Jorge Masvidal on early struggles, MMA career, Kamaru Usman at UFC 261

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Jorge Masvidal is an expert in the world of fighting, both in and out of the cage. The only UFC BMF title holder, Masvidal challenges Kamaru Usman this Saturday for the welterweight championship at UFC 261.

The fight will take place at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., Approximately 350 miles from Masvidal’s home in Miami. Yet the distance between the present and its past can hardly be measured, two separate entities orbiting a radically different universe.

Masvidal’s professional MMA career began with a win over Brandon Bledsoe in May 2003, but the 36-year-old can’t remember a time when he wasn’t fighting. This included his life at home, fighting for food and a safe place to sleep, as well as the explosive and potentially deadly world of street fighting.

“It’s definitely a different environment from civilized and sanctioned events,” Masvidal says. “Especially when you have two mothers who have been ****** evacuated, shit just might happen.”

In street fights, bets are placed, Masvidal says, with each fighter usually arriving with their own group of supporters. Adding another layer of complexity is that winning doesn’t always equate to victory.

“Who can say the other side is not upset when they lose?” Masvidal said. “It could quickly escalate.”

Firmly anchored in this dangerous realm, Masvidal broke away after hearing spontaneous support from one of the trainers he knew from the gym.

“My coaches are one of the main reasons I changed my life,” says Masvidal. “That day was Paulino Hernandez, who is still my strike coach and like a father to me. He had heard of the street fights and he pushed me aside. People knew I was talented, I had good hand speed, good hand-eye coordination, but I really didn’t have anyone behind me. He was the first to pull me aside and said, “You have a gift. You can be a world champion. But you have to stop all these other things. He said he would train me, but I had to leave everything else behind and stop wasting my talent. It hit my soul.

Success didn’t magically happen overnight, but the continued support of his coaches supported Masvidal on his rise to stardom.

My coaches have been with me for over 14 years, ”explains Masvidal. “They gave me everything they had to take me to the next level. Throughout the grind, they’ve been behind me.

With his loyal team by his side, Masvidal is now tackling his toughest challenge in the cage. He lost by unanimous decision last summer to Usman, failing in his quest to dethrone the champion after taking the fight with just six days’ notice. He’s still looking for that elusive reign as the UFC welterweight champion, but it won’t be easy with incredible strength as Usman standing in his way.

Overcoming obstacles is apparently second nature to Masvidal. He knows that a fight with Usman will never come close to the obstacles he went through to get to this point. Even the toughest 25 minutes in the cage can’t compare to his early years, especially those sweltering summer nights in Miami sleeping in his Chevrolet Bonneville alongside Mia, his beloved pit bull.

“It wasn’t always necessarily that I was homeless,” Masvidal says. “A lot of the time, it was just budget cuts. If I had enough rent for six months, it meant I could use that money and have enough food for the year. So I said f *** it and slept in my car.

“I couldn’t run the car all night so it was hot. But even if the seat belt stuck to my ribs, I would continue to train the next morning. I kept telling myself, no one wants it more than me.

Masvidal found his solace and salvation in the gymnasium, a sanctuary where he pushed himself to heights he had never imagined before.

“My life at home wasn’t the best,” Masvidal says. “My safe place, my temple, was the gym. This is where I found peace. I would go three, four hours in a row, and I wouldn’t even notice the time pass. And the worse my life was outside, the better it was in the gym. Rain, snow, good days, bad days, I was still at the gym.

The gym remains a haven for Masvidal, a place to learn new skills, push yourself, perfect your technique and, as his workouts show, take nothing for granted.

“People say I’m an overnight sensation, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” Masvidal says. “The years it took me to get noticed, the sweat and the tears, the miles I had to run and the bags I had to hit, it all brought me here.

“I do whatever it takes. I don’t like to run sprints. Yes, I am tired – yes, I am injured. But there is an advantage. I need that half a percent to go to the next level. And that’s where I’m going.

A prerequisite for catapulting to that next level is beating Usman this Saturday. With full training to prepare, Masvidal likes his chances.

“That’s what I’m trying to do, to reach that next level,” Masvidal says. “I come to fight with my whole being, with all my essence. It will pay off on Saturday. “

With the alluring charm of a fighter high in the game, Masvidal has vowed that the difference in this Saturday’s fight will be his unbreakable willpower.

“Instead of investing all of my energy in running through the desert to sweat and gain weight, all of my energy is focused on breaking Usman’s face,” Masvidal says. “I’m going to give all I can to break her fucking face.”

Justin Barrasso can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @Justinbarrasso.

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