Cuban Brawler Jorge Masvidal Fights Demian Maia for MMA Title Shot (Updated)

Jorge Masvidal
Jorge Masvidal
Photography by Stian Roenning

Update: Masvidal barely lost to Maia, dashing his title hopes for now. But it was a close one, so he could be back.

Jorge Masvidal was ordering a Big Mac meal at the McDonald's on Miller Road at SW 93rd Avenue when he got the call. It was a guy calling for Kimbo Slice, the legendary godfather of backyard fighting. The brawl would take place in an hour, the guy said. Masvidal's opponent would be a much larger man, a Slice protégé whose name he gave only as "Ray." The pay would be a couple hundred bucks.

The skinny, long-haired 19-year-old with a few days' growth of beard knew the rules. They were simple: Beat each other until one guy gave up or got knocked out.

Then Masvidal hung up. He scarfed down the burger, fries, and shake. An hour later, he marched through the gates of a Perrine backyard. Surrounded by a wooden fence and carpeted with green grass, it was an unlikely ring. Both fighters were shirtless. They wore only basketball shorts and sneakers. Masvidal had some tape on his hands, but this was bare-knuckle, no gloves.

About 20 onlookers — including the muscular, pirate-bearded Slice — welcomed Masvidal as he strode in. Most looked like nightclub bouncers — beefy and grim. After sizing up the five-foot-ten, 165-pound challenger, some laughed. Across the lawn was the reason: Ray was several years older, six-foot-two, muscled like a bodybuilder, and clearly heavier, weighing more than 200 pounds.

It didn't even seem close.

But after four and a half minutes and flurries of jabs and hooks, the larger man relented. "I'm done," he panted. Then he slumped into a wobbly chair as blood streamed from his nose and mouth. He had been overwhelmed by the Cuban kid's fast hands.

Slice threw an arm around Masvidal, handed him a bottle of water, and declared him one "bad motherfucker."

That was 2003. The fight was recorded on a digital camera and uploaded in low-quality, pixilated 240p to a then-nascent online video-sharing platform called YouTube. At the time, Slice (who died of heart failure last year at the age of 42) was one of the internet's first real stars. He had amassed a cultlike following for his own series of viral video street fights. So it wasn't a surprise when Masvidal's video went viral too. It was a David vs. Goliath thing. Today various spiffed-up versions of that original have garnered millions of views.

"I didn't know it was going to be videotaped. I thought I was just going to scrap," says Masvidal, now older, somewhat beefier, but still boasting the heart of a tenacious underdog. "I had done scraps for money since I was 16. So I didn't think that day would be the day they recorded it or it went viral. I just thought it was going to be another fight."

Masvidal, who now goes by the name "Gamebred" — because he says he was "bred to fight" — has parlayed that $200 victory into an international career in professional prize fighting. Today the 32-year-old brawls in sold-out arenas, headlining main events in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the international leader in one of the world's fastest-growing sports, mixed martial arts. The UFC franchise recently sold for $4.6 billion to one of the biggest firms in sports and entertainment, WME-IMG.

Masvidal has earned around $1.3 million in fight purses since turning pro 14 years ago, and in the next few weeks, his prospects for what he calls "easy money" could balloon even further. His next match is set for Saturday, May 13, against Demian Maia in Dallas. It will be broadcast live on pay-per-view. And it is without a doubt the biggest fight ever for this son of a Cuban balsero.

One has to wonder: Is it all a result of those backyard brawls? "I've had to prove myself beyond that street-fighter image with some people in the UFC. It has a stigma to it," Masvidal explains. "But I didn't get here by being fake. I'm going to keep doing what I am doing."

If Masvidal wins, he will be next in line for a championship bout for the welterweight belt and a huge payday. This could also be the toughest fight of his career. Maia is a world-class submission artist on a six-fight winning streak, considered one of the best Brazilian jujitsu black belts on the planet.

Win or lose, Masvidal's climb from South Dade's backyards to national prominence is both unique and telling. Fighting the odds to transform from a blue-collar Miami Cuban kid to an international sports star is in some ways a metaphor for the maturing of mixed martial arts. The sport has morphed from barbaric oddity to one of the nation's fastest-growing sports.

"He definitely reps Miami more than anyone in MMA for sure," says Masvidal's coach, Mike Brown, a chiseled, vascular, shorter and leaner version of Paul Bunyan, and himself a former World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight champ and UFC fighter. "To fight fans from the rest of the country, he reflects the streets of the 305 more than any other fighter. He came up fighting in backyards for Kimbo Slice. What's more Miami than that?"

