This weekend Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal, also known as “Street Jesus,” fights what is arguably the biggest fight of his life – the welterweight title bout at UFC 251. It’s also the first ever fight on the infamously dubbed “Fight Island,” a small arena and octagon on Yas Island in Abu Dhabi that was built by the UFC as a way to put on cards with some of its international fighters…but I digress.
Seeing Masvidal at this point in his career is a matter of pride for me, because the budding mixed martial arts superstar is a Cuban American who grew up not too far from me, in the blue collar, Latino-heavy neighborhood of Westchester in Miami, Florida…also known as La Sawecera (“Southwest Miami” in Cuban-American slang).
I got the chance to talk to him a few years ago, just before his biggest fight at the time, a title contender bout he lost to Demian Maia by split decision. He was on the doorstep then. It fell through. He took a couple years off, did his thing, and now he is back on the doorstep, this time bigger than ever. But let’s take it back to where and when it all began.
Jorge Masvidal was in the middle of ordering a Big Mac meal at the McDonald’s on Miller Road and 93rd Avenue when he got the call. It was Kimbo Slice, the legendary Godfather of backyard fighting, whose scraps were among the first viral videos on the web.
Masvidal’s opponent would be a much bigger man, one of Slice’s protégés, named Ray. The pay was a couple of hundred dollars. The rules were the usual, fight until somebody gives up or gets knocked out, and the whole thing gets posted to the internet.
The skinny, long-haired, 19-year-old Cuban kid, with a few days’ growth of beard hung up and scarfed down the burger, fries, and shake. An hour later, he marched through the gates of a backyard. Surrounded by a janky wooden fence and carpeted with green grass and a few small palm trees, it was an unlikely ring.
About 20 onlookers – including the muscular, pirate-bearded Kimbo Slice – welcomed Masvidal as he strode in. Most looked like they make their living as nightclub bouncers. They size up the 5’10”, 165-pound challenger and some even laughed. Across the lawn was the reason why: Ray was several years older, over six foot two, and clearly heavier at about 200 pounds.
Four and a half minutes later, the bigger man relented. “I’m done…” he panted. Then he slumped into a wobbly chair as blood streamed from his nose and mouth. He had been overwhelmed by the Cuban kid’s fast hands.
Kimbo Slice threw an arm around Jorge, handed him a bottle of water, and declared him one “bad mother f***er.”
Funny enough, late last year Masvidal won the one off belt given to the UFC’s “BMF” as in Bad Mother F***cker.
“I didn’t know it was going be video-taped, I thought I was just going to scrap,” says Masvidal, now older, somewhat beefier, but still boasting the heart of a tenacious underdog. “I had done scraps for money before, since I was 16. So I didn’t think that day would be the day they recorded it or go viral. I just thought it was going to be another fight.”
Masvidal has parlayed that $200 victory into an international career in professional mixed martial arts. Today, he fights in sold out arenas, headlining main events in the Ultimate Fighting Championship – the international leader in MMA and the fastest growing sports brand in the world.
Recently, Masvidal took the helm of the push for pro MMA fighters to get a bigger cut of the revenue. He initially refused to fight at UFC 251 until he was paid what he thought he was worth. The pay gap in the UFC is still pretty wide compared to the percentage of revenue athletes receive in other pro sports. And while MMA is still a young sport, barely mainstream for maybe a decade, it’s not like the promotion is suffering financially. The UFC was sold to WME-IMG for 4.6 billion dollars a couple years back.
As luck would have it, Gilbert Burns, the fighter who replaced him to fight against welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, got COVID. So the UFC was forced to give Gamebred his demands. If Masvidal wins this weekend, he will not only prove he is more than a rugged street fighter – he will prove he is a legit superstar. He is also a budding businessman with, among other things, his own line of mezcal called Recuerdo.
Win or lose, Masvidal’s climb from the backyards of South Miami-Dade to national prominence – growing up a blue collar Cuban kid in Miami to becoming an international sports star – is the epitome of every inspiring rags-to-riches tale ever told.
“He definitely reps Miami more than anyone in MMA for sure. To fight fans from the rest of the country, he reflects the streets of the 305 more than any other fighter,” says Masvidal’s coach, Mike Brown. “He came up fighting in backyards for Kimbo Slice, what’s more Miami than that?”
Masvidal’s confidence stems from the fact that he’s been here before. He’s been lined up opposite a bigger fighter, who most people expected to beat him. However, he sees this fight turning out just the way the first one did, with his hand raised victoriously. But with all the weight attached to this fight, all the implications, all the money on the line…this moment has to be much more nerve wracking than those street fights that started it all, right?
“Not really,” sayas Masvidal.