Jorge Masvidal took a gamble, and it paid off.
Had things unfolded just a little bit differently, he might have ended up watching next Saturday’s UFC 251 pay-per-view from a couch somewhere in South Florida, dolefully swigging his Recuerdo mezcal, dreaming of what might have been. Yet on Sunday afternoon, ESPN’s Ariel Helwani reported that Masvidal will receive a short-notice crack at UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman in the UFC 251 main event (with the key stipulation that his pre-fight COVID-19 tests come back negative).
Masvidal asserted himself as the next man in line for a welterweight title shot with three incredible wins in 2019. First, there was his dazzling, one-punch knockout victory over Darren Till in March. Then came his record-shattering, flying-knee knockout of Ben Askren in July. Last but not least, there was his BMF title win over Nate Diaz in November. After a run like that, there was no denying the fact that he’d earned the opportunity for the welterweight title.
There was only one problem.
Masvidal wasn’t satisfied with the amount of money he was being offered to fight for the belt. He also didn’t hide that dissatisfaction.
Last month, the No. 3 welterweight contender began publicly sharing his concerns about his pay and even challenged UFC brass to let him go if it was unwilling to pay him his perceived worth. It was an incredibly bold play but also the kind we’ve seen backfire many times over the years-even when executed by superstars like Conor McGregor.
In 2016, shortly after McGregor lost to Nate Diaz, he announced his retirement from MMA in a clear ploy to force UFC president Dana White to offer him more money for a Diaz rematch at UFC 200. White responded by pulling him from UFC 200 and stacking the card with every other star available-even coaxing Brock Lesnar back to the Octagon-thereby showing McGregor that the show could and would go on without him.
Masvidal is a big name, but far from the star McGregor is. So, when he began butting heads with the UFC, it was easy to imagine things going badly for him.
Then, things actually started going badly for him.
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Evidently fed up with Masvidal’s gripes, White and his team gave the next crack at Usman to Gilbert Burns, who was riding an impressive unanimous decision victory over former champion Tyron Woodley. Just like that, Masvidal had been left out in the cold with little more than his BMF belt and the waning interest of MMA’s ever-distractible fans for warmth. He’d overplayed his hand, it seemed, and it was impossible to say when or even if we’d see him in the Octagon again.
But then, the odds swung back in his favor.
On Saturday, news surfaced that Burns had tested positive for COVID-19 and was therefore ineligible to fight Usman at UFC 251. While it briefly looked as though featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski and challenger Max Holloway would end up headlining the card, Masvidal deftly inserted himself back into the conversation.
All it took was a single, well-timed tweet to remind the world he was still there; still ready and willing to fight if White would only loosen his purse strings. After a quiet 24 hours, rife with rumors and speculation, it seems White did just that, as Masvidal is now days out from a welterweight title shot.
With this development, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Masvidal won his war of wills with White and the UFC, like he succeeded where even McGregor has previously failed. Sure, we don’t know how much of a pay boost he actually got. And yes, luck had a lot to do with the way things shook out, as Masvidal probably wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity had Burns not fallen ill. But let’s not ignore his role in all of this. He put his foot down when he felt he was being underpaid. He didn’t back down when the promotion spurned him. He made himself available when the promotion was suddenly without any other options. Maybe it was closer to a lottery win than a triumph over a rival, but hey, that’s still a win.
Speaking of wins, picture this:
Masvidal endures a frenetic week of COVID-19 tests and international travel, steps into the cage with the sport’s best welterweight having had almost nothing in the way of preparation and comes out on top. He leaves the cage at UFC 251 as not only one of the sport’s biggest stars and the so-called BMF, but as the UFC welterweight champion.
If he can pull that off, White and the UFC are going to have a very hard time not granting him exactly what he wants. Maybe that’s where his gamble really starts to pay off.