Masvidal’s rough road to the UFC

There is no one path that leads a man or woman to the
Octagon.

Over the years, innumerable avenues and backgrounds and
experiences have intersected and filtered those that write the
words “professional fighter” in the box label
“Occupation” on their tax returns, census forms, and
doctors office questionnaires.

We’ve seen plenty of former college wrestlers and
competitors with a background in one (or more) of the traditional
martial arts. The new breed of fighters is a bunch of
twentysomethings that have been training in various disciplines
with slant towards MMA application from the get-go.

There have been former football players, Olympic medalists in
wrestling and judo, former dancers, self-taught tough guys that
never lasted very long, and James Toney.

Jorge Masvidal’s path to a career in mixed martial arts
weaved through the same backyard street-fighting scene in Miami,
Florida that helped turn a former high school football player named
Kevin Ferguson into an Internet sensation named “Kimbo
Slice.”

While the rise, fall, comeback, and final departure of Kimbo has
already played out in a series of moments that are memorable for
all the wrong reasons, Masvidal’s trajectory to this point in
his career has remained mostly under the radar to casual fans.

Ardent followers of the sport, those who devour anything and
everything to do with combat sports, have seen the two grainy
videos where the now 28-year-old UFC lightweight trades
bare-knuckled punches and the occasional kick with a Kimbo
protégé known simply as Ray.

They watched his rise from the regional circuit through Bellator
and towards the top of the 155-pound weight class in Strikeforce,
the latter portion of which was documented as part of the
short-lived (but extremely well-crafted) series, Miami Hustle.

Upset wins over the previously unbeaten Billy Evangelista and
former champion K.J. Noons elevated “Gamebred” into a
title match-up with Gilbert Melendez, that ultimately went the way
of the champion, but Masivdal hung tough throughout, giving
“El Nino” the best fight he’d had outside of his
battles with Josh Thomson.

Nine months after getting back into the win column, the American
Top Team product made his UFC debut, earning a unanimous decision
win over Tim Means on the preliminary portion of the UFC on FOX 7
card from “The Shark Tank” in San Jose, California.
Though it wasn’t his best performance, the victory gave UFC
fans their introduction to the former street fighter, and set him
on a course towards bigger fights with bigger names in the deep and
talented lightweight division.

After enduring extended breaks between fights during his second
tour of duty with Strikeforce, the born and raised Miami, Florida
resident climbs back into the cage for the second time in three
months on Saturday night, filling in for Reza Madadi against former
Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa in the final bout of the
UFC
on FOX 8
televised preliminary card.

Climbing the divisional ladder is as much about performance as
it is about recognition and visibility; some would even argue that
the latter two elements carry more weight, and it would be hard to
disagree. That’s what made stepping into this match-up with
Chiesa such an easy decision for the laid back South Florida-based
fighter.

Though not necessarily the biggest name in the division, a bout
with Chiesa represents an opportunity to square off with someone
who already is an established name within the UFC fan base. While
the prime real estate on FX was initially meant to serve as a
chance to put the undefeated Chiesa in the spotlight, don’t
think for a minute that Masvidal won’t use this chance to
claim the stage as his own, and look to vault himself into
contention in the 155-pound ranks.

In a division with a number of fighters that stand out thanks to
their signature style in the cage, Masvidal’s quiet,
technical boxing is backed by underrated wrestling and
doesn’t stand out, but it’s proven to be exceptionally
effective. He out-struck both Noons and Evangelista, two fighters
thought to be the superior strikers in those pairings, and showed
his ability to exploit a weakness by repeatedly putting Means on
the canvas last time out.

As Chiesa said in a recent interview with UFC.com,
“He’s very composed, he’s very seasoned, and
he’s well-traveled.”

Composed and technical doesn’t necessarily excite the
larger fan base, a collective that craves highlight reel finishes
and larger than life personalities. Masvidal doesn’t
necessarily give you either, but that doesn’t preclude him
from being a legitimate contender in the talent-rich lightweight
division.

He is an impressive, technical fighter, with the kind of quiet
confidence that could explode into a roar at any given moment. The
showman crept out as he continued to distance himself against Noons
when they fought in Strikeforce, and shows through in the way
he’s been dismissive of Chiesa’s chances on Saturday
night when asked about the bout by the media.

Although his climb from the regional circuit to the biggest
stage in the sport was a slow burn that is just now starting to
smoke, he comes from a phenomenal team and possesses the skill set
to become an impact addition to the roster in the very near future.
And now that he’s fighting on a much more steady, consistent
schedule, Masvidal expects to breakthrough to the next level sooner
rather than later.

““When I stay busy, I become a different athlete.
When I’m competing three, four times a year, I’m on my game,”
he told Jordan Newmark of UFC.com in advance of this fight.
“Now that I’m in the UFC, I’m going to be competing three,
four times a year, I’m going to hit my stride, things are going to
open up, and I’m going to show people what I can really
do.”

That next opportunity comes Saturday night in front of what is
sure to be a pro-Chiesa audience, but that won’t make any
difference to the man they call “Gamebred.”

In his mind, he’s on another level than his opponent, and
this weekend is a chance to prove it to everyone else. You may not
have seen him coming, but now that he’s arrived, don’t
expect Masvidal to go away any time soon.