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How Nate Diaz vs. Jorge Masvidal became 2019’s biggest fight

With the UFC 244 main event, the lure of MMA has come back full circle.

UFC 244 Masividal v Diaz Press Conference Photo by Michael Owens/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

On its face, it is somewhat ludicrous that UFC 244 will almost certainly end 2019 as the biggest mixed martial arts event of the year. In one corner is Nate Diaz, a fighter who has competed only once in the last three years. In the other, his opponent Jorge Masvidal has a pedestrian 6-5 record over his last 11 bouts. One was famously derided by his own boss for his alleged failures at “moving the needle”; the other humbly began his career as an underground backyard brawler. Neither has ever held a major MMA championship.

Yet when the two meet in the middle of Madison Square Garden, it will be a rare MMA event that crosses over into the pop culture zeitgeist. Among those expected to attend are Hollywood box office king Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and President Donald Trump, and the show is expected to be a sellout despite its exorbitant ticket prices. (As of Wednesday, you could still snag a second-row seat for a cool $2,506, with the cheapest available seat over $400.) It is a massive happening.

So how did we get here, to a place where the guy once best known for being Nick Diaz’s younger brother can command “The World’s Most Famous Arena” against a fighter who has never before headlined a UFC pay-per-view event?

In short, this is a story that could only happen in the unstructured and unpredictable world of MMA. There was no grand plan that led to this point. It didn’t satisfy a long-held fan demand. It was simple serendipity.

At the outset of 2019, no one could have predicted the enormity of this pairing. At the time, Diaz’s UFC future was a giant question mark. After more than two years away, he had flirted with coming back at the end of 2018, only to stay on the shelf after his proposed opponent Dustin Poirier suffered an injury. No one knew what or who would entice him to return.

Meanwhile, Masvidal’s situation was far different. Virtually unknown outside of combat sports prior to the start of 2019, he began the year with the modest hopes of simply ending a two-fight losing streak. A star turn? After 16 years of action in the trenches, that seemed unlikely. A superstar turn? Well, that seemed downright impossible. It’s simply not how things work. Usually, star potential becomes noticeable within a few years, but here, Masvidal had toiled in near anonymity outside of the MMA bubble for well over a decade. To most, his ceiling had already become quite clear.

That’s likely how the UFC thought of him as well, when in March, Masvidal was matched up with Darren Till, a pairing that was made with the belief that Till, on the heels of a welterweight title fight loss to Tyron Woodley, would reestablish himself as a legitimate contender. Instead, Masvidal viciously knocked out Till. While that was a great result for the veteran, it’s what came afterward that served to first vault his profile.

During the midst of a backstage interview between Masvidal and ESPN reporter Laura Sanko, fellow welterweight Leon Edwards interrupted by challenging Masvidal to fight in July, telling Masvidal he’d “kick his ass.”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” Masvidal responded. “Come over here and say it to my face.” Instead of waiting for Edwards to do that, Masvidal walked over with his hands behind his back, and as the two neared each other in the arena hallway, Masvidal unleashed a combination that bloodied Edwards’ left cheekbone.

A “three piece and a soda,” Masvidal would later call it. Masvidal had basically authored his own meme, and within minutes, the clip spread like wildfire on social media platforms.

If that was all he did to raise his profile, it would have been significant, but he was just getting started. In the summer, the UFC paired him with Ben Askren, a brash talking former Olympic wrestler who was undefeated and intent on surging toward the title. Masvidal, Askren stated repeatedly, was simply a speed bump on the way.

The two sniped at each other for weeks through social media and through interviews, and by the time they faced off in July, the tension was thick.

You know what happened next. Masvidal sprinted out of the corner with a flying knee that knocked Askren cold in five seconds, a UFC record.

If Masvidal’s confrontation with Edwards was a tremor in the sports world, his knockout of Askren was downright seismic. That compact clip, perfect for today’s short-attention span theater, was everywhere. On Twitter, on Facebook feeds around the world, on television highlight shows. It was big enough that even financial publication Forbes took a deep dive into the impact of his breakout moment.

