FIGHT ISLAND It's 2003 and backyard fights are one of the most watchable things on the internet, providing you're into barbaric, skull-cracking violence, like me.
A fresh-faced Jorge Masvidal had been training at the same Florida gym as the late Kimbo Slice, a barrel-chested brawler who was as bald as he was beardy, and who had been developing a cult hero status because of his knockout prowess in underground bouts.
Masvidal, an unknown entity even at a local level, received a call to see if he was interested in competing bareknuckle. He remembers ordering a McDonald's at the drive-thru when his phone rang at the time.
"Hell yeah," he said. "Damn right. Let's do it." Masvidal was always down to scrap.
One week later the teenager was trading blows with a mid-20s Miami bouncer called Reynoldo Fuentes, who had already knocked one guy out cold in Kimbo's backyard earlier that day.
Masvidal proved to be a far greater challenge, ESPN reported, as Fuentes lost.
Dressed in baggy jean shorts, Nike sneakers, and with long and thick hair tied behind his head in a ponytail, a shirtless Masvidal went to work on Fuentes.
He left his exhausted opponent needing two men to help him walk after it was called off, before slumping to the floor, beaten, with a concerned Kimbo watching on.
Kimbo, though, was so entertained he demanded to see a rematch a couple of months later.
Fuentes, known as "Rey," received $500 for the do-over, one he wanted to win so bad he had a "structured" fight camp as if it were an organized, sanctioned event, according to the UFC.
Masvidal, in contrast, had no stable income. He lived on his own, and with ready-cash hard to come by, he was sometimes forced to sleep in his car which he parked in the lot of Kimbo's gym, ESPN said.
A teenage, street-fighting Masvidal. Photos by Jorge Masvidal / YouTube
"It was a tough, soul-searching moment," Masvidal said on his YouTube channel. "It wasn't easy. There were no time limits on that, so we were just going. His shots were a little heavier than mine, especially back then at that time."
The structured camp Rey endured was obvious to Masvidal, who noticed he was tougher when taking shots to the body. Rey also floored Masvidal with a heavy straight right punch to the jaw. "Oh man, my head was spinning," Masvidal said. "And this f------ gorilla was still coming at me."
Though Rey knocked Masvidal down in the rematch, he couldn't knock him out and failed to keep up with the pace set by Masvidal, who varied his punch selection throughout the bout. Rey lost once again, this time with his hands on his knees, unwilling or just physically unable to go on.
Little did Rey know, but Kimbo had been interested in Masvidal for a while, identifying him from his gym as a potentially exceptional young striking talent.
Almost two decades later, after far surpassing Kimbo's fame level, Masvidal has once again taken a fight on a week's notice.
The stakes, this time, are much higher.
If victorious, Masvidal will wrest the UFC welterweight championship belt away from current ruler Kamaru Usman's waist, adding it to the "Baddest Mother F-----" belt he won after beating Nate Diaz, last year.
Masvidal enjoyed a breakout 2019 in which he was thrust from the consciousnesses of hardcore combat audiences and placed in front of the broader sports fan.
A title triumph at UFC 251 on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi this weekend would amplify Masvidal's crossover appeal so much, he may coax Conor McGregor out of the Dubliner's abrupt retirement, a retirement few in the industry seem to believe anyway.
Coronavirus-induced chaos has marooned multiple athletes from "Fight Island" this weekend, so it's a good job Masvidal, a man also known as "Street Jesus," washed ashore with much acclaim to save the show and, in words he would likely use, "baptize a fool."
Event staff disinfects a UFC Octagon next to Bruce Buffer getting ready to announce a fight. Photo by Getty Images
COVID-19 threatened to dilute the quality of UFC's signature summer showcase to the world, a four-event residency in a 25 square kilometer region on Yas Island which is quarantined from the rest of Abu Dhabi.
The greatest event is Saturday's pay-per-view, UFC 251, which features three championship fights and many other significant showdowns.
Throughout the pandemic era in sports, one name or, rather, one acronym has stood above the rest in the wild west of combat sports landscapes.
After a three-month hiatus, the UFC returned to operations mid-May in Jacksonville, Florida, a month before Top Rank boxing restarted its own gig in Las Vegas, with around a third and sometimes as low as a quarter of the viewing figures which MMA's market-leader has been enjoying.
UFC continues to fine-tune how it navigates the prospect of live events behind-closed-doors, but no matter how much planning the company puts into health, safety, and card construction, nobody can predict who or how many athletes will test positive for the novel coronavirus.
Just ask Gilbert Burns, a 33-year-old ground game expert from Brazil, who has already excelled in one pandemic show so far one in which he tested negative for the coronavirus throughout. But he is now positive, and he is not alone.
Burns out-pointed the former welterweight champ, Tyron Woodley, on May 30 and was given the nod to take on Usman at "Fight Island."
But on Saturday, July 4, MMA Fighting reported that Burns tested positive for the coronavirus. Burns would not fly to "Fight Island," and the UFC's main event was in jeopardy.
Within hours, though, the UFC entered negotiations with Masvidal as decision-makers sought to save the company's marquee month of the year.
One day later, a deal was struck. Shortly after that, Masvidal tested negative for the coronavirus and so his representatives, First Round Management, could make plans to get their client from Las Vegas to Abu Dhabi by private jet.
Jorge Masvidal finally got a UFC title shot after 48 fights in MMA.
