December 14, 2011

According to Jorge Masvidal, the fight he's asked about most is the bare-knuckled one he volunteered for in a parking lot behind a Miami laundromat about eight years ago.

Not yet a full-time professional fighter, Masvidal had been spotted a couple of weeks earlier by Kimbo Slice, then Miami's most fearsome street fighter, sparring in a local gym. Slice also perpetuated the underground fight circuit that would eventually make him a millionaire by organizing impromptu fights utilizing young talent. He offered Masvidal an open invitation to his next soiree.

"I was at McDonald's and they called me asking me if I wanted to fight that day. I left the drive-thru and rolled right over to the place," Masvidal recalled.

A crowd of some 30 hungry spectators hugged the fence surrounding a 50-foot concrete space where the fighters would meet. A row of expired washers, a dumpster, and other junked items flanked the backdrop.

The featured fighter that day was Slice's protégé, a beefy, 200-pound slugger who went simply by the name Ray. Ray must have been feeling good that day; Masvidal, who probably weighed around 170 pounds by the look of him, was instructed that he'd be the second challenger to face him that afternoon.

Masvidal watched the first invitee, Jose, step into the designated area, get clocked with a hard right by Ray, and fall face-first into the pavement. The entire sequence lasted about 10 seconds.

And then it was Masvidal's turn.

From the crowd, a shirtless Masvidal emerged with his hands up, wearing baggy, knee-length jeans and back high-tops. Luckily for Masvidal -- dubbed "Ponytail" for the Samurai bun that bobbed on top of his head -- he was a lot faster than Jose and had been paying attention at the gym. Masvidal exchanged combinations with Ray and began to clip him more frequently as his heavier opponent grew tired chasing him around. After six minutes, Ray, who'd been knocked down a couple of times already, stumbled to the sidelines and waved his hands that he'd had enough.

Masvidal isn't ashamed to talk about the fight, and his rematch with Ray, which he also won in someone's well-manicured backyard five months later. He understands that there is a natural curiosity surrounding these fights immortalized on YouTube for which he wasn't paid a penny. They're also a reminder of how far he's come from the days where he'd take other unregulated fights in gyms or on the street for a couple hundred bucks and the experience.

Now 27 years old, with 28 legitimate fights to his name, Masvidal can only hope an inspired performance against Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez this Saturday in San Diego will trump his early exploits.

The bout marks Masvidal's first crack at a championship title in a major organization, the culmination of a fight career that started, he's been told, in nursery school.

"My dad tells me he'd drop me off at day care and get a call an hour later to come pick me up because I was fighting with the other kids at three and four years old," Masvidal said. "And I mean I'd really fight, throw wild punches, head-butt other kids. He said by age 4, I'd been kicked out of three day-care schools."

When Masvidal was 4, his father, a Cuban immigrant, was sent to prison, and served an 18-year sentence that caused him to miss much of his son's childhood.

He was released five years ago, but violated his probation by leaving the country two years later.

"When you're a convicted criminal, it's tough for you to live in the country," Masvidal said. "You have to get your license renewed every six months. He has to get a job permit every three months and check in with immigration because he's not a citizen and it became too much."

Masvidal said he talks to his father, whom he describes as "a hippie," as much as once a week at times, though he doesn't know where he is when he calls. Masvidal's father follows his son's fight career via the Internet and will undoubtedly be checking the usual fight sites on Saturday night.

Growing up without a father, a familiar circumstance for many mixed martial artists, put a great strain on Masvidal and his mother. When her husband went to prison, she and her 5-year-old son moved in with her sister's family.

"I used to sleep on the living room couch because I was small and could fit perfectly and my mom would sleep on the floor on a mattress from a baby's crib," said Masvidal. "I used to get up and lay with her and cry. I was young, but I knew that something was wrong."

At one point, Masivdal was sent to live with his grandparents, but his mother eventually got back on her feet and took back her son.

"My mom would get up every day at 4 a.m., and worked two jobs," Masvidal said. "She worked at a car rental place during the day and packaged beaded jewelry at night to ship out. I learned early that if you wanted something, you had to work hard for it."

From age 9 into his teenage years, Masvidal and his mother moved to a nicer area where she bought a house. Still, Masivdal was always keenly aware that he was the poorest kid in the neighborhood, amazed when other kids would receive cars for their 16th birthdays.

Masvidal wrestled in high school and started boxing at a gym when he was old enough to. At the age of 19, Masvidal fought in his first organized street fight.

