What fighters like Jorge Masvidal are teaching us about life and consequences

Yahoo Sports Contributor
Yahoo Sports

Jorge Masvidal’s first exchange at the post UFC 239 news conference with a journalist was telling. On the journalist’s side, the specter of nameless outrage about Masvidal’s behavior that night.

He fought too long, too hard, “some people” say. Afterward, Masvidal celebrated too much, too boisterously, was too disrespectful, “some people” say.

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The questions presented Masvidal’s fighting and postfight taunting outside of any useful context.

The first topic — Masvidal punching his opponent Ben Askren twice on the ground after putting him down with a flying knee, and before the referee stepped in to stop the fight. As Masvidal calmly explained, he and all fighters are charged with fighting until the referee steps in, period.

“I saw some criticism. People say the punches weren’t really necessary … ” the question began, before Masvidal interrupted.

They were super necessary,” he clarified.

“Why were they necessary?”

“What do you mean, why were they necessary?”

“Because he was already knocked out at that point.”

“But, the referee hadn’t pulled me off. And, my job is to hit somebody until the referee pulls me off. So, to those people I’d say, maybe don’t watch MMA. Go back to soccer.”

Walk-off knockouts happen in MMA, of course, but fighters are tasked according to regulations with fighting and protecting themselves at all times and to let referee’s orders determine when they should start and stop fighting. Masvidal had broken absolutely no rules during his record-making five-second fight against Askren, yet found himself being questioned as though he was a violator.

The American Top Team member did not accept the premise of the question, and rightly turned the exchange on its head — you tell me why I should not have fought the entire fight, he asked us all in the media, back.

Masvidal: Askren paid the price for crossing the line

More anonymous, “some people say” type criticism was then crafted into an awkward follow-up question for Masvidal regarding his merciless celebratory taunting of Askren after the fight ended. “I saw some other criticism, perhaps, of your celebration afterwards. Any regrets, your celebration or your behavior in the cage, afterwards,” he was asked.

To be sure, none of us has to enjoy the type of taunting Masvidal directed at an unconscious Askren. I certainly don’t like it.

As Masvidal was quick to explain, however, talking about said taunting outside of the larger context of Askren’s own prior incessant taunting, which often took the form of coded language meant to disparage Masvidal’s culture and ethnicity, is an incomplete narrative, at best.

“There’s not too many people that I’ve disliked. I have over 50 pro fights. And, he’s one of them. He talked about my manhood, he talked about my culture, my ethnicity,” Masvidal explained.

“Where do we draw [the line]? Why do certain people get to do stuff? So, everything is cool before a fight. You’re allowed to do and say whatever you want. Like other fighters are now doing, talking about people’s religions, wife, even kids. That’s cool? But, after a fight I’m not allowed to showboat and rub it in your face you and guys like you can see it and be like, ‘Maybe I don’t talk so much s--- because when I cross one of these real motherf------, they’re going to make me pay for it, man. They’re going to embarrass the s--- out of me.”

Masvidal, who speaks multiple languages and has long been respected as one of the sport’s most well-rounded, experienced and cerebral fighters, was repeatedly called stupid by Askren leading up to their fight. Askren also repeatedly insisted that the Latino Masvidal envied him because he is white, and suggested that Masvidal could not understand the language that both of them were speaking to one another (English).

Through his actions in the Octagon and also through his unflinching explanation of them afterward, Masvidal taught us something about real life and consequences, and about how we tell different narratives about sportsmanship depending on who we’re talking about. Trash talk is fine, says Masvidal, but there are consequences for certain lines being crossed.

Askren crossed some of those lines and so Masvidal didn’t apologize for his own taunting. True enough, we have a habit of talking about certain things outside of their context.

Masvidal was callous in taunting Askren after knocking him out, but that happened after Askren insulted his intelligence and culture. To see those two things joined together isn’t to excuse either one, though one certainly seems more warranted and sympathetic than the other.

Masvidal, Nurmagomedov show it’s not just business

We were seemingly fine as a community with Conor McGregor calling Floyd Mayweather a “boy” and telling him to dance for him, or hurling ethnic slurs at Nate Diaz, or insulting Khabib Nurmagomedov’s religion, father and wife, but then were shocked when Nurmagomedov still had anger at the brash star after mauling and submitting McGregor last fall.

Shortly before the end came for him against Nurmagomedov, microphones picked up McGregor quietly pleading with Nurmagomedov, saying, “It’s only business.” Nurmagomedov responded by yelling at McGregor when the round ended, submitted him in the next, talked at him some more, then he and his teammates proceeded to beat up McGregor and his team, in and out of the ring.

Nurmagomedov wasn’t having it, then, and neither was Masvidal on Saturday. For some fighters, real life is an all-the-time affair.

