It says something about the unique drawing power of Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal that they forced the UFC to eschew their usual championship-heavy NYC event in favor of fan-friendly showdown of two of their most popular fighters.
Despite some last-minute drama involving a very public confrontation with USADA which threatened to insert a spanner into this weekend’s ‘BMF’ title bout which tops the UFC’s fourth event inside Madison Square Garden, the highly-anticipated clash between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal is set to go ahead as planned.
It is a showcase not just of two fighters who share a similar combat philosophy, but also of two men who both have a unique ability to speak things into existence.
Formerly decried as not being a ‘needle-mover’ by UFC boss Dana White, Nate Diaz has risen to the status of being on the the company’s top stars. Some, or a lot, of this is down to his reputation of rarely taking a backward step inside the cage but the impact of the words he spoke after defeating Michael Johnson in December 2015 put into motion the sequence of events which lead to him cannot be overemphasized.
“Conor McGregor, you’re taking everything I worked for, motherf*cker!” he said in the cage to Joe Rogan.
“I’m going to fight your f*ckin’ ass. You know what’s the real fight, the real money fight, it’s me. Not these clowns that you already punked at the press conference.“
Less than three months later, Diaz choked McGregor into submission in Las Vegas.
The rematch between the two fighters was a razor-close one the following August with McGregor being declared the winner after five rounds of intense action. It was also the largest UFC pay-per-view audience in history until it was outdone by McGregor’s fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov last year.
And then, nothing. Diaz sat out from that August 2016 bout for almost exactly three years until he returned to face Anthony Pettis and, in spite of being absent for almost 1,100 days, the Californian gave the sort of display which very much confirmed his return to the upper echelon of the UFC hierarchy of fighters.
While Diaz was fighting his fights with McGregor (and occasionally the UFC), Jorge Masvidal was creating his own empire. Around the time of Diaz’s duels with the notorious Irishman, Masvidal was fighting the likes of Benson Henderson and Lorenz Larkin (losing both by split decision).
A trio of wins against Ross Pearson, Jake Ellenberger and Donald Cerrone followed, before another pair of close losses to elite fighters in Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson. It was at this point that Masvidal, a veteran of 45 professional fights as well as countless others in backyards, streets and gyms, took some time away from the sport.
Whatever he did worked. Darren Till, who co-mains this weekend’s event opposite Kelvin Gastelum, was swiftly KO’d by Masvidal in London earlier this year and he followed that up with the flying knee heard around the world, as he relieved Ben Askren of his consciousness just 5 seconds into their July fight.
These two performances demanded that more attention be placed on the veteran Floridian and despite sometimes having a cautious approach to the media, his words now garner significant column inches in fight publications the world over.
And then came Diaz’s comments. Following the Pettis win, Diaz called for a future fight with ‘gangster’ Masvidal – a challenge which was gleefully accepted. Diaz, the self-proclaimed ‘baddest motherf*cker’ in the UFC, convinced the UFC to implement a new title for their fight this weekend, with the winner now able to lay claim to being unparalleled among the UFC’s ranks when it comes to sheer badassery.
A few years ago, a Madison Square Garden headliner between Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal would have been practically unthinkable – particularly without a recognized belt on the line.
But both parties involved in this fight have never really approached the fight game, or promotion, in any standardized way and it says something about both fighters’ ability to connect to an audience that this, and not a fight for any one of the UFC’s myriad world titles, is to take place in an arena often described as the mecca of fighting.
Some of the world’s baddest motherf*ckers have competed inside the cavernous stadium. Mike Tyson made history there. Roberto Duran, Masvidal’s favorite fighter, did the same.
Now it is time for two more prizefighters to carve out their own piece of history.