In 2019, Jorge Masvidal had one of the most impactful years in the history of the sport. And now, in his 49th professional fight, he has the chance to become a UFC champion.
Before Masvidal cemented his place at the superstar table in the UFC with three incredible finishes, he suffered a one-sided unanimous decision loss to Stephen Thompson at UFC 217 in November 2017. That loss led to “Gamebred” taking all of 2018 off from in-octagon competition, going on the Telemundo’s reality show Exatlon Estados Unidos and gaining a newly found perspective on his life, as well as his fighting career.
After Gilbert Burns was removed from his UFC 251 main event with Kamaru Usman due to a positive COVID-19 test, Masvidal stepped in on less than a week’s notice to challenge for the welterweight title this Saturday night.
Nearly three years ago, Thompson shared the cage with Masvidal at Madison Square Garden. Although he was victorious, “Wonderboy” took a lot away from that experience.
“Well, you’re not going to break his spirit out there,” Thompson told MMA Fighting while appearing on What the Heck. “Normally you see guys fade when they’re getting pieced up. He’s very good at taking damage and after every fight, you don’t really see Masvidal messed up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the guy with a cut, or ever banged up. He takes damage very, very well.
“You can’t break his spirit, and that’s going to be a big part in this fight (at UFC 251). The first two or three rounds, he could get taken down every round. But he’s gonna go out there with the same tenacity, that same intensity as he does in the first round in the fifth round. That’s how Masvidal is.
“He’s got high-level striking,” Thompson continued. “He’s very good at adapting to opponents mid-fight, which is very rare. Most guys out there—even at the highest level—they don’t go out and try to figure their opponent out. They don’t make changes and just stick to the game plan. Masvidal is able to adapt and make those adjustments which makes for a scary fighter for sure.”
Thompson swept the judges’ scorecards on that night in New York City, even earning a 10-8 round on one card to get back in the win column following a two-fight championship series with Tyron Woodley. It was a different change of pace for the Simpsonville, S.C. native fighting a guy like Masvidal.
In terms of Masvidal’s approach to the fight and how it ultimately played out over the 15 minutes, it went according to plan.
“First two rounds he stood in front of me and I knew he would have to knock me out in the third so he would be a little more aggressive,” Thompson stated. “Nothing really surprised me. Everything we prepared for in the gym, he did exactly what he thought he was going to do. I know when he’s getting pieced up, he’ll shoot every now and then—I think he tried to take me down once or twice, or acted like it.
“I don’t see him doing that with Usman. He’ll try and keep the fight standing. But I train with high-level strikers on a daily basis at our gym. We’ll bring guys in, I go up to LAW MMA and train with Chris Weidman—especially when it comes to the wrestling—we got guys at our gym like Karl Reed, John Sweeney, my brothers, who are very good strikers. You don’t see a lot of new stuff when you’re used to sparring guys like this.
“So nothing really surprised me. Just the fact that his attitude during the whole fight is the same: he’s going to try and rip your head off. Most people when they’re getting dominated, or beat, you see their confidence level drop slowly but surely. He wasn’t that way. That means you’ve got to be on point at every second when you fight this guy, because anything can happen.”
Since his return to the octagon, Masvidal had back-to-back frightening knockout wins over Darren Till and Ben Askren—a five-second flying knee finish for the history books. This past November, the American Top Team standout headlined UFC 244 in the same arena that he tasted defeat two years earlier, the world famous MSG.
Masvidal took on Nate Diaz for the created “BMF” title and finished the Stockton native via doctor’s stoppage following the third-round.
While UFC fans have witnessed an evolution in Masvidal’s career trajectory, there are certain things that Thompson saw in November 2017 that have always been there. Now, those intangibles have been multiplied.
“You’ve seen in his last few fights that he’s got some tricks up his sleeve,” Thompson said. “He does things that you just wouldn’t expect him to do, which is why he’s landing these shots. When he knocked out Darren Till, that left hand came out of nowhere. Of course, the flying knee heard ‘round the world, nobody saw that coming.
