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Back in the heyday of Pride Fighting Championships, the foreign fighters knew of a trick offer that would be sent their way from time to time. There wasn’t nearly the same amount of money in the sport back then, and the offer of a healthy five- to six-figure paycheck to take on one of Pride’s top stars was tempting. However, there was a catch: Pride would frequently time these offers to come only a few weeks before the fight was set to take place.
Pride’s promotional favorites knew they would be fighting on the card and had been preparing for weeks. It was suspected in many instances they even knew their planned opponent. The opponent, on the other hand, was flying blind. It was a setup designed to increase the odds Pride’s preferred fighters would win and one that often paid off. American, Brazilian and European fighters would often accept those fight offers, trading a reduced chance at winning in exchange for a healthy payday that might be bigger than if they weren’t taking the fight on short notice.
A similar dynamic has emerged in the Ultimate Fighting Championship in recent years, albeit for entirely different reasons. Pride was trying to protect certain fighters, while the UFC doesn’t purposefully manipulate training camps. However, when fights fall through shortly before major pay-per-view events, the UFC has shown many times that it is willing to spend more money than it would otherwise spend to provide a reasonable alternative. This is why when an injury happens these days, a host of fighters pop up on Twitter expressing their willingness to fight. Implicit in those statements is the understanding that they are willing to take the fight if the UFC makes it worth their while.
That was the case with Jorge Masvidal over the July 4 weekend. The UFC hadn’t been willing to pay Masvidal what he felt he was worth in previous months. That’s why the UFC 251 headliner was Kamaru Usman-Gilbert Burns in the first place. Now with less leverage, the UFC was willing to come much closer to what Masvidal desired. The fight world celebrated. While pretty good late replacements are commonplace in MMA, it’s rare we get a significant upgrade. Usman-Masvidal elevates UFC 251 from an appealing card for hardcore fans to an event that may draw much greater viewership as sports fans remain starved for action with the returns of the NBA, NHL and MLB still off in the distance.
Masvidal will get great money, but like those Pride fighters back in the day, he knows that he’s making a devil’s bargain. In turn for the bump in pay, he has to fight a monster with a full training camp who hasn’t lost since 2013. Usman’s wrestling is top flight, and he has showed much improved striking and great mettle, as well. That’s a tough challenge even under optimal circumstances, and Masvidal’s situation is far from optimal. Beyond the deficit in preparation, he now has to focus on a weight cut while traveling halfway around the world without having mentally prepared for the experience. That’s a strain, even for someone known for his psychological toughness.
There’s also the matter of what he’s risking when it comes to his career. The thought among many is that the risk for Masvidal is low because he has a built-in excuse if he loses. The problem is fans rarely think about those sorts of factors. They remember the result of the fight, first and foremost. Masvidal is a fighter on the rise, but becoming world champion is often a big differentiator when it comes to becoming a superstar in the sport. Most champions don’t become superstars, but few fighters become superstars without winning a world title at least once. It adds a gravity to the fighter’s reputation.
Masvidal is on the cusp of becoming a needle-moving attraction. If he beats Usman, he could find himself doing Jon Jones numbers on the regular. Even if he loses the title the next time out, he’s still likely to be a superstar for years to come. However, if he loses, he’s significantly less likely to draw unless he has one of a handful of star opponents. There’s more of a magnetism to the former champion working to regain his title than to the fighter who has never reached the championship level.
This championship fight is a crucial one, like Conor McGregor’s bout with Jose Aldo—albeit at a lower level—and Masvidal is entering into it under less than perfect circumstances. That is no minor detail. Is the extra money worth that trade off? Masvidal clearly thinks so, and it’s definitely possible. His confidence is surely sky high, given that everything broke right for him in 2019. Of course, 2020 has proven how quickly things can fall apart. We’ll know shortly if Masvidal’s gamble was a wise one.