, but that doesn’t preclude him from being a legitimate contender in the talent-rich lightweight division.
He is an impressive, technical fighter, with the kind of quiet confidence that could explode into a roar at any given moment. The showman crept out as he continued to distance himself against Noons when they fought in Strikeforce, and shows through in the way he’s been dismissive of Chiesa’s chances on Saturday night when asked about the bout by the media.
Although his climb from the regional circuit to the biggest stage in the sport was a slow burn that is just now starting to smoke, he comes from a phenomenal team and possesses the skill set to become an impact addition to the roster in the very near future. And now that he’s fighting on a much more steady, consistent schedule, Masvidal expects to breakthrough to the next level sooner rather than later.
““When I stay busy, I become a different athlete. When I'm competing three, four times a year, I'm on my game,” he told Jordan Newmark of UFC.com in advance of this fight. “Now that I'm in the UFC, I'm going to be competing three, four times a year, I'm going to hit my stride, things are going to open up, and I'm going to show people what I can really do.”
That next opportunity comes Saturday night in front of what is sure to be a pro-Chiesa audience, but that won’t make any difference to the man they call “Gamebred.”
In his mind, he’s on another level than his opponent, and this weekend is a chance to prove it to everyone else. You may not have seen him coming, but now that he’s arrived, don’t expect Masvidal to go away any time soon.