Though it was not the UFC's first choice for a "Fight Island" main event, an Usman-Masvidal match is the most significant pairing of fighters since Justin Gaethje upset Tony Ferguson in a dominant lightweight thriller, May 9.
UFC 249's main event two months ago showcased two of the very best athletes not only in the 155-pound weight class but in all MMA.
UFC 251, like the 249 event, showcases two of the very best athletes in a division, this time at welterweight. And both feature prominently in Insider's list of the 15 best MMA fighters today.
It rarely gets bigger, better, or badder not when a "Bad Mother F-----" is involved.
Some athletes enter the UFC with collegiate-wrestling backgrounds in America, with great ground game foundations in Brazil, or with a striking pedigree from Europe.
Being a bonafide badass may well be Masvidal's base style as street-fighting has been in his DNA since childhood when he roamed West Miami neighborhoods getting into rucks.
Jorge Masvidal knocked a guy out in front of Hugh Hefner. Photos by Getty Images
"I don't know how many heads I cracked," he said to Fightland of his developmental years as a child from 7 to 14. Armed with a knife, one kid even tried to mug him, he said.
But being known for cramming his knuckles into a random thug's mouth was not something he wanted as a reputation. He wanted to be a boxer, a wrestler. And when he found MMA, he realized he could be both.
Masvidal earned an $18,000 check for knocking someone out in front of Hugh Hefner.
It's 2007 and Masvidal finds himself in another man's backyard, punching another opponent in the face for the entertainment of an exclusive audience.
But this fight wasn't organized by Kimbo, and this wasn't underground.
This was a legitimate MMA operation called Strikeforce, promoted by eventual Bellator MMA boss Scott Coker, and this was the first cagefighting event held at the $200 million Playboy mansion in Beverly Hills.
Strikeforce had only held seven events at that point, and Coker viewed the opportunity as a no-brainer as it would see his brand placed alongside Playboy's.
"Hugh Hefner represented pop culture in a way that no else could," Coker later told Uproxx.
Tickets sold for a thousand bucks a pop, and one writer observed plenty of scantily-clad Playboy bunnies at cageside.
Masvidal walked into the cage at 10:11 p.m. armed with good-form having won five in a row.
One minute and 33 seconds after the opening bell, he left that same cage with another win this one was devastating.
Matt Lee, a lightweight, barely knew what hit him as Masvidal attacked him with his knees and elbows. It was not long before Lee wilted, falling half-beaten on the canvas.
Masvidal forced the referee to separate the pair after dispatching an avalanche of fists. Game over.
Who knows how inspiring it was for Masvidal to win, in style, at the Playboy mansion while Hefner sat a dozen feet away, wearing silk pajamas underneath a burgundy smoking jacket, clapping and smiling with his blonde girlfriends.
Fight night is a Versace robe night if you're Jorge Masvidal. Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images
But 13 years later, many months after he had knocked out Darren Till, scored a 5-second highlight-reel KO over Ben Askren, and made Nate Diaz bleed in the "BMF" bout, Masvidal, at the height of his popularity, watched Conor McGregor destroy Donald Cerrone in January sporting his own bedroom style a black Versace robe.
Earlier this week, he boarded a private jet wearing a bright, Miami pink Versace robe, and looked relaxed while heading for Abu Dhabi to take on Usman, his greatest challenge to date.
While Masvidal may have been training for an opportunity like this, to step-in at late notice during a time in which the coronavirus can scupper a bout at any time, Usman will have been training only for Burns a jiu-jitsu specialist.
As Masvidal is a multi-dimensional striker with good wrestling, he is a significantly different style match-up for Usman than Burns was.
Usman is unbeaten in a five-year stretch with the UFC, a time in which he has scalped some of the top names in the division including Leon Edwards, Demian Maia, Rafael dos Anjos, Tyron Woodley, and Colby Covington.
Beating "The Nigerian Nightmare" would punctuate an unconventional career for Masvidal, and could well earn him a mega-money payday against Conor McGregor, should the Irishman return to the sport once again.
That the welterweight title would be on the line, and McGregor would be gunning for a championship belt in a third weight class, could be enough to coax him into the cage and it's something Masvidal told us he wants, too.
Masvidal would relish defending a title against McGregor, and he even told us earlier in the year that he'd happily put his "Baddest Mother F----" belt on the line, providing McGregor put something in the pot, too like a stake in Proper no. Twelve.
"If I put my [BMF] belt up, someone has to put something else up. Cash, money. Something that makes sense to me," Masvidal told Insider.
We piqued Masvidal's interest when we mentioned McGregor could offer shares in one of his companies, like his whiskey brand.
"If the company is worth any money, we can do something," he said.
McGregor may well be keen, telling the Las Vegas media ahead of his sole bout this year a UFC 246 smash-and-grab win over Donald Cerrone in January that he "would like that BMF title."
McGregor coined the phrase "red panty night," which is something the Dubliner says each of his opponents enjoys when they learn they've hit the jackpot a fight with him.
"You ring back home, you ring your wife, 'Baby, we've done it. We're rich, baby. Conor McGregor made us rich, break out the red panties'," McGregor said to Rafael dos Anjos at the "Go Big" press conference in 2015.
If Masvidal defeats Usman, which no man has yet done in the UFC, and you add a legacy-defining victory to the Floridian's escalating fame, a McGregor match would be a red panty night.
But it would likely be a Versace robe night, too.
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Jorge Masvidal is one win from immortality and a Conor McGregor payday - Insider - INSIDER
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