“He’s a smart guy. Not only does he have confidence, but he has good striking and he’s throwing things that you just don’t see coming. That’s hard to prepare for, that’s for sure.”
As a multiple time title challenger, and a man who holds a victory over Masvidal, it would be understandable for Thompson to display some professional jealousy towards his past foe. Unsurprisingly, Thompson isn’t jealous at all. In fact, he’s proud of, and motivated by Masvidal as he looks to get back to a championship opportunity.
“I think that’s awesome,” Thompson explained. “That’s inspirational to me. I love to see a guy like that getting that praise because he deserves it, 100-percent. It gives me confidence knowing that I was his last loss, now he’s ranked higher than me, and now he’s one of the most popular guys in the UFC. He’s got 49 fights and now he gets a title shot? He deserves every bit of it.
“He’s not a fake guy. What you get is what you get with him. Some guys in the division, especially my division, you see them talking crap and it’s just fake. I think you know who I’m talking about. Colby Covington. But with Masvidal, that’s him and I can appreciate that. I respect that. He doesn’t change for anybody and that’s cool. Maybe with a few good fights I can get there. I think it’s great.”
After Burns’ withdrawal from UFC 251, Masvidal got the call to fight Usman for the title to christen “Fight Island.” After his dominant win over Woodley in May, Burns became the division’s no. 1 contender and rightfully earned his shot to become a world champion.
Meritocracy aside, the bigger box office fight is the bout between Usman and Masvidal. The champ taking on the division’s hottest attraction. There’s a rivalry between the guys that has stemmed for months.
As a fight fan, Thompson isn’t surprised at the booking and is as excited for the new main event as fans are around the world.
“You see Masvidal on social media, he was training and he was ready for something like this,” Thompson said. “I kind of had a feeling that something was gonna go down and Masvidal would have to step in and face Usman. That’s why they call him ‘Gamebred,’ the guy is ready at all times. Everyone’s saying it’s a last minute thing but he’s been training. He’s confident and that’s a big thing going into a fight like this. He’s got a lot of it after these last few fights.
“I would rather see this fight than the Burns fight, to be honest. I think this is more exciting, there’s more beef, and I think everybody in the division—except for me—has beef with this guy: Leon Edwards, with the three piece and a soda, Colby Covington, Usman, they about duked it out at the Super Bowl. The guy’s got beef with everybody.”
Of course, Thompson will be watching the matchup closely as the No. 6 ranked fighter in the division. The experience will be more enhanced for “Wonderboy” as earlier this week in an interview with ESPN, Masvidal stated that should he defeat Usman on Saturday night and become champion, Thompson, along with Diaz, is on his radar.
“We have history, me and him,” Thompson explained. “He’s the BMF, I’m the NMF, we’ve fought. I was his last loss. At this moment, especially after what he said in an interview, saying how he would like to defend the title against me, I’m rooting for him to win. For him to win, obviously it would be a faster road to the title for me. Either way, I’m not giving up on it.
“It’s gonna be a scrappy fight. Masvidal has the advantage in the standup area. He’s faced some really good grapplers in the division, such as Demian Maia. And that was controversial. I think Demian had his back for a long period of time, and usually when he gets your back, it’s over. So he fended him off, maybe the best grappler in the division. He’s been training with Bo Nickal, three-time Division I All-American, so he’s prepared himself. I’m hoping for just a barn burner between those two guys.”
From a career perspective, Thompson admittedly will be rooting for Masvidal to pull off the upset at UFC 251.
With his heart being with the challenger, where does Thompson’s head take him in terms of how he sees the fight playing out?
“Usman,” Thompson predicted. “Usman is the bigger opponent, he’s the stronger opponent. The pressure of Usman, and his relentlessness, is gonna be very difficult to deal with. He’s very hard to stray from his game plan. He sticks to it and he’s got this grind about him that’s just been unbeatable in this division which is why he’s the champion. You see him do this to opponent after opponent after opponent.
“I’m leaning towards Usman, but I want Masvidal to win if that’s fair to say.”