As the UFC continues its slide toward the trashy showbiz of WWE, it recently minted a gimmicky, one-off, Baddest Mother Fucker belt for a non-title bout between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal. Other fighters on the UFC roster sneered at this stunt, neither man has ever won legitimate UFC title gold, and both hold winning ratios of about 50%, hardly world-beating stats. However, while this cynical marketing campaign to sell more pay-per-views may have worked – UFC 244 did very brisk business – something more profound emerged from the spectacle.
In 2015 Diaz was a mid-tier fighter earning 40k per fight with a 40k win bonus, virtual peanuts after training and other costs are deducted. He would generally win one fight only to lose the next, and his career was going nowhere fast. That changed in 2016 when Diaz was called up on 13 days’ notice as a replacement for an injured fighter. His opponent was the UFC’s golden goose, Conor McGregor. Diaz weathered an early McGregor barrage, before taking control in the 2nd and choking out the goose in a major betting upset. That fight and the rematch, which Diaz lost on a very close and contentious decision, finally delivered his moment in the sun, earning two very large pay checks and extensive mainstream exposure. Diaz then took a three-year hiatus, quibbling with UFC bosses about future opponents and the inadequacies of their offered paydays while training young fighters in his Stockton gym.
Jorge Masvidal is a man that loves to fight. He speaks of his victories as works of art. He started brawling in backyards for hundreds of dollars, before being signed by professional fighting organisations. After years on the minor circuits contesting 30 bouts he finally earned a UFC contract in 2013. What followed was a story similar to the Diaz narrative, wins followed by losses, most via split decision in fights that he could have won with a little more volume and/or intensity. However, at the seasoned age of 35, he had an epiphany following a close decision loss to Stephen Thompson. The time had come to stop leaving his fate in the hands of the judges. Masvidal would start taking greater risks to ensure he knocked his opponents out, thus taking hold of his destiny. In March 2019 he travelled to London as an underdog and impressively knocked out over-hyped local boy Darren Till in the second round with a flashing left hook. Next up came Ben Askren, a trash-talking wrestler who was the favourite to take Masvidal down and dominate him on the ground. Masvidal had other plans, and on the opening bell sprinted across the octagon and launched a flying knee that KOed Askren within 5 seconds, the fastest finish in UFC history. Masvidal’s star was rising.
In September 2019 Nate Diaz finally signed the dotted line and returned to ring with a competitive win over former champion Anthony Pettis. In his post-fight interview, he called out Masvidal, a fellow BMF worthy of his attention. The idea had legs, and with a marketing push, and the production of the one-off belt, began to gain traction. For Masvidal, it would prove his first decent payday following decades of grinding away in the gym, pounding pavements, and gamely fighting all-comers.
The fight itself was largely one-sided, betting favourite Masvidal dominated all three rounds of a scheduled five, before doctors stopped the bout due to a very nasty cut that had opened above Diaz’s left eye. What the fight build-up did was shine a light on a pair of journeymen, two of the thousands of professional sportsmen who coulda been contenders, had a couple of coin flips gone their way. The result for these two warriors was less important than the journey. Diaz found his change of fortune largely by chance when he got the unexpected call up to fight McGregor. For Masvidal, a change in mindset would cause his fortune to manifest when he might have been nearing his use-by date. Without his 2019 surge, Masvidal would have been remembered as a tough guy who got unlucky in a couple of close fights, never quite made the championship grade, and walked off with little to show for the best years of his life. Following his main event victory over Diaz, Masvidal’s next fight promises to massive. He is now a bonafide superstar. If he can wrangle a fight against Irish whisky salesman Conor McGregor he will earn even more than he made versus Diaz. If that fails to materialise, he is well-positioned to challenge for the welterweight title, another potentially lucrative excursion.
The Diaz and Masvidal story is a lesson in encouragement for the benchwarmers, those on the fringes of greatness who just need to catch a lucky break so they can break through and hit the big time. For every Lionel Messi there are thousands of wannabes, toiling away in the lower grades, ever hopeful that destiny might shine upon them. They wake up on game day praying for a call-up, an injury to a player ranked above them that opens a door of opportunity. Training sessions are spent with one eye on the coach, did he see that flicker of greatness, that tackle, that deft footwork, or was he staring at his clipboard? For Diaz it arrived when he took McGregor’s back and completed the rear naked choke that shocked fight fans worldwide. For Jorge Masvidal it came when he threw caution to the wind and flew through the air to flatten Ben Askren, causing the sporting world to gasp in sheer delight.
Toil away, boys.
Jackson Byrne – Combat Sports Correspondent