"As I got older, I began to understand why I fought," Masvidal said. "I had a big chip on my shoulder, plus I was broke. I fought and I fought often because I thought that was the only way to resolve a problem. I'd outgrew that, but I also realized I was good at fighting. My dad told me that if you're good at something, get paid for it."

The street fights, which he interspersed with his first professional MMA fights, were beneficial in another way. They helped Masvidal deal with his nerves.

"To handle that environment, where someone could pull out a gun or knife if they lost or their friends might join in at any moment, you got over your nerves quick," Masvidal said. "Moving into MMA's controlled environment took away the stress of that."

In 2006, Masvidal took his most serious step toward becoming a professional athlete by joining American Top Team, Florida's most famous MMA gym. Because of his local reputation, Masvidal said he wasn't asked to audition for the fight team, though its members, who included one-time UFC lightweight contender Din Thomas and former Dream champion JZ Cavalcante, certainly put him through the paces.

"There was a lot of tension between me and the guys that were there," Masvidal said. "They had all these great 155ers and the tension actually made for some great sparring sessions. There was the cool handshake, the putting on the gloves, and then they tried to kill me."

Masvidal, who survived the first few months to earn his place among the team's veterans, said a lot of ATT's success comes from its "sink or swim" mentality.

"A lot of guys have come over that are 8-0 or 9-0 and their whole persona changes because they get broken down," Masvidal said. "A lot of guys don't like it and can't cut it. They don't have that fighting spirit in them when they see what the next level is like."

For Masvidal, the ATT environment has been a perfect fit because he admits that he's the kind of fighter who needs someone to "throw hard" at him, in order for him to throw hard back.

"I wish I had 10 more Jorge Masvidals at the gym," ATT general manager Richie "Puma" Guerriero said. "He has the fighter's mentality. He comes to work, doesn't complain, and helps out his teammates. It's a grind, but Jorge doesn't shy away from it. You could tell him he's fighting [heavyweight legend] Fedor [Emelianenko] next and Jorge would say, 'Cool. Let's do it.'"

Since 2006, Masvidal's fight career has had both ups and downs. He strung together a solid eight-fight win streak that earned him a spot in Japan's Sengoku promotion, then lost in his debut overseas in 2008.

Stateside, in Bellator Fighting Championships in 2009, Toby Imada caught Masvidal in a rare inverted triangle submission, which took him out of the promotion's tournament. The submission, voted by many as the best that year, went viral.

"When I picked him up, I had a big smile on my face because I thought I was going to get a highlight-reel slam," Masvidal said. "At least I didn't get caught in a cheap-ass guillotine or armbar, you know?"

In the summer of 2010, Masvidal took a high-profile welterweight bout against UFC veteran Paul Daley in Shark Fights, a Texas-based promotion.

He controlled the British striker with his wrestling for a majority of the three rounds, but the judges awarded the fight to Daley.

"I've been robbed more than a 7-Eleven," said Masvidal of the judges' decision.

The fight did raise Masvidal's profile, and he made his debut for Strikeforce in early March, only days before Zuffa LLC, the UFC's parent company, purchased the rival promotion for a reported $40 million.

Back-to-back wins against strikers Billy Evangelista and K.J. Noons in June propelled Masvidal to the top of the promotion's contender list. However, Melendez, often ranked among the top three lightweights in the world, is much more than a striker. Of course, the same can be said for Masvidal.

"I always build up in my head that the guy I'm fighting is King Kong or a beast," Masvidal said. "I always think he's going to be faster and stronger than me, that he'll have more technique, more cardio than me. The only thing I know I have over him is heart and that I'll just push on through."

Masvidal, a father to daughters age 3 and 8, doesn't study tape on his opponents either, Saturday's fight with Melendez included. He depends on his coaches for strategy, having found out the hard way that tape-watching lowers his expectations of his opponent and hinders his motivation in training. Masvidal would rather envision King Kong every time.

With Melendez, Masvidal is likely envisioning King Kong behind a laundromat. It is, without a doubt, the biggest fight of his career, especially as word is coming that Zuffa has renewed a broadcast deal to keep Strikeforce airing on Showtime. Masvidal hopes to live up to the "Gamebred" nickname he adopted years ago, which embodies his personal fight from the streets to the cage.

"Game doesn't mean how good or how bad you fight," Masvidal said. "It just means your willingness to fight through pain and fatigue. It has nothing to do with skill level. It just means how bad you want it."

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