Back in 2015, Conor McGregor broke through in the biggest way. He dismantled Dennis Siver in his first stateside main event, then knocked out Chad Mendes for the featherweight interim title, then won the real thing by one-punching José Aldo at UFC 194 in Las Vegas. After that? It was Forbes lists, pay-per-view records, magazine covers, and nine-figure boxing matches with Floyd Mayweather. The year 2015 opened the floodgates for all things McGregor. That’s when the public fell in love with him, and he captivated the imagination of the fight game by turning everything he touched green.
We’ve seen big years in MMA before. After defending the light heavyweight title three times in 2006, the mohawked Chuck Liddell was the face of MMA, becoming the first star to appear on the cover of ESPN the Magazine heading into his rematch with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He was the original fighter to get people over the paywall, to truly embrace the taboo of cage fighting. Ronda Rousey needed only 82 seconds over the course of two matches in 2014 to transcend the sport and become a pop culture figure of female empowerment. She was arm-barring people so quickly that some fans were losing their minds. Clay Travis wrote about how a prime Ronda Rousey needed to fight … Floyd freaking Mayweather. Talk about hysterical times.
Those movements were huge for the sport, but in my mind, nobody in MMA has ever had a bigger individual year than Jorge Masvidal in 2019. Nobody. When he faces Gilbert Burns at UFC 287 on Saturday in his home city of Miami, the Versace robe he first tried on that year will still fit. People still see him as the BMF, the king of Miami, the man who baptized everybody the UFC put in front of him that year in the most dramatic way possible. Nobody at the time could have predicted that Masvidal was about to explode onto the scene that had so roundly ignored him for the better part of a decade.
But explode he did in 2019. He returned after a 16-month hiatus and a stint on the reality show Exatlón Estados Unidos to take on UFC darling Darren Till. Masvidal, who was seen at the time as more of a tough journeyman than a real contender, was clearly the B side in the matchup. He was traveling to Till’s home country of England, where more than 16,500 partisans would shower him with boos.
He ended up knocking Till out that night, spoiling what was supposed to be a giant welterweight title eliminator fight between Ben Askren and Till that summer—but it was what happened after the fight that made Masvidal a legend. That’s when Masvidal, in the middle of a backstage interview at UFC Fight Night 147, exchanged words with Leon Edwards, who’d competed in the co–main event. Without hesitation, Masvidal casually strolled away from the interview, pulled up on Edwards, and delivered the most infamous order in MMA history.
The three-piece with the soda. It went viral. He went viral.
Next thing you knew, the massive underdog Masvidal was knocking Askren out with a flying knee five seconds into the fight at UFC 239 in Vegas. It was the quickest, most absurd knockout in UFC history, and it played into Jorge’s new standing as a zero-fucks-to-give legend. He even said that the follow-up shot he landed on the unconscious Askren was “super necessary,” which quickly became its own Twitter meme. He was MMA’s real-life Scarface. He closed his eyes and threw his arms back as the praise and acceptance of the fight game finally came to him.
And he wasn’t done yet. Because everyone had finally grasped the depths of his gangster spirit (and because the UFC had run out of options for a suitable main event at Madison Square Garden that fall), a fictional title was created for Masvidal’s fight against Nate Diaz to close out that magical year. They fought for the baddest motherfucker (BMF) belt, and Masvidal battered Diaz so badly that he couldn’t answer the bell for the fourth round. As far as big years go, Masvidal was on top of the world in the same way that Tony Montana was on top of his mountains of snow. Everything that has happened since is a direct result.
Masvidal’s El Recuerdo de Oaxaca Joven mezcal line? It came about because of 2019. His Gamebred boxing promotion, which just had its fourth event this past weekend in Milwaukee, featuring Roy Jones Jr. against former UFC champ Anthony Pettis? 2019. Regular appearances on Dan Le Batard? 2019. Even the sucker punch Colby Covington said he hit him with that landed Masvidal felony aggravated battery and criminal mischief charges? It was very 2019.
Yet as he heads into his co–main event fight against Burns, there’s a loose thread hanging off Masvidal’s tailored robe. Should Burns pull it just right—and Vegas oddsmakers think he will, as Burns is a 4-to-1 favorite—the whole thing will come apart. Masvidal has lost three bouts in a row since that wild run, twice against Kamaru Usman when he challenged for the title and once against his nemesis Covington, who wrestled him into a state of existential frustration.
Saturday’s fight, which is not only a homecoming for Masvidal, but the first time the UFC has hosted an event in Miami in 20 years, could very well be the end of the line for him. Masvidal admitted as much on the UFC Countdown show this week.
“If I lose, I’m pretty much calling it quits,” he said. “But a win against Gilbert means that things are headed in the right direction. So, if I roll the dice and do everything right, I’m going for it all.”
These are some serious stakes for one of the UFC’s biggest stars. Lose and call it a career, nearly 20 years after debuting in the cage some 30 miles up the road in Fort Lauderdale at AFC 3 against Brandon Bledsoe. Win and make one last push for a run at the welterweight title, another resurrection for the man known as Street Jesus on Easter weekend.
Though Dana White has stubbornly stood by the idea that Covington is next in line to challenge Edwards for the belt, a Masvidal victory over Burns might be enough to create a change of heart. It will be bedlam in South Florida if Masvidal prevails. He is the city’s native son. He was fighting in the alleyways, backyards, and boat docks of the 305 long before his MMA career got rolling. He was the quieter, less heralded Kimbo Slice back in the day, and Miami loves him.
A win would make him all the more tempting because of his backstory. That backstage altercation with Edwards out in London in early 2019 still looms large. After all, that was the moment Masvidal launched into the stratosphere of UFC stardom—when he showed the world with no hesitation that he was all about that life. It helps that Edwards can’t stand Masvidal and would welcome that fight more than any other. The feud is unresolved, and it would be one of the biggest pay-per-views of 2023.
These are all big ifs. When a fighter is on his way out, the UFC tends to matchmake with a special kind of ruthlessness. Burns has been on a roll, and he presents a lot of stylistic problems for Masvidal—particularly on the ground. We’ve seen the UFC book twilight stars with bad matchups many times in the past as they near the ends of their runs (siccing Khamzat Chimaev on Nate Diaz was a good one, though it ultimately backfired when Chimaev missed weight), leaving it up to the veteran to pull off some fight-night heroics.
Can Masvidal do that? It isn’t a favorable matchup for him, and he knows it. Then again, neither was fighting Till after a year and a half away from the cage out in London, or facing a two-time Hodge Trophy winner in Askren. It’s been a long time since 2019, but Scarface is still flashing his guns during fight week with a line to “Say hello to my little friend.” The BMF has one more chance to shine as bright as he ever has. Otherwise, we can close the book on what will go down as the fight game’s most unexpected meteoric rise.
Chuck Mindenhall writes about combat sports without bias, and sometimes about his Denver teams with extreme bias. He cohosts The Ringer MMA Show on Spotify.