“MMA is a sport where performance can supersede name recognition, and regardless of how many people had heard of Masvidal beforehand, after his five-second KO of Ben Askren, he’s definitely who fans were talking by the end of the night,” ListenFirst chief marketing officer Tracy David told the site.

But the moment didn’t stop there. It snowballed, with Masvidal retaining the interest of sports fans through appearances on ESPN and elsewhere that pulled his unique personality into focus.

As a fighter, he brings all of the essential qualities fans desire: he’s flashy, confident and exciting. As a man, he has a way of putting the sport into a new perspective, like when after beating Askren, he described why he gleefully celebrated around his motionless foe.

“So you can do anything? Everything is cool before a fight? You’re allowed to do and say whatever you want, like other fighters talking about people’s religions, wife, even kids, that’s cool? But after a fight I’m not allowed to showboat and rub it in your face so you and guys like you can see it and be like, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t talk so much s—t because when I cross one of these real motherf—kers, they’re going to make me pay for it. They’re going to embarrass the s—t out of me.’”

It was a fair point, most could agree, that bad behavior might beget worse consequences.

As Masvidal’s star rose, Diaz made his surprise return in August. Despite three years passing since his profile-raising fights with Conor McGregor, he retained the same mystique and generated the same interest level. Still, he was an underdog in his matchup with Anthony Pettis at UFC 241. Over the next three rounds though, Diaz pummeled Pettis, even knocking him down once en route to a clear victory. In the aftermath, he used his platform to great effect, immediately, and respectfully, challenging Masvidal.

“All respect to the man,” Diaz said. “But there ain’t gangsters in this game anymore. There ain’t nobody who done it right but me and him.”

Within UFC headquarters, Diaz vs. Masvidal was not a fight that had hit their radar until that very moment, but the challenge landed like a nuclear-tipped missile. The promotion closely monitors UFC chatter on news websites, social and message boards, and on this, there was a clear consensus. Fans didn’t just want it; they demanded it.

While the UFC embraced the idea, even commissioning a BMF belt to be presented to the winner, the formation of the match stands as something of a repudiation of the UFC’s current event creation strategy. The promotion usually tries to sell its champions as the best in the world, but this fight clearly sells Diaz and Masvidal as something above that, something transcendent.

“I think it just comes down to, we both fight and we’re dogs in that cage, but at the same time, we see the bulls—t, and we don’t want to play in the bulls—t,” Masvidal said in a Monday media call. “You’re not going to tell me jump or wear a suit or do this. I’m going to do what the F I feel like, and when I want to do it. It’s part of the reason it’s taken me so long to get the UFC to truly get behind me. And on the same token, he’s been the same dude from his side of the country, doing his thing his own way. And we both see it and we can salute each other. We’re going to go to war and everything, but no matter what happens, I’ve got nothing but praise and admiration for Nate. I like what he’s done and how he’s carried himself.”

There was a time the UFC used as its catchphrase “As real as it gets.” It was a nod to the action in the cage, but over time, most rivalries became manufactured, lending a staleness to whatever followed. Fighters often try too hard to make something out of nothing, and it falls flat, or they adopt a persona too close to a cartoon villain, a la Colby Covington, that ultimately feels disingenuous. They can’t be blamed for trying such approaches; this is the system in play, and it has historically offered the best chance to rise to the forefront. This is the opposite. Diaz and Masvidal have never cared about playing the game. They are here to be themselves, original, genuine and unapologetic.

The thing about MMA is that fans do not put winning and losing above all else. They are here for the rawness of pure competition. They are here for authentic personalities. They are here for the electricity that pulses through the arena and makes it a living, breathing organism of which they are part. But more than anything, they are here for the unpredictability. They are here to be shocked and astounded and awed.

With Diaz and Masvidal, you get all of the above. They are both throwbacks to an earlier time and the best of today. They are the personification of the sport’s throughline. They are raw and tough, unflinching and unfiltered. And together, they are magic. That the guy who couldn’t move the needle and a onetime journeyman somehow equal the biggest event of the year doesn’t make sense at all, and yet it makes all the sense in the world. Only here, only now, only in MMA.

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