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On a night when so many fighters arrived, Jorge Masvidal stood tallest at UFC on FOX 23

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Cerrone vs Masvidal Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Dana White said that Jorge Masvidal could be a champion if he fights like he did on Saturday night, when he knocked Donald Cerrone out not once but twice in front of a national television audience. The reason he’s not already is because he doesn’t “pull the trigger,” at least not traditionally. Masvidal had a different point of view. He said he’s a fighter pure and simple, and that sometimes he can’t help himself from playing with his food. He likes to dish out pain and torture by ladle, for his own amusement, like a two-legged slackcat from Miami who’s gotten more than a little playful with sin.

After putting away Cerrone in Cerrone’s native state of Colorado, Masvidal attempted a mic-drop when he invited White to find the man who could beat him, while casually proposing a $200,000 bet that he couldn’t. See there? Masvidal was already caught in fib. Turns out he’s not just a fighter, but a gambler to boot. Denver hated every one of those unruffled feathers, and let him know it with a chorus of boos.

Jorge Masvidal showed up big in his UFC on FOX 23 co-main event.

He really couldn’t have done better for himself the whole way through. He called out Cerrone, making it clear he didn’t mind fighting him in Denver, got the fight, put “Cowboy” on the spit for six minutes, and then filled the world in on how fed up he was with poseurs on Instagram. Suddenly people were tossing out the idea of him fighting Nick Diaz, just because the mesh of attitudes and styles felt instantaneously combustible. That fight, out of nowhere, became timely. It felt like something we wanted all along, but didn’t know it until right then. In 2017, Diaz is a barometer to one’s “arrival.”

And you know what? This is one of those weird, fun things about the fight game. Discovering the guys who’ve always been there, waiting to be taken for exactly what they are, like jazz way down on the dial. Some eyes opened on “Gamebred” on Saturday night. He entered himself, at least for the moment, into The Conversation.

Masvidal knocked out Jake Ellenberger in his last fight, and it, too, was spectacular. But it was against Ellenberger, who isn’t the firebrand Cerrone is, and it was on an Ultimate Fighter Finale card at the Palms (which is the next step up from invisible). He got by Ross Pearson in the fight prior, but that might have been one of those that Dana was referring to about not pulling the trigger. Before then he traded some wins and losses. Everyone who follows fighting already knew who Jorge Masvidal was, and they knew he can box. They knew, too, that he got a good amount of experience fighting in the streets of South Florida.
 What they didn’t know was that he could light Cerrone up like a civic center on cue, that he had gradually hungered into the spot to prove it. What they didn’t fully realize was that he’s a marksman in ways that Cerrone isn’t, that he has that kind of cash in his fists.

UFC on FOX 23 was the first big FOX main card that became a giant collective stock-jump for its players. Valentina Shevchenko — booked once again as an afterthought, just like last year with Holly Holm — showcased herself spectacularly against Julianna Pena’s attempt at becoming human sludge. Where did the Muay Thai player find such a ground game? These are the great cliffhangers to set up her next fight with current champion Amanda Nunes.

Jason Knight boosted his person by submitting Alex Caceres in the curtain jerker and then calling out Doo Ho Choi — fresh off his Fight of the Year candidate against Cub Swanson — like a man who knows his way around the big picture. And heavyweight Francis Ngannou, perhaps the lone fighter on the FOX card who people were genuinely buzzing about as a Next Big Thing, blew up Andrei Arlovski’s chin in what felt like a true changing of the guard.

Ngannou crashed into the living room like a two-ton meteorite. So did Shevchenko, for real this time, because there’s no such thing as a two-time national televised fluke. And so did Knight, who was mostly anonymous coming and is now somebody.

But none treated that platform with the same deft hands as Masvidal, who didn’t arrive so much on Saturday night as become vital. It’s one of the tough tricks, to go from tough fighter to must see fighter, but Masvidal made his case. His demeanor afterwards tells me it took him a long time to be the right kind of pissed off to play the game on his own terms. He made people see him. He knocked out Cerrone, not once by twice.

On a stage set for somebody else, he made sure his fingerprints were all over that trigger.

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