Jorge Masvidal stepped into UFC 251 just a week before Kamaru Usman was due to square off against Gilbert Burns, who pulled out at the last minute after testing positive for the coronavirus.
A spectacular win Saturday on Fight Island would complete his incredible journey from sleeping on a gym floor to global superstar.
The fan favorite was raised in poverty in Miami by his Peruvian mother he affectionately calls “Mama Dukes,” while his Cuban dad spent two decades behind bars for manslaughter and drug trafficking.
She supported the family by selling beads on the street to make ends meet, and refused to tell her son that his father was serving time, instead telling Masvidal he was in the army. It caused Masvidal much confusion and pain growing up.
“I got kicked out of school. … I caused a lot of turbulence throughout those years,” Masvidal told ESPN.
“All that was happening and my mom’s like, ‘You’re going to end up just like your dad.’ I go, ‘Pshh. He’s in the army. He’s like, some f–king general or some s–t.’ And she goes, ‘He’s not in the army. He’s in [prison].'”
As soon as Masvidal learned the truth, he began visiting his dad in jail. The pair became close, and when Masvidal Sr. was released in 2007 he became a mentor and someone who kept a teenage Jorge out of trouble.
And it was his dad who pushed him to channel his aggression into fighting.
“I had a lot of plans, and when I told him, he was the only person who said, ‘Let’s do it,'” Masvidal said. “He already knew who I was, better than anyone.”
A coach’s perspective
The street-fighting legend was once so broke he slept under the ring in his gym before making his debut in 2003.
Dedicating his life to making it in the fight game meant the brawler had no time to get a job. He instead spent his time in the gym and scrapping for the tiny purses on offer in backyard bouts and on the local Florida MMA circuit.
Mike Brown, Masvidal’s coach at American Top Team, told SunSport the 35-year-old has “fought his way to a better life.”
“He’s very authentic and real,” Brown said. “It’s a guy who has literally fought for everything he’s got after coming from humble beginnings. He comes from a family who didn’t have a lot of money, and when you start out in the sport of MMA, there is no money, right?
“Especially at that time, there was a lot less than there is now and you kind of just do it for the love and if you want to be good you don’t have time to work 40 hours a week. So you’re not making money, you’re broke, he was spending all that time in the gym instead of working and really taking a gamble, a big risk. You’re really rolling the dice, but he did it, he made it. And not everyone does, it’s really very difficult. But he put himself all in, didn’t have a back-up plan but he hit the jackpot. He fought his way to a better life.”
His safe zone
Masvidal, who has two daughters and a son with his ex-girlfriend, told ESPN it did not matter where he slept, as long as he made it to his “safe zone” in the gym.
“I slept in cars, in parking lots, in my gym under the ring,” Masvidal said. “I didn’t let nothing stop me from a young age, I didn’t care if I had a house, or gear or not I just made it to the gym as it was my safe zone.
“It didn’t matter where I slept or what I was doing, as long as I could make it to the gym and space out for those three, four hours, I was like a kid all over again and I did that my whole life and it’s happened to pay off now.”
The hard work paid off when he finally made his UFC debut in 2013, beating Tim Means after a career fighting around the world with stints at rival promotions Strikeforce and Bellator.
But the American became a local star in Miami way before his mainstream MMA career for his street fights alongside the late Kimbo Slice, wagering around $39 a fight.
Masvidal recorded two wins against Slice’s right-hand man Ray in 2003, and Brown says the infamous YouTube brawls were Jorge at his purest.
“Those fights were really interesting, and he gained a following in Miami from it, he was a big draw locally in Miami for 10-15 years. He’s been a big star locally forever,” Brown said. “He’s this kid who’s literally been fighting for money on the streets of Miami since he was a teenager, this is a guy as game as they get. He’s willing to fight literally anytime, anywhere. This is his life.”
Amusingly, this was proven the first time he fought’s Slice’s protege.
“It was funny because 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,” he said. “I ate half my burger, then I was good to go. And I finished the other half of my burger following the fight.”
A crowd favorite
Masvidal has a storied MMA record of 35–13, while also competing once in pro boxing and kickboxing. But it wasn’t until last year he became a favorite among the hardcore fans, after initially failing to break into the mainstream.
And just like Nate Diaz did with a win over Conor McGregor in 2016, Masvidal, who has been given the name ‘Street Jesus’ by fans, became an overnight sensation with a devastating knockout against Darren Till in 2019 at UFC London.
In the same night, Masvidal got into a backstage altercation with Leon Edwards, claiming he gave the welterweight “a three piece and a soda,” which is now an iconic line in the sport.
After Masvidal’s historic five-second knockout of Ben Askren in July at UFC 239 — the quickest win in UFC history — Brown says he has never seen a rise in stardom in such limited time.
“It’s pretty incredible, and something that we knew could happen but for whatever reason hadn’t yet,” Brown said. “He’s got a great combination of personality, skill and a style of fighting that people love. I’m so happy for him, and for all the guys it could have happened to I’m really glad it’s him. He’s put in the work and not taken any shortcuts, he’s earned it. The guy’s got 50 fights with world class opponents with multiple organizations all over the world, he’s the real deal.”
After the fight, Brown shared footage of the pair practicing the move in the gym days before the win.
“It shows just how controlled and accurate Jorge is. As he was doing it I filmed it for that reason, as I knew when he hits this the world’s going to go crazy,” Brown said. “It played out just how we thought. It was beautiful. It really catapulted Jorge to another level of popularity and we were ecstatic – because it secured a better future for Jorge.”
Masvidal had earned over $630,000 for his wins in the last year, before lockdown hit the sporting world.
The details of his purse for UFC 251 haven’t been disclosed, but his manager Malki Kawa told Yahoo Sports that his fighter is “extremely happy” with the deal.
Should the No. 1 contender win the welterweight title on Saturday, his star will know no bounds — with the sport crying out for a new favorite after McGregor’s supposed retirement.