Jorge Masvidal, wearing a fuchsia-colored robe with leafy gold on the wrists, stepped into the doorway of the private jet preparing to bring him to the fight of his life, but the moment was not a departure but an arrival.
As he stood in the doorway of the plane, he turned toward where’d he’d come from and after staring into the distance, fired off a salute. He spun around on his heels and entered the cabin and a different life. Masvidal had finally ascended those final steps to where so few fighters reach: UFC superstardom.
Welcome, Jorge Masvidal, to that rarified air previously occupied only by the likes of Conor McGregor, Georges St-Pierre, Ronda Rousey, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and precious few others. He has arrived at the top of the game, a powerful presence that fans clamor to see.
No one outside of McGregor is currently bigger in the game. If you thought it took a lot of zeroes on the paycheck for the UFC to finally get him to agree to challenge Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title Saturday, just watch what happens if he wins and says he wants McGregor or Nate Diaz next.
He’s an overnight star 17 years in the making. A fight career that began in a rock-strewn lot behind a laundromat in Miami after getting a call while in a McDonald’s drive-thru will culminate Saturday on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi in the main event of one of the biggest shows the UFC has ever put on.
He was holding out for more money, standing up to the bosses, speaking out on behalf of those fighters he said were underpaid and under-appreciated, and wasn’t planning to compete. When the UFC made a last-ditch effort to get him to take the fight with Usman about two months ago, Masvidal scoffed at the offer and insisted he wouldn’t fight until he was paid what felt he was worth.
He told ESPN’s Kenny Mayne on “SportsCenter” Tuesday that he felt the UFC bullied him with its original contract offer to fight Usman, so he declined it. He was turning down a payday, a very big and lucrative payday, but he also knew he’d get that and more eventually. The UFC went ahead and booked Gilbert Burns.
But when Burns tested positive on Friday for COVID-19, Masvidal’s premonition that he’d eventually get the deal he wanted began to take shape. His teammate, Dustin Poirier, said he’d worked with him all through his camp for his June 27 fight with Dan Hooker as if he knew he had a fight he was going to take.
By Sunday, he was in Las Vegas and on Monday, he flew to Abu Dhabi. And though he said he was 192 pounds on July 4, the day he agreed to the fight and would need to lose 22 pounds to make the title limit of 170 by Friday morning, he nonetheless took a bite out of a pizza when the plane stopped for fuel in Rome.
He told Mayne he regretted taking a bite, but knowing Masvidal, it was also probably a calculated choice. Guys who think they’re going to struggle to make weight in the biggest fight of their lives don’t eat pizza, even a little bit, in the days before they have to drop the weight equivalent of a good-sized Jack Russell Terrier.
He just may have been sending a message that nothing worried him: not making weight, not fighting Usman and not the pressure that comes with saving a massive event at the final moment.
Masvidal coach tests positive for COVID-19 ahead of UFC 251
He got some bad news as he prepared to leave when he learned that his highly regarded coach and close friend, Mike Brown, also tested positive for COVID-19 and couldn’t make the trip to Abu Dhabi.
It’s a significant loss because this isn’t Mike Perry with his girlfriend in his corner going to fight Mickey Gall. There is a world title at stake and Usman is one of the most gifted fighters in the game. A good corner can and often does make a difference.
As much as Masvidal wants Brown to be with him, believe this: It’s more for personal reasons than anything else. While Brown is a great coach, Masvidal knows what he needs to do. He’ll have other good people in his corner who will give him the right advice.
He’s just disappointed that in perhaps his finest hour, winning the UFC title in his 49th fight and 17 years after he began, his friend won’t be there.
“It sucks emotionally just because I want him there when I get that belt,” Masvidal told Mayne. “I needed this individual to be there because he’s been a huge part of my career. We’ve been friends for a long time as well. It took the air from all of us. Every single one of my cornermen were devastated by it.”
That devastation will turn to ecstasy fairly quickly if Masvidal gets the job done against Usman. While Masvidal has said in interviews he doesn’t respect Usman, that’s just him selling the fight. He knows this will be the toughest test he’s ever faced.
But here’s a word to the wise:
If you’re among those who suspects that Usman, an NCAA Division II national champion wrestler, is going to rag-doll Masvidal and pummel him on the ground, stop. Masvidal has outstanding defensive wrestling and stops about four of every five takedown attempts, according to UFCstats.com.
Plus, Usman spent most of his training camp preparing for Burns in a fight that was unlikely to get to the ground.
There’s a strong likelihood this will be a standup fight for long stretches, which is the fight Masvidal loves.
Masvidal on Usman: ‘I’m going to baptize his ass’
The fans have grown to love him because they can sense his love for what he’s doing. They love his way with words and his outrageous look and his willingness, if not eagerness, to flout authority.
He’s as blunt as a right to the nose and isn’t intimidated by much of anything. When Mayne asked him about his game plan, he didn’t shy away from the question as so many fighters will do, or talk in highly technical terms that the layman can’t relate to.
He spoke the language of the people who are going to plop down $64.95 in big numbers Saturday to watch him make this improbable run at the title.
“I’ve got the special secret sauce plan right now,” he said. “Between me and you, of course, I could give you some hints. I’m going to baptize his ass. That’s what you can bet on. That’s the secret sauce right there. I’m going to baptize him, I’m going to do it in violent fashion and I’m going to separate myself from the pack even more than I have in the past.”
He’s got one more step to go to be at the top of the mountain. This is a star-studded card, with three title fights, including Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo at bantamweight. There are two active champions on the card (Usman and featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski) and four former champions (Aldo, Max Holloway, Rose Namajunas and Jessica Andrade), but no one has a higher profile than the man who proudly wears the “Baddest Mother[expletive]” belt.
This is Jorge Masvidal’s show. And if he wins, buckle up, because there are going to be big dollars and big fireworks to come.
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