Masvidal has become the man to watch at the American Top Team Academy in Coconut Creek.
Masvidal has become the man to watch at the American Top Team Academy in Coconut Creek.
Photography by Stian Roenning

Masvidal spent most of his childhood without his dad. But the patriarchal legend always loomed large. Jorge Masvidal Sr. escaped Cuba as a 14-year-old kid on a raft with two grown men he barely knew. Until then, the teen had made extra money for his family by deep-sea diving and spearfishing. But after Communism took over the island in 1959, Masvidal Sr. headed across the Florida Straits on a makeshift boat made of tractor tires and large water jugs.

As Masvidal Jr. likes to tell it, the trio floated on the sea for days. Then their water ran out. When a seabird landed on the raft, his dad grabbed the bird. But the other two men thought it was a good omen. Killing the bird would bring bad luck, they said. So the kid released it. But later in the day, the bird returned. This time, the kid seized it, ripped off its head, and slurped up the blood.

"My dad was always a motivation, even when he wasn't there," Masvidal says. "Times got tough. A lot of times I went to sleep hungry, and not because I was cutting weight for a fight. But I'd think about his story, where he was at. So I could never quit."

The elder Masvidal's absence traces to run-ins with the law. He had been arrested for manslaughter in California prior to his son's birth and convicted of drug trafficking when little Jorge was only 4 years old, resulting in an 18-year prison sentence. The younger Masvidal, raised by his mother, moved through several neighborhoods, including Westchester and Cutler Ridge, as a kid.

"We lived with my aunt's family; we lived with my grandparents," he recalls. "My mom would get up every day at 4 a.m. and worked two jobs. I always felt I was the poorest kid on the block. I had a chip on my shoulder about being broke."

In fact, asked if anything scares him about what he does for a living, he says, "Only to lose and not be able to feed my kids." Masvidal, unmarried, has three children: two daughters, ages 14 and 8, and a 2-year-old son with the same partner. And according to Masvidal, he'll teach his son to fight, but prefers he "plays baseball than get into MMA."

Masvidal got into a lot of fights as a kid, so his family enrolled him in karate. He quickly became one of the best students of Eric "El Tigre" Castaños, a black belt and former Cuban kickboxing and muay thai world champion. Castaños started the Young Tigers Foundation, a martial arts dojo, in a dank, spartan studio on the second floor of a strip mall off Miller Road and SW 102nd Avenue. Today it's located in a posh gym on Grand Avenue.

"It was obvious from the get-go that Jorge had what it takes to get to the top level of prize fighting from the first time he arrived," Castaños says in a heavy Cuban accent. "It's not about the skill. It's about the heart and the mentality of a fighter."

Masvidal attended Miami Sunset Senior High. He didn't take school very seriously, and even though he won a spot on the wrestling team in 2000, he failed to compete in a single match because of poor grades. That, he says, is one of his "biggest regrets." But being deprived of his athletic outlet did not spur him to focus more on his studies. Rather, he concentrated more on his martial arts training.

A month after that fateful backyard brawl, barely out of high school, Masvidal snagged his first professional fight with Castaños' help.

In 2003, at only 19 years old, Masvidal debuted with a knockout win over an older prospect named Brandon Bledsoe in the Absolute Fighting Championships in Fort Lauderdale. The AFC, which last held an event in April 2016, was one of Florida's early regional MMA promotions, a feeder league for larger organizations such as the UFC, with purses ranging from $500 to a few thousand max per fight.

During these first few years of fighting, Masvidal was competing for the love of it, because the purses for regional MMA fighters were so small they "weren't even enough to cover my living expenses."

But after winning the AFC welterweight belt, Masvidal got noticed and graduated to bigger, more notable MMA outfits. There was Bellator (considered the second largest MMA promotion), Strikeforce (which was purchased and disbanded by the UFC), and the now-defunct Japanese organization Sengoku.

He took fights throughout North America and Asia, but always wore a Cuban flag sewn onto his shorts. It was, he says, his way of paying homage to one of his biggest inspirations and a part of his life that was missing: his dad.

"He wasn't always able to talk to me, but he'd always get to see my fights over the internet," Masvidal says of his father. "He'd see the flag there, and it would give him a sense of pride... He'd always tell me I was doing good, kicking ass, way to represent for us."

