After beating Donald Cerrone twice in two rounds at UFC on Fox 23 in Denver, Jorge Masvidal soaked up the boos from Cerrone’s hometown and told them his lack of fame matched his lack of interest in social media. But don’t be fooled: Masvidal is responsible for one of the best, trolliest social media stunts an MMA fighter has ever perpetrated.
On July 25, 2014, just before a bout with Daron Cruickshank, the UFC on Fox Facebook page linked to an interview with Masvidal where he first suggested a fight with Cerrone. “I’ll kick his ass,” Masvidal said via the headline. “I want some easy money.” The page filled up with doubters talking about how Masvidal would get smashed by Cerrone if Cruickshank didn’t do it first. Three days later, with a unanimous decision over Cruickshank on his record, Masvidal went line by line through the post and responded to every ill-meaning comment. “Hey Chris you were wrong about Saturday,” he told one commenter, “And I will beat the Hell out of your BF Cowboy.”
Two and a half years after he wrote those words, that’s more or less what happened on Saturday night. Masvidal’s left thigh was a purple memento of all the kicks Cerrone slammed into it, but Masvidal fended off Cerrone’s takedown attempt, landed shots inside the pocket and, seconds from the end of the first round, dropped Cerrone and followed up with what should have been fight-ending punches. Referee Herb Dean seemed to think so at first but, after confusion and controversy, let the bout pick up in the second round, during which Masvidal walked down a dazed Cerrone and beat him all about the face and the body. Dean stopped the fight around the one-minute mark.
Cerrone’s unbeaten life at welterweight was over. Masvidal, meanwhile, established himself as the bad guy that the UFC needs right now.
The business of mixed martial arts is based on personalities, the centers of gravity that everyone else arranges himself or herself around. The UFC has precious few of those at the moment, and a 2017 where the names McGregor and Rousey are absent from the event schedule—whose return isn’t even assured—has provoked an existential crisis: who’s going to keep drawing eyeballs? The UFC can throw its promotional power behind whomever it chooses, but you can’t simply put a cardboard-for-brains fighter on the Today Show, have them show a way-too-bubbly-at-7-a.m. personality how to do a rear-naked choke for the fucking five millionth time, and expect pay-per-view buys to pour in. The temporary derailment of the great Paige and Sage experiment illustrates just how difficult it is to create new stars by design, especially when their talents are still raw. The solution is to leave the assembly line and head to the mines to look for the natural resources that have been there all along.
Masvidal is four-year UFC competitor, one-time Strikeforce lightweight title contender, 14-year MMA vet, and an alumnus of the same Miami backyard-fighting scene that produced the late Kimbo Slice. Masvidal even fought Ray, a cryptically named apprentice of Kimbo’s, twice under those rules. “…when I fought Ray the first time, I was actually halfway through the McDonald’s drive-thru when I got the call offering the scrap,” Masvidal told Cage Potato. “I ate half my burger, then I was good to go. And I finished the other half of my burger following the fight.”
Since those beginnings of bare knuckles and food high in saturated fat, Masvidal has refined a blend of boxing and wrestling that’s straightforward enough for casuals to comprehend and technical enough for fight nerds to geek out over. And after coasting to the wrong end of three split decisions between 2015 and 2016, Masvidal learned to compete with a new urgency in winning three straight opponents, Cerrone included. “Sometimes I like to play with my food,” he said at the post-fight press conference in Denver. “I like to beat guys up, I like to torture guys. Sometimes I don’t pull the trigger. Sometimes I drop dudes and then I smile after I drop them…Sometimes in the past I’ve been on cruise control, kicking a guy’s ass so bad that I’m like I don’t need to pull the trigger, I’m just out-skilling him everywhere. But I can pull the trigger when it needs to be pulled.”
Cocky sound bites like those are central to Masvidal’s charisma: he’s a villain with a deadpan voice and a high self-opinion. Instead of spitting corny punchlines like a booming-voice pro-wrestling heel, Masvidal’s trash talk is a little like Silky Johnson: it’s funny precisely because it isn’t amplified to make you laugh. “You know, I don’t really care for [Cerrone], I don’t like him at all. If he dies or becomes a millionaire, it doesn’t make me lose sleep,” Masvidal told a media scrum ahead of the fight. He was heavy on terse answers during that particular scrum, but he can be chatty and cordial when he isn’t answering stock fight-week questions. I expected a bunch of single-syllable answers when I interviewed Masvidal a few years ago. Instead, he talked at length about how his dad defected from Cuba on an improvised boat and how he ate a raw seabird so he didn’t starve.
That’s the thing: Masvidal doesn’t fall into the trap that snares every clueless fighter who thinks copying Conor McGregor is the ticket to stardom. He’s an original personality with an original story in a sport that has little bandwidth for clones. That he's also winning fights means he deserves more of the spotlight. “If [Masvidal] fought all the time like he fights tonight,” Dana White said at the post-fight presser, “he’ll be a world champion.” If anyone disagrees, Masvidal might have a word in the comments section.
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