Jorge Masvidal on what makes him a special fighter and how he's kept calm in the storm

Elias Cepeda
Yahoo Sports Contributor
Jorge Masvidal fields questions from the media during open workouts for UFC 244 at The Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 30, 2019 in New York City. (Mike Stobe/Zuffa LLC)

For most of Jorge Masvidal’s 16-year career he was more underground king than media darling. Yet, last week he found himself on a media tour as one of the leading candidates for UFC’s Fighter of the Year.

Despite fighting and beating the world’s elite in the ring and cage for a decade and a half, the No. 1 welterweight title contender didn’t used to get much mainstream attention for his efforts, skill and accomplishments.

After a torrid 2019 that saw the Miami resident win three major bouts and become one of the biggest stars in MMA, however, all that’s changed. In 2018, he took a break from the ring to train and filmed a season of the reality sports competition show “Exatlon Estados Unidos.”

Masvidal credited that austere experience of living in a Dominican Republic jungle far away from distractions, social media, and the fight world for much self-development and a re-centering that contributed to the three-fight KO winning streak that has followed. If getting away from it all helped Masvidal find peace and improve as a person and fighter coming back to the circus that his success has created has been a gigantic challenge.

“Huge challenge,” he said. “My obligations are tenfold. … It’s something though that I made peace with. When I was coming back I knew I had to dominate in and out of the cage. I just had to be myself but I had to give more of myself.”

Each major and dramatic win in 2019 for Masvidal multiplied the attention the 35-year-old received, at long last. As the spotlight focused on him grew brighter, Masvidal knew he still had to maintain his sharpness and continue winning to move ever forward.

To do so, he insisted on solitary time when he could get it, whether in the gym during training or back out in detached wilderness. “Just being in the gym in a weird way was my safe space,” he continued.

“When I’m in the gym I shut down everything. No one has access to me. That’s my time. I also snuck away a couple weekends. I went to the wilderness right before the fight with [Ben] Askren and again before the fight with Nate [Diaz] … to be alone, to be at peace.”

The lifelong warrior takes care to refresh his spirit but he insists that fighting itself is still something he has passion for. Clearly the fighter nicknamed “Gamebred” believes that a certain amount of gameness is an innate characteristic.

If Masvidal was born game, he certainly works hard to nurture that talent. “To get good in fighting you have to fight,” he began.

“To get good at wrestling you have to wrestle. You have to put yourself in those uncomfortable situations where you learn to be comfortable while uncomfortable. It’s not always the funnest time doing BJJ with BJJ world champions or doing straight boxing with Olympic boxers but you put yourself in these moments over and over to be a better athlete and to have a stronger, better mind…no one does it more than me. If I’m going to wrestle, I’m going to wrestle guys who are way better wrestlers than me. I’m going to do this in every area so that when it comes time to put together the pieces every piece is sharp.”

Jorge Masvidal poses for a portrait backstage during the UFC 244 event at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 2, 2019 in New York City. (Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Not everyone who is successful in prize fighting loves battle equally. Some who even have love for the battle itself eventually tire of it because of the toll it takes physically and emotionally.

Even the legendarily game brothers Nick and Nate Diaz have struck seemingly resigned notes in recent years when talking about fighting on as they age. There’s a love and a hatred for many that develops eventually.

“There’s a couple categories of people in fighting,” Masvidal said. “Some people are athletes, and some people are fighters. Some are fighters that actually like to fight. They enjoy the bullets whizzing by them, their heart rate going up. I’m not a tough guy. It’s not that I just love to break faces. I actually enjoy technique, I enjoy the exchanges, being able to read opponents and make sharp decisions on a split-second basis and pushing myself to the limit.”

Sustained love for fighting is one thing, and efficacy in it is another. Masvidal doesn’t just enjoy doing what he does for a living, he’s doing it quite well as he approaches middle age.

Masvidal still moves with remarkable fluidity and quick reaction time, and says that’s a testament to both his talent and tactics. “For me it is a combination of things,” he revealed.

“God has also gifted me with some things that regular people don’t have, including a state-of-the-art-radar. Since I was a kid, since the first day I slipped on a pair of gloves I had something the other kids didn’t have and that was a radar.”

What Masvidal is referring to is an ability to sense and see danger approaching in order to evade it. True enough, he’s historically been a masterful defensive fighter.

“Some coaches said not to move my head but I never let them take that gift away. I’ve never been a guy to get into rock-em-sock-em brawls. ... I’ve fought 16 years. Most guys are lucky if they get to do it seven or eight years so why have I been able to do it so long? I wouldn’t get touched in training and in fights I’d fight smart. This year I’ve probably taken the most damage. I’d been knocked down before but [Darren] Till, for example, knocked me down and touched me a few times with real power. That hasn’t happened much throughout my career,” he went on.

“I’m one of the best defensive fighters in the world. It’s hard to win decisions that way so I decided to adapt and move forward more this year. You can’t move laterally and win decisions so I’ve adapted and moved in and out more this year.”

The fighter also takes care to recover as fully as possible in order to take care of his health. Masvidal endorses cbdMD supplements and says he’s used CBD products for years in order to help him recover in between training sessions to prepare for fights.

“I don’t want nothing I can become addicted to and end up scratching my face years from now if I don’t take it or have stomach pain or have anxiety if I don’t take it,” he reasons. “I only want the most natural things with no potential for addiction.”

Staying fresh and relatively healthy has allowed Masvidal to reach this moment in his career where he’s finally getting widespread attention and credit for how great of a fighter he is. His success has resulted in some moments he calls “surreal,” and none more so than meeting with and receiving advice from all-time great boxing champion Roberto Duran.

Duran walked Masvidal out to the ring last month for his fight against Diaz, which was special enough for the MMA athlete. There was also a moment before the fight, however, where Duran took Masvidal aside and told him that he’d studied tape of Diaz for him and then gave him technical advice.

At the moment Duran tells Masvidal in Spanish that he’s studied footage of Diaz the camera captures Masvidal’s face lighting up. “That was too surreal for me,” he admitted.

“It was one of those moments where I wasn’t really there … I didn’t let a lot of things sink in at the time but the reality has now hit me and I’ve soaked in how much I’ve done this year and all the things I got to experience.”

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