As MMA becomes an increasingly global sport, with more and more fighters competing for the public’s eye in a weekly overload of events, it feels as though it’s becoming more difficult for any individual competitor to stand out from the pack. However, every year seems to bring a new crop of breakthrough fighters—whether new faces or familiar faces with new leases on life—ascending to greater competitive heights at the same time as they capture the public’s imagination.
2019 offered several examples of this phenomenon. Look no further than Weili Zhang, who dominated Tecia Torres in March to earn a strawweight title shot, then made history by knocking Jessica Andrade out in 42 seconds to become the UFC’s first-ever Chinese champion, just as the promotion is making a massive investment in developing talent and cultivating an audience in her native country. Jairzinho Rozenstruik took a page from Sherdog’s 2018 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, Israel Adesanya, by appearing seemingly out of nowhere to go 4-0 in his debut year, smashing his way into heavyweight title contention with a gruesome last-minute stoppage of Alistair Overeem in December. Johnny Walker launched himself into stardom this year with a spectacular blend of unorthodox striking, knockout power and a cartoonishly exuberant persona. Arriving just when the light heavyweight division was desperate for fresh contenders, Walker hit a speed bump in the form of a TKO loss to Corey Anderson at UFC 244 in November. If not for that setback, it might have been a close race for this year’s award.
However, one fighter stands above the rest, as Jorge Masvidal made a mid-career star turn in 2019 that is nearly without equal in mixed martial arts history. In a single calendar year, “Gamebred” transformed himself from a reliable action fighter and hardcore fan favorite who appeared to have hit his competitive ceiling to a man on the cusp of a welterweight title shot and whose star power was so irrefutable that, along with another of MMA’s biggest stars, he willed a new championship belt into existence – and then fought for it in a Madison Square Garden headliner.
It is difficult to fathom that a year ago Masvidal was, if not a forgotten man, at least an afterthought. He had not fought at all in 2018, and had closed out 2017 on a two-fight skid thanks to Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia. Even Masvidal’s most devoted fans might be excused for believing the book had been written on the 34-year-old: a reliably exciting, offensively potent fighter who never got over the hump due partly to bad luck—his UFC record was 9-6 at the time and featured four losses by split decision. He also seemed increasingly like a man without a weight division, as he disliked making the lightweight limit but gave up substantial height and reach to “true” welterweights like Thompson and Maia.
In light of this, Masvidal’s return fight at UFC Fight Night 147 in March seemed like a miserable matchup. Darren Till was eight years younger and more active, coming off an unsuccessful shot at then-welterweight champ Tyron Woodley. Till is also one of the largest, most imposing welterweights the sport has ever seen. Many observers—including the oddsmakers who installed him as a two-to-one underdog—saw Masvidal as a bounce-back opponent, someone with name value for Till to get back on track against in front of a partisan London crowd.
For most of a round, it appeared to be playing out that way, as Till landed numerous heavy left hands, knocked Masvidal down and generally got the better of a wild standup battle. However, Masvidal was finding the range and shaking off the rust, and midway through the second round he absolutely leveled Till with a huge left hook before knocking him out cold with a single standing-to-ground coffin nail. It was the biggest win of Masvidal’s career and it catapulted him right into the Top 10 at welterweight, but it was what happened later that same evening that truly set the trajectory of his 2019.
Masvidal’s backstage altercation with Leon Edwards that night became MMA lore so quickly and so completely, and it changed the course of his career so radically, that it’s shocking to realize that it happened only nine months ago. Fellow welterweight contender Edwards, also victorious that night, walked by and called something out as Masvidal was being interviewed. Masvidal excused himself from the interview, approached Edwards with his hands behind his back and, when Edwards walked up to meet him, threw a punch combination that left the Brit bleeding from a cut under the eye as both men were restrained by onlookers.
The entire incident was caught on camera, and Masvidal’s laconic reference to the flurry of punches as “the three-piece with the soda” instantly became one of MMA’s all-time catchphrases, emblazoned on t-shirts and held aloft on handwritten signs at UFC events by the next week. Beyond merely being back, Masvidal was suddenly the center of the entire sport’s attention.
Next, Masvidal was matched with Ben Askren at UFC 239 in July. In the lead-up to the fight, Askren’s playful teasing—endearing to some fans, annoying to others—clearly did not go over well with Masvidal, who grew increasingly reticent with media and opponent alike. Once the night of the fight came, the question loomed of how Masvidal would follow up a career-defining win, a spectacular finish and an immortal sound bite. The answer: with another career-defining win, another spectacular finish and another immortal sound bite.
As soon as the fight began, Masvidal charged across the Octagon, timing Askren’s level change and meeting him with a picture-perfect flying knee to the head. Askren went down, already stiff, but Masvidal dove in and tacked on a couple of brutal ground punches before referee Kevin Herzog could reach the murder scene. It was all over in five seconds, officially the fastest knockout in UFC history, and a jubilant Masvidal flopped onto the canvas in a Tank Abbott-esque mockery of his stricken foe as the crowd lost its collective mind. On a card headlined by the most dominant man and woman in MMA, Gamebred had stolen the show, and once again he wasn’t done yet. At the post-fight press conference, Masvidal was asked whether the follow-up punches had been necessary. His response, that they had been “super necessary,” was another instant MMA meme. Print the t-shirts, make the cardboard signs, cue the gag videos.
By this point, back-to-back wins over top 10 welterweights were making Masvidal an actual contender in the division, not just an ultraviolent antihero for fans. With the welterweight title picture a logjam for at least the rest of 2019, Masvidal and fellow resurgent fan favorite Nate Diaz—fresh off his own electrifying comeback fight against Anthony Pettis—took matters into their own hands by more or less booking themselves into a fight to determine “the baddest motherf---er.” The promotion wisely elected to go with the hot hand, and the “BMF belt” was born.
For an affair boasting two of the sport’s most quotable walking soundbites, the promotional buildup to UFC 244 was almost anticlimactic in how affable and respectful it was. And the fight itself, while entertaining, struggled to live up to the promise of two men of such swagger and violence that they could dream up this fight without being laughed out of the room. When the smoke cleared and the fight had been stopped on account of Diaz’s split-open face, however, Masvidal was the proud owner of the UFC’s newest title and by acclamation the baddest motherf---er in mixed martial arts. It was a fitting end to a remarkable year.
Masvidal’s jump from popular also-ran to superstar title contender in 2019 is especially remarkable because he managed it without fundamentally changing himself. Unlike the coldly calculated—and chemically enhanced—mid-career renaissance of a Chael Sonnen, Masvidal simply came back, the same tough and talented fighter he always was, and everything finally fell into place for him in a way it never had before. 2020 may well offer Gamebred the chance to add a regular UFC belt to his trophy case alongside his “BMF” hardware, but for now, all that’s certain is that Jorge Masvidal is Sherdog.com’s 2019 Breakthrough Fighter of the Year.