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Some mixed martial arts fans were likely introduced to Jorge Masvidal when he was fighting a protégé of Kevin Ferguson in a backyard. He wasn’t brought there to win, but he did. Other fans likely got their introduction to Masvidal when he fought Toby Imada in the early days of Bellator MMA. Imada’s inverted triangle submission was unique enough that it got picked up virally and was one of the most notable moments from that period in Bellator history.
Still other fans learned of Masvidal when he strung together a series of wins in Strikeforce and earned a title shot against Gilbert Melendez. Of course, some followers of the sport didn’t discover Masvidal until he reached the Ultimate Fighting Championship and fought some prominent names in the process. It feels hard to believe Masvidal has now fought 17 times in the Octagon.
Regardless of when fans first saw “Gamebred” over the course of his wide-ranging travels, the common denominator up until this year is that he likely didn’t make that much of an impression. That’s not to say his skills weren’t evident, because Masvidal has proved himself to be an excellent fighter in the sport’s deepest division. Moreover, he has a resolute toughness about him that has always been a defining characteristic. Even when Masvidal is losing, he just keeps coming and the best fighters in the world haven’t been able to stop him for over a decade. Masvidal has earned respect; it’s just that he has rarely jumped out as a star.
This tendency of Masvidal to blend in is part of why he has traveled so much. Not many fighters have competed for such an eclectic mix of promotions: Bodog, Strikeforce, Sengoku, Bellator, Shark Fights and the UFC to name a few. He has constantly been brought in as the opponent to test the skills of a star fighter but he has rarely been the focal point of a promotion. He has perpetually been a competitor other fighters aren’t eager to face because he’s difficult to beat and you don’t get the credit you deserve if you best him.
Fighters like Masvidal, highly skilled but without a particularly notable fan following, usually don’t become superstars late in their careers. Star fighters tend to catch on relatively early on. Promotions and fans are constantly looking for the exciting new phenomenon and get behind promising fighters on the rise. Some of those fighters capture the public imagination and are draws by the time they reach the top. Conor McGregor, Ronda Rousey, Jon Jones, Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre all fit this general pattern. Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell took longer but they became icons quickly after UFC got on Spike TV. To put Masvidal’s career in perspective, two years ago he had already fought longer professionally than Couture’s entire career.
A year ago, a major star turn for Masvidal would have seemed improbable. Yet this weekend, it appears that’s exactly what happened. It wasn’t just that he put himself in position for a title shot. That would be a big deal for Masvidal, but plenty of fighters get title shots, particularly these days. What Masvidal accomplished went well beyond that. He went from a fighter on the card to someone who a lot of fans are going to be checking for every time from now on. Time will tell, but it looks like he could very well be one of the signature stars of the UFC.
Masvidal has created no shortage of memories in recent months. His knockout of Darren Till was brutal and even more memorable because it came in front of Till’s home country fans. The backstage altercation with Leon Edwards for better or worse raised his profile further and labeling it the “three piece with a soda” took that moment to a higher level. That led into a war of words with Ben Askren, which made Askren-Masvidal the most anticipated fight for many on a deep UFC 239 card.
Beating Askren, who hadn’t lost once in a 10-year career, would have gone a long way to raise Masvidal’s stature. What Masvidal did was much more. That flying knee, leaving Askren in a crumpled heap with all-time record speed, is one of the sport’s all time highlight-reel finishes. However, the performance was elevated further even from there based on the way Masvidal carried himself.
The now signature hands behind his back, the mockery of Askren after the knockout and the ruthlessness and obvious sincerity in Masvidal’s words about the fight announced Masvidal as someone you need to pay attention to. The sports world took notice on a busy weekend that also featured the U.S. women’s World Cup victory and Kawhi Leonard-Paul George joining the Clippers. It was a true star making performance and it came for a fighter who went pro during the first George W. Bush administration.
There aren’t many comparison points for what we just saw with Masvidal. The closest in MMA may be Chael Sonnen, who was a respected veteran of 12 years when he decided to start talking and turned himself into a major star. There’s some irony there as the two fighters are so different as personalities. Sonnen did everything with a wink and a nod, letting you know not to put too much stock in the truth of his statements. Masvidal, by contrast, is real almost to a fault. The vitriol he directed at Askren was no act. He’s not going to put on a show to sell his next fight. Then again, he won’t need to. The MMA world is mesmerized by the man as it is.