MIAMI -- IT'S A BALMY Monday evening at the newly renamed Kaseya Center downtown, and Jorge Masvidal is looking for a legal parking spot for his classic dark blue Lincoln Continental convertible. He takes a right off Biscayne Boulevard and stops on a relatively quiet side road. Masvidal thinks the car should be all right here. And quite frankly, in the event police or security officers approach, chances are they'd ask the UFC star for a photo rather than write him a ticket.
Arena lights illuminate Masvidal's face as he walks up a concrete walkway toward the main entrance. In 12 days, a likely sellout crowd will pack into this arena to watch Masvidal (35-16) take on Gilbert Burns (21-5) at UFC 287 (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV). Officially, Masvidal's fight is the co-main event, but it's safe to say he is the main reason the UFC is returning to this city for the first time in 20 years, as he was born and bred here.
"I'm getting goosebumps, not going to lie," Masvidal says, as he gazes at the arena. "It doesn't happen often in my life, but it's hitting me hard right now. Damn. S--- will be packed, people screaming. Violence."
Masvidal was 18 when the UFC brought its marquee premium event to this arena for the first and only time in 2003. He spent every dollar he had to purchase a ticket for UFC 42. The night ended with him sleeping across the street on a train station floor.
"I was catching the train back, but by the time the UFC finished up, and we went to a bar, the trains were closed," Masvidal laughs. "So, I'm stuck downtown -- not a dollar to my name because we used everything to get there. I slept in the station."
A lot has changed in 20 years. These days, Masvidal has an entire fleet of vehicles to get him around Miami. There's a different option for whatever mood he might find himself in. He rarely drives the Lincoln. Local music artists pay thousands to take pictures with it more frequently than he has driven it.
"Two thousand for a photo with the whip ... and don't even think about putting any miles on it," he says.
Miami has a population of nearly half a million, and a robust A-list of celebrities and high rollers call it home. Spend one day with Masvidal, though, and it's hard not to see him as perhaps the city's one authentic king. And not because of his apparent status or wealth. It's in his roots and the way he carries himself. It's in how he describes the city as a land of immigrants, with a history of turning nothing into something.
"Jorge's celebrity is huge ... especially big down here," says Masvidal's head coach, Mike Brown. "The city loves him.
Masvidal believes he's been the King of Miami since he was born there in 1984. He believes he was the King of Miami as a child, when he and his mother, "Mama Dukes," bounced around various neighborhoods in search of whatever housing they could afford. And he was the King of Miami when he was expelled from one school after another, eventually spending years living out of a car he purchased for $500, training for a hopeful career in MMA.
"When Miami sees me, they lose their mind because I am the city, bro," Masvidal says. "I am Miami-Dade, you know?
"I'm the dude that didn't have this or that, but I had that mentality -- that immigrant mentality. I'm not a victim. I'm not a f---ing victim. I don't care what you say. The color of my skin, my IQ, this or that -- I'm not a victim. I'm not going to sit back and be in the passenger seat to anybody. I'm going to be in control, driving this vehicle towards the destiny that I want. And that's Miami right there."
As Masvidal stands at the entrance of Kaseya Center, it's apparent that this man has made it. The enormity of how far he's come couldn't be more visual. Twenty years ago, he slept on the floor across the street. Now, he's selling out this arena as a multimillionaire superstar in a city that loves him.
"I don't pay for anything. ... I buy my own food, but for clubs, we get in everywhere for free," Masvidal says. "There's never no lines. Everybody here knows me, but it's like that everywhere. It's crazy to think that came off fighting. That I can get so much, you know? It's nuts man. It's humbling every time."
UFC 287 should be a celebration of "Gamebred," but it's not. It's still work, with dire consequences. Once you get to know Masvidal, you come to understand this. The money, fame and ability to represent a city near and dear to him, are all important. It's all part of the story surrounding this fight and this moment in his career. But despite everything he has done in MMA, Masvidal has never won a championship in a major fight promotion. And at age 38, he is starting to run out of time to do it.
"Life or death," says Masvidal, on the stakes of this welterweight fight. "I have all these things and it's cool, but nothing means more than that belt wrapped around my waist. Without the belt, it's not what I signed up for. I signed up only to be a champion."
IT'S A BEAUTIFUL weekday afternoon in west Miami, and Masvidal is driving that Lincoln Continental through the neighborhoods that provided his first taste of fame.
In 2003, Masvidal fought a kid in his mid-20s named Reynaldo Fuentes -- universally known now as Rey -- in the backyard of one of these modest homes in west Miami. Miami legend Kimbo Slice arranged the fight and several versions posted to YouTube have since been viewed more than 12 million times.
Masvidal waves at a trio of men sitting in the shade of a tree on the side of the street and smiles when one of them recognizes him.
"Yo! You know who that is? Let's go!" the man screams.
"When Miami sees me, they lose their mind because I am the city, bro. I am Miami-Dade, you know?"Jorge "Gamebred" Masvidal
"Back then, if you were too light skinned, you didn't even want to walk around here, you know?" Masvidal says. "Not unless you knew somebody. This is where the fights took place. This is where we were slinging fists, making a better way for ourselves."
What's it like for Masvidal to return to a piece of his past like this? What's the first thing that comes to mind?