The two have made up for lost time since his dad's release from prison around 2007, according to Masvidal. They have discovered a lot in common. Masvidal's favorite father-son story took place right after his dad got out of jail. The younger Masvidal was about 23 years old. He and his brother took the old man to a strip club.

According to Masvidal, a group of rowdy men invaded their space, tossing dollar bills over his and his dad's heads. Some bills were even landing between Masvidal's legs. One of the men actually reached between Masvidal's legs to scoop up some bills. Masvidal told the guy, nicely at first, to back off.

The Masvidals even moved a few tables over to get away from the "drunk assholes," only to have them follow, he says. Jorge Jr. told the most raucous guy to leave them alone. "I really don't want to fight. My dad just got out of prison," he told them. "The last thing we wanted was this type of conflict. I sat back down. The guy balled up his fist, he took a swing, and he missed. Then after that, the ass-whipping came."

Security intervened, and Masvidal ended up outside the club by himself, surrounded by the guy he had beaten up and the guy's friends. "That's the guy!" his opponent yelled. But then, as the group was about to jump Masvidal, his father and brother appeared. "Forty-five seconds later, all these dudes are on the floor sleeping. My dad can throw down. I immediately saw where I got my hand speed."

Masvidal kicks opponent Gilbert Melendez during a 2011 bout.
Masvidal kicks opponent Gilbert Melendez during a 2011 bout.
© The U-T San Diego/ZUMAPRESS.com

Masvidal finally made it into the UFC in 2013. After a victory in his first UFC bout against a journeyman named Tim Means, his second fight was nationally televised. With bright lights, multiple cameras, and more than 15,000 fans in attendance, it was far from not only Perrine's backyards but also even the smaller clubs and convention centers in which he fought at the beginning of his career.

Across the cage stood Michael Chiesa, at the time a prospect who had recently won The Ultimate Fighter reality-show tournament. Tall, lanky, and bearded, with uncharacteristically kindhearted eyes for a fighter, Chiesa had recently lost his father. The crowd had experienced his loss on the reality show, which made him the sentimental favorite.

And the match was held in Chiesa's hometown of Seattle. Using footwork and nonstop movement, Masvidal toyed with Chiesa for most of the fight. Then, with the clock running down, Masvidal maneuvered the Seattleite into a "D'Arce choke," also known as a "head and arm choke." Basically, Masvidal had his forearm reaching under Chiesa's armpit and across his neck, where it locked with the other hand to cut off the oxygen.

As Masvidal applied the final bit of squeeze, the camera angled in to catch his opponent, gurgling, breathless, red-faced, eyes popping, gagging on his own bloody drool. With one second remaining, Chiesa surrendered by tapping out, giving the victory to Masvidal.

"That was the last time the UFC put Jorge up against a prospect it was hoping to build up," says Abe Kawa, his agent and partner in the Miami-based First Round Management. "He's too technical, too well rounded. They know better now."

From that point forward, Masvidal believes, UFC management decided it would use him to take out veteran journeymen the company preferred not to have in the title picture. "They realize I can take out everybody they don't like," he says. "Guys that they don't want to be champs because either they're boring or talking shit. I'm their ace in the hole to take them out.'"

He played that role in his last fight earlier this year. It was his most significant victory to date. On January 17, he was pitted against former title contender and fan favorite Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. And the bout was in Denver, his opponent's hometown. Masvidal believes the UFC was pulling for him because the promotion's top brass didn't think Cerrone would've made a good champ.

Leading up to the fight, Cerrone told the media he had "never heard" of Masvidal. Though many prefight feuds in MMA are contrived, this dismissive jab got under Masvidal's skin.

In the second round, a thunderous combination of punches to the body and head left Cerrone dazed but still standing. The referee waved the fight over, but rather than hug and shake hands with Cerrone, as is customary, Masvidal walked up to the fighter and shouted in his ear, "You know me now?"

That win catapulted Masvidal into the top welterweight rankings, where he is currently number five.

In Coconut Creek, Masvidal prepares for the Maia fight.
In Coconut Creek, Masvidal prepares for the Maia fight.
Photography by Stian Roenning

The air inside American Top Team Academy is thick with the familiar musk of a fight gym. But it's also new, clean, and sprawling. This 20,000-square-foot athletic complex, located in Coconut Creek on State Road 7 about 40 miles north of Miami, houses one of the most advanced and expansive MMA training centers in the nation. ATT moved into the splashy new digs last year from a smaller location nearby.

