UFC Fight Island: Jorge Masvidal enhances reputation with cross-continental title fight on...

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"I’m no hero, never have been. I’m a local goon that took a hated man’s soul," Jorge Masvidal the Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight fighter told me in a recent interview. But the man whose soul is motivated by physical challenges has upped his fanbase and growing popularity by taking a UFC title fight on 'Fight Island' in Abu Dhabi on Saturday night against the Nigerian UFC welterweight champion Kamuru Usman on six days' notice. It has meant travelling from Miami to the Middle East, being tested de rigeur for Covid-19 and making weight after a lengthy and adjusting to a huge time difference. Masvidal's addition to the fight card - which has three title fights topping it - has broadened the novel appeal of the first of four events on Yas Island with the UFC's fanatical fanbase in these changed times with no live audiences due to the coronavirus pandemic. For Masvidal, though, winning belts and pleasing the fans “is the same thing”. If you were to pick a handful of real-life street fighters who have become professional prize-fighters, the man from Miami-Dade County fits the mould to perfection. Moreover, he has kept at the game through thin and thinner, his storied career having finally burst its bubble of late as he has become one of the most revered and enjoyed fighters on earth, and one of the UFC’s most resonant names on the lips of fans. Right now, Masvidal is hot property. And no wonder. The resume he has amassed is unmistakably long and broad, yet last year defined his time in mixed martial arts with an acute arc. The 34-year-old has gone toe-to-toe with rising contenders, champions and ex-champions plus every conceivable style in his 47 fights (49 if you count his single forays into boxing and kick-boxing) which includes, through periods in Bellator, Strikeforce, and the UFC: Yves Edwards, Joe Lauzon, Paul Daley, KJ Noons, Gilbert Melendez, Al Iaquinta, Benson Henderson, Cezar Ferreira, Lorenz Larkin, Donald Cerrone, Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson, to name just the most renowned. But you could go on. There are wins and losses along the way there, but look through them and recall the fights: elite level opponents everywhere, Masvidal having graduated from the bottom upwards in such a manner with such longevity due to his developing skills and acuity, huge fighting IQ – and, moreover, for the thing he is probably most respected and loved – those street smarts. Last year was even more significant because of the victories – let’s call them triumphs or show-stoppers even – four months apart over Darren Till in London, and Ben Askren in Las Vegas. Then late in the year the defeat of Nate Diaz, on another thrilling night pitching two fan favourites against one another. The silencing of the London crowd at the O2 Arena in March when knocking out Till was emphatic; and then the delivery of the sprinting, flying knee in Sin City to pull off the fastest KO in UFC history in five seconds against Askren elevated the American Top Team fighter to both championship level fights, and perhaps the biggest pay-off, pay-per-view status. Of that, there is now no question, not when Masvidal is being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Conor McGregor, still the UFC's greatest potential cash cow although the Irishman is in a sabbatical of temporary retirement . How does it feel to have worked 16 years in the professional game and now finally be loved as a star? “It’s nice to see me being appreciated. I've been at this for a long time and to see it come together feels good,” Masvidal explained, as we discuss how his success has been received at home. “The big change is that going to get a cafesito (the Cuban term for cup of coffee) turns into a 45 minute affair. Once one of the ladies recognises me, I get stuck taking pictures and autographs for the whole spot. But I’m no hero, never have been. I’m a local goon that took a hated man’s soul.” There’s Masvidal right there, the Masvidal fans and fighters have come to love and respect. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County to a Cuban father and a Peruvian mother, the story of the journey to the United States on his paternal side is fascinating. His father, unhappy with the communist regime there, left Cuba as a teenager on a raft constructed of tractor tyres, with a friend and that friend’s uncle undertaking a perilous journey, ending up at the Virgin Islands. “Yeah, that’s right,” Masvidal concurs. “He was at sea for five days and had to bite the head off a bird to get fluid to survive. Wild story.” Masvidal Sr, then 14, had been on the raft when their gallon drum with drinking water in it had been flooded with seawater. The bird had appeared more than once, and when it came back, his old man read it as a sign. Survival. He drank the blood and ate the raw meat, according to the fighter. “I was like, wow, that’s ******’ survival,” Masvidal has said of his father’s journey, and from his account, the old man had a chaotic life, growing up in African-American neighbourhoods, was involved in drugs and a very tough life. He served five years in jail for manslaughter in California, then eighteen years in Florida for drug-trafficking. Life is different now, and Masvidal Sr always comes to his son’s mixed martial arts fights. Growing up in Miami, Masvidal was happy, a kid who enjoyed the outdoors in an area of apartment complexes, but late in his teens he became involved in street fighting, famously, of course, crossing paths with the late Kimbo Slice in the South Miami ‘scene’. “I knew him as Ferg,” explained Masvidal. “He was always a nice guy and always looked out for anyone that needed help.” Masvidal’s involvement in that time has given him folkloric status with MMA fans, after his fight with ‘Ray’, one of Slice’s guys, garnered millions of views on youtube videos. He was 19 then, and was being drawn towards MMA, the street-fighting simply accelerating his move forward. He began to train harder, hitting the gym, running up the stairs on an eleven-storey parking lot, training on the rooftops and doing pads there under the blistering Miami heat. It was a place he used for many years – the Masvidal way, manufacturing a method of getting to where he needed to be. By hook and by crook, he climbed the ladder, always ready, always fierce, and becoming known by the sobriquet of 'Gamebred fighter'. Will Masvidal be calling out McGregor’s name if he defeats Usman, in what would rank as one of the great moments in the sport's history ? “We’ll see, but I think he would have to beg me. I called McGregor out for the money [after defeating Diaz], everybody knows why I do this, and that’s really it. But I don’t think he tarnished his legacy by taking a long time out. But I'm the guy who goes after the fighter with the belts, and then I cash the cheques." Why shouldn't he? Born and bred to fight, and always game, he has certainly earned it, strutting his way onto Yas Island this week. UFC 251 is live on BT Sport from 1am on Saturday night.

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