When McGregor attempted to stoke old ethnic tensions to embarrass the Dagestani Nurmagomedov, or insult his religious practices as a Muslim, in “promotion” of their fight, it was not placed in some time and space bubble that took away the pain the hate speech caused for his opponent and his team. When Askren insisted on calling Masvidal dumb and tied it to his culture, Masvidal apparently wasn’t fine with it even though it promoted their bout.

Jorge Masvidal talks to Ben Askren in their welterweight fight during the UFC 239 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Zuffa LLC)
Jorge Masvidal talks to Ben Askren in their welterweight fight during the UFC 239 event at T-Mobile Arena on July 6, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Zuffa LLC)

Nurmagomedov and Masvidal are, if nothing else, providing a useful redefinition of the world for the more coddled, privileged people in the MMA sphere, opponents and pundits alike. After UFC 239, Masvidal explained the rules of the sport to members of the media and how they direct him to fight until the referee steps in.

Masvidal also explained that we in the media are problematic in the way we often ignore and leave unchallenged certain athletes’ explicit or coded ethnic and cultural insults but then are quick to cross-examine those they’ve insulted once they strike back.

What is a sucker punch?

It’s all a bit reminiscent of when, after his win last spring over Darren Till, Masvidal got into a fight backstage with Leon Edwards, and then helped us all understand what a sucker punch is and is not.

Audio and video footage captured Masvidal being taunted by Edwards as he was being interviewed by ESPN’s Laura Sanko. Then, “Gamebred” walked away from the interview with his hands behind his back, talking to Edwards.

Then, footage showed Edwards getting close to Masvidal, at which point Masvidal hit him with a punch combination, cutting Edwards on his face and ending their short-lived rivalry. Masvidal’s punching of Edwards after Edwards verbally threatened him and then walked up to him has been discussed all too often as a “sucker punch” situation, similar in a sense to Masvidal’s punching Askren twice during their fight.

Neither instance was foul play, of course, as Masvidal explained.

“It’s on video me defending myself … I was scared,” Masvidal told Brett Okamoto of ESPN, afterward.

“Maybe I didn’t look it because I’m pretty damned cold-blooded but I was scared out of my mind. He’s gonna assault me. He’s going to take everything I’ve got. He shouldn’t have done that. He shouldn’t have put his hands up and walked towards me like he was going to punch me. I got the first one.”

Again, no one needs to like professional fighters getting into backstage scraps, but discussing Masvidal punching Edwards in one without the context of Edwards verbally and physically initiating the altercation is irresponsible and bizarre. Perhaps it makes sense for those who think words should never hurt enough to take action on.

That’s “sticks and stones” nonsense.

That sentiment is really only one that can be held from a position of privilege. If you’re from a part of the world or neighborhood where people back up verbal threats with physical violence, verbal taunts combined with intrusions of personal space are seen as serious matters.

Jorge Masvidal set a new record for the fastest knockout in UFC history with five seconds. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today Sports)
Jorge Masvidal set a new record for the fastest knockout in UFC history with five seconds. (Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA Today Sports)

If you’ve been implicitly and explicitly told your whole life that people of your race, ethnicity, and culture are not as intelligent as others because of the way you speak, where you live or for reasons never having to be enumerated or defended, being called stupid for months on end may very well make you want to celebrate a little bit extra when you shut up the person who harassed you.

Masvidal still doesn’t like Askren

All along and even after the fight, Masvidal has insisted that he doesn’t have some serious issue with Askren, that he was not and is not, in fact, angry. Sure, he wanted to hurt Askren, and he did not and does not like him.

In Masvidal’s mind and world, however, not liking someone and being able to make them pay for their threats and taunts for trying to hurt you does not necessarily mean that you are angry. Sometimes violence is business, and dislike doesn’t have to rise to the level of anger.

Future opponents and spectators can decide for themselves if that makes the soft-spoken Masvidal more or less intimidating than his blustery peers. Another reporter asked Masvidal later in the news conference if he’d ever consider putting his “beef” with Askren aside.

Once again, Masvidal rejected the premise of the question and took a moment to teach us all something. His anger at Askren does not amount to something so serious as “beef,” a situation which has more weight where Masvidal is from than it does in the minds of those who sing along to rap songs, merely fantasizing about danger.

“Oh no, it’s not beef. Because if it was beef, it would be different,” Masvidal explained.

“I’d be at the front of his house waiting for him right now. It’s not beef. It’s just, I don’t like my co-worker, we could say. But this is not beef. This is just some idiot I don’t like. But my job, thank God — and you guys might get jealous with this — I get to punch the co-workers I don’t like in the face.”

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