"S---, Gilbert in a stretcher," Masvidal says. "No offense to anybody that is living in the neighborhoods where I lived, but a big part of me is like, 'I ain't never f---ing going back. You're not sending me back. You have to kill me.'... Gilbert is trying to send me back here, he's trying to take my money away, you know? He has that envy in his eyes, I see it in his f---ing face. He wants what I have. It's not gonna happen."
Masvidal's journey through fighting has been one of both necessity and love.
Money has been a driving factor every step of the way. His memory of fighting other men in these backyards for a prize of $40 is still crystal clear. To this day, he believes he sometimes overindulges in food because he has had the experience of not knowing where his next meal would come from.
But even had he been born into privilege, Masvidal says he believes he'd still be fighting. Maybe he wouldn't be quite as good at it, as he believes hunger and hardship can play a role in hardening a fighter. But either way, Masvidal's only obsession has always been fighting. Financially, he hasn't needed to fight for a while. His need to fight now comes from a place entirely unrelated to money.
"He's the perfect example of a guy who has to fight. There's nothing else he should be doing," says Dustin Poirier, a UFC lightweight and longtime teammate of Masvidal. "Jorge is a real student of fighting. He's breaking down Muay Thai and wrestling techniques. He's a dying breed of that pioneer era. He was flying overseas and doing this before it was cool. That generation is coming to an end and he embodies it."
Masvidal was around 18 years old when he got his first tattoo. He doesn't remember the exact time when he got it, but he remembers why he did it. Masvidal inked the word "Gamebred" to his neck as a reminder.
"I had this telemarketing job, which was the only job I could keep," Masvidal said. "I went back and forth between the job and training. I would round up money for a few months and go right back to the training. When I was 17 or 18, I was like, 'Man, I'm putting in all those office hours and s---, I'm becoming less of an animal in this thing. I'm getting domesticated in this office. I have to follow rules and all this bulls---.'
"So, I went to get my first tattoo to let myself and the whole world know, 'This is what I'll be doing the rest of my life.' Nobody had a neck tattoo back then, so it was a big statement. It was my [way] of saying, 'I'm married to the game.'"
This is the Masvidal that will show up at the Octagon at UFC 287, and that's an important distinction because people are starting to wonder about Masvidal. He's fought just three times in the past three years and he's 0-3 in those appearances. He has had more than 50 professional fights, and who knows how many more undocumented? And, more so than at any other time in his life, he's rich.
In other words, he has reached that point of a fighting career where you wonder from the outside, "How hungry can he really be?"
"After a loss, after a win, there are huge paychecks," Masvidal says. "I don't have to fight ever for a good life. That was a while back already. I've been saving up my money and doing the right thing with it. I do this for the utter love of it, and to beat all these motherf---ers in my weight class. I see them eye-to-eye, competing, how they're living their life, and I know I'm better than these guys. I'm better than every single one of them."
MASVIDAL'S LONG-AWAITED UFC moment in Miami will go one of two ways. Due to the timing in which it's happening, there is no middle ground here.
Four years ago, Masvidal was involved in maybe the most infamous backstage moment in UFC history, when he attacked English welterweight Leon Edwards in the halls of O2 Arena after they each had won their respective fights that evening. As fate would have it, Edwards has since ascended to the throne of the UFC's welterweight division and is expected to attend UFC 287. It is no secret he has always wanted an opportunity to get even with Masvidal from that night.
UFC president Dana White has already said Edwards' next title defense will come against Colby Covington -- Masvidal's former friend, training partner and now bitter rival. Masvidal is facing felony charges of aggravated battery and criminal mischief from an alleged attack on Covington in Miami Beach on March 21, 2022. Still, if Masvidal defeats Burns, it's easy to envision his next fight being for the title -- possibly before Covington gets a shot.
If he loses, it would be four defeats in a row for the King of Miami. And although a money fight would likely surface here and there, another title bid -- he has had two in the UFC -- would feel virtually out of reach.
"A win would be so huge, because fans are fickle and he could win back the momentum of the crowd with just this one performance," Brown says. "But on the opposite side, a loss means we're on a four-fight skid. There will be a lot of naysayers out there, saying, 'I told you Jorge is done' if he loses. He'd be in a tough spot, and getting another title shot would look pretty slim at that point. Of course, I think he's going to perform on that night."
It's a compelling backdrop for the UFC's return to this city. From the outside, it might look like nothing is on the line for Masvidal in this one. Win or lose, he'll be the most beloved athlete in the arena. Plenty of teenagers with fighting aspirations will likely be in attendance, watching one of their own, who has managed to accomplish so much. Masvidal is aware he represents that for the next generation, and he's proud of it.
Still, this could easily be characterized as the biggest fight of Masvidal's career, because his last chance at a UFC title hinges on the result. Everything is on the line for Masvidal in Miami. But that's the way it's always been.
"I'm not just winning, but winning in Miami style," Masvidal says. "F---ing leaving people speechless. I want to leave them f---ing jaw-dropped, you know? 'Wow, I didn't expect that. Holy smokes. Masvidal is killing motherf---ers like always.'
"That's why we go hard here, man. Shout out to the [Miami] Dolphins, shout out to [University of Miami] kicking ass. We're getting a Super Bowl next year, right? [Tyreek] Hill! My dog, Tyreek. City is gonna go nuts. I ring that bell, I go bust up Leon, at the same time we get a Super Bowl ring? It's going to be crazy, man."