“Just taking a stroll,” grinned Jorge Masvidal on Sunday. “Don’t get all excited.”
“Gamebred’s” carefree vibe was not what you’d expect from a man who has stepped in on six days’ notice to fight Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title on Saturday at UFC 251. He saved the main event after Gilbert Burns tested positive for coronavirus and he looked as laid back as it gets, pacing slowly with his black locks billowing behind him. These days, after all, Masvidal looks more like an 80s glam rock star than a UFC contender.
The BMF champion had already been training at American Top Team in Miami, Florida, and he built his name by competing in Kimbo Slice’s series of street fights. In that sense, he’ll have experience in competing at the drop of a hat and placing himself in the unknown. We should remember, too, how his coaches are familiar with Usman, as the ATT camp prepared Colby Covington before his knockout defeat to “The Nigerian Nightmare” in December.
Of course, Masvidal is not the first mixed martial artist to step in on short notice, making sure an opponent hasn’t wasted a training camp and seeing that fans recoup their money’s worth. Mark Hunt, the huge Kiwi with a chin of granite and fists like bricks, tasted both success and despair when taking bouts at the last moment.
The 2001 K-1 World Grand Prix champion became the first man to upend Wanderlei Silva in Pride in December 2004, when he dropped and outpointed the promotion’s light-heavyweight champion, replacing the much smaller, much more-grappling orientated Kazushi Sakuraba. Commenting on the fight, Mauro Ranallo said: “Taking this fight on three days’ notice, Hunt’s stock has risen exponentially.”
Although Hunt grabbed a knockdown in the opening exchanges, Silva brought matters to the ground with a double-leg takedown, only for his opponent to slip out the back door. Hunt found inroads again in round two with a flurry of uppercuts. “He’s hurt, you guys!” yelled Ranallo. “The Axe Murderer” nevertheless probed with an armbar and spent most of round three on top, piling up damage with punches around the guard and elbows to the gut.
As such, when the split decision for Hunt was announced – with the Japanese announcer crooning “HUNTOOOOOOOOOO” – color commentator Randy Couture was perplexed. “I’m surprised by that decision,” he said. “I didn’t think he finished strongly enough to win it.” Hunt perhaps felt the same, looking stunned at the verdict. “Beats me,” his face said. After all, he entered the bout with one win and a defeat in two MMA outings, now here he was, defeating Pride’s boogeyman and snapping an eighteen-fight undefeated streak.
Not dissimilar to Masvidal, Hunt prided himself on fighting anywhere and everywhere – streets, parking lots, you name it. His book, Born To Fight, details a litany of scraps with old enemies and deadly gangs. True to form, most of the time Hunt won by a concussive finish. His cavalier approach to fisticuffs meant that he wouldn’t have been terrified when he faced Melvin Manhoef in 2008, as the Dutchman replaced an injured Jerome Le Banner on two days’ notice.
Facing a rival two weight divisions smaller than him, Hunt bowled forwards only to meet his end in eighteen seconds courtesy of a devastating one-two. Manhoef, the first man to finish Hunt with strikes, leaped around the Saitama Super Arena ring, unable to control his jubilation after losing the DREAM Middleweight Grand Prix final against Gegard Mousasi only three months earlier. Once he’d calmed down, he joked to the crowd: “Now I want to fight old men.”
Manhoef’s success should resonate with Masvidal, who was similarly clinical last July when his flying knee exploded into Ben Askren’s chin after only five seconds. It was a moment when everyone started to believe the buzz around Masvidal. A moment that made “Gamebred” into a star and, perhaps more significantly, catapulted his earning potential to the next level. Against Askren he made $200,000, whereas five months later, when he outlasted Nate Diaz for the BMF belt, he pocketed $500,000.
The UFC 251 main event carries all the more intrigue as Masvidal reportedly turned down the fight at an earlier date, claiming he was offered less than he earned against Diaz. So, has he banked a higher wage this time? Has he resolved his differences with Dana White? All of this will unravel over the next week, and Masvidal’s gain is probably the loss of Leon Edwards, #4 in the division, who is still inactive in England despite putting paid to his last eight foes.
Usman, king of the welterweights, was the last man to defeat Edwards and mirrors the Brit’s excellent form, suffocating the likes of Demian Maia, Rafael dos Anjos, Tyron Woodley and Covington with cunning switches between boxing and shoots. He was at his most determined when defending his title for the first time against Covington and, in fact, most observers feel Masvidal is an easier opponent for him than Burns.
Usman is the more versatile of this weekend’s headliners, for sure, but how will he react to such a sudden change of opponent? How might he change tact as he veers from fighting a gymmate, the quiet and humble Burns, to tackling a brash loudmouth in Masvidal? Usman and Masvidal almost came to blows at a Superbowl media day in January, as the Nigerian-born beltholder shouted: “Do something! You come up talking…”
Masvidal won’t have the 70-plus pounds advantage that Hunt had over his late-notice adversaries, but he can gain further solace from how Michael Bisping humbled Luke Rockhold on 14 days’ notice in 2017, winning their bitter rematch and taking the UFC middleweight title. That rivalry ended with the last-minute replacement shouting “fuck you” across the Octagon at his beaten rival. That said, don’t be surprised if Masvidal-Usman ends in acrimonious fashion too.