Ricardo Liborio, a renowned Brazilian jujitsu black belt, left Brazilian Top Team in 2001 to start ATT with partner and hotel executive Dan Lambert. Lambert provided financial support and business expertise, while Liborio recruited a small group of Brazilian fighters. It wasn't long before the gym attracted professionals from all over the world.

Though awareness of MMA in South Florida lags behind the rest of the country, the region's access to top-level training is as good as it gets. ATT's roster of roughly two dozen professional mixed martial artists includes female strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk, women's bantamweight champ Amanda Nunes, former Cuban Olympic wrestler and now middleweight contender Yoel Romero, and former UFC title contender Thiago Alves. Together they have earned more than $5 million in purses. And these fighters have also brought exposure, reputations, and trainer commissions that have helped build ATT's lofty stature in recent years.

But these days, Masvidal is the big name. When he trains, other accomplished fighters leave their wraps on the floor and loiter by the side of the mat. What many observers, including his coach Brown, notice is his evolution. Masvidal's jab is snappy; it flies off his shoulder. His takedowns, trips, and escapes are tactical and wicked. His mechanics and skill stand out as crafty and inventive. In a gym with so many contenders, it's the kid from Southwest Miami-Dade who has quietly become the big show.

On a recent day, Masvidal works out with former college All-American wrestler and best friend Colby Covington. The two are primary training partners. Covington is the younger, less experienced fighter, having been in the UFC for a little more than two years and just now ascending to the level of competition and pay Masvidal had attained when he joined the UFC.

They spar for a while, shooting in for takedowns, entangling limbs, fighting for the lock or choke that would mean victory. At one point, Masvidal is smothered by Covington but escapes by rolling over, only to be yanked back into the tussle. Masvidal then takes top position, but loses it again to his training partner. The battle of attrition ends when Brown motions them off the mat. Covington yells, "We're done!"

But Masvidal's Saguesera accent is fully evident when he yells, "No way! One more. ¡Dale!"

They know each other well and understand how to go hard without causing injury. "We lived with each other for a year, when Jorge tried living closer to the gym," Covington says. "That didn't last because he can't be away from Cuban food for too long. Anyway, we lost our security deposit because we'd throw each other into the drywall. There were holes punched in all over the unit from training at home."

Staying injury-free is a priority. Because they typically fight only about three times a year, health issues can mean missing a paycheck. This isn't a full-time job with benefits, like other major-league sports. Fighters in the UFC are all independent contractors.

Competitors in the lower tier usually make between $10,000 and $20,0000 to show and double that if they win. Masvidal, a 14-year veteran with more than 40 fights, is in the upper-middle tier. His last paycheck after the Cerrone fight was $63,000 to show, with an additional $63,000 win bonus, plus $15,000 from Reebok for wearing the company's apparel. Five percent of his fight purse goes to his gym, and though he doesn't disclose how much of his winnings go to his agent, the industry standard is 20 percent.

Now if Jorge fights for the title, he could receive as much as $500,000. By comparison, the UFC's highest earners, Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey, made more than $10 million each for their last fights. Both cards sold more than 1.5 million pay-per-view buys at a cost of $59.99 each.

The Maia fight, the biggest of Masvidal's career, is scheduled for May 13. Maia is a gritty, seasoned veteran, a former Brazilian Special Forces officer who lost a close decision in a middleweight title fight in 2010 against perhaps the greatest of all time, Anderson Silva. Maia is in the twilight of his career at the age of 39 and, with a last reported paycheck of about $160,000, earns a little more than Masvidal. This could be Maia's last shot at a major payday, upping the desperation factor.

Maia has dropped in size to meet the welterweight 170-pound limit. He fights like an anaconda, slithering and smothering his opponent into submission. But Masvidal believes his wrestling skills will prove Maia's kryptonite.

"The dude is a backpack," Masvidal explains. "He has several positions on the ground that he is world-class in. But I'm world-class everywhere. The way I see this happening is he's gonna go for my leg. I'm going to scramble, and after the first couple of minutes, he'll see who is pushing the pace, who is going forward. That'll be me. He's going to... look for the least amount of punishment to take the loss."

Masvidal has been here before. He's been lined up opposite a larger fighter who most people expected to beat him. Of course, that was in a Perrine backyard. He sees this fight turning out just the way the other one did, with his hand raised victoriously. But with all the implications and money on the line, is this moment more nerve-racking than the street fights that started it all?

"Not really," Masvidal says. "In MMA, I don't have to worry about getting stabbed or nobody shooting at me if I beat them up in front of their friends. That's a big positive."


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