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Takeaways: Masvidal closes book on incredible story, Adesanya reclaims belt and showmanship

Takeaways: Masvidal closes book on incredible story, Adesanya reclaims belt and showmanship

Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Mike Coppinger react to the biggest moments at UFC 287 and offer thoughts on what might be ahead for the standouts in Miami.

Raimondi: Masvidal’s ultimate rags-to-riches story is bigger than that

MIAMI — Jorge Masvidal put his fists on top of his head as he walked back to his corner then extended his arms into the air. It was half acknowledgment of his hometown crowd and half shrug.

The second round had just finished, and as has been an issue for him over the years, Masvidal had been caught on the bottom against a superior wrestler and grappler for most of the five minutes. Five minutes after that, the fight and Masvidal’s career was over.

Gilbert Burns beat Masvidal by unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) in the co-main event of UFC 287 on Saturday at Kaseya Center. Afterward, Masvidal took off his gloves, hugged his son and daughter and strongly implied he would be retiring from MMA.

Masvidal, 38, was talking all week about coming to the last big UFC event in Miami back in 2003 as a fan. Fittingly, the sport’s most famous representative of the 305 will end his career here. The only thing more fitting would have been “Gamebred” riding off into the South Florida sunset with another highlight-reel knockout. But that was not to be.

“Sometimes your favorite basketball player don’t have that 3-pointer no more,” Masvidal told Joe Rogan in his postfight interview. “Your favorite quarterback loses that rifle. I don’t feel the same when I get in here no more.”

Masvidal steps away from the Octagon after one of the most memorable runs in MMA history. Four years ago, Masvidal went from a well-traveled veteran fighter to one of the biggest stars in the sport almost overnight. He knocked out Darren Till in April 2019 then starched Ben Askren in five seconds three months later with a jaw-ratting flying knee. It was the fastest knockout in UFC history.

“That flying knee changed his life,” UFC president Dana White said. “When he threw that flying knee, it changed his whole life.”

Masvidal parlayed that into one of the biggest fights in UFC history, against Nate Diaz at Madison Square Garden in New York at UFC 244. The bout was so huge, featuring two of the toughest, most streetwise fighters ever, that the UFC, for the first time, created a new championship for it: the “Baddest Motherf—er” title. Masvidal won and got the BMF belt wrapped around his waist by The Rock. He did it before a sold-out crowd, with then-President Donald Trump cageside.

It was the first time a United States president had ever attended a UFC event — and Masvidal was the big winner in the main event. To tie things together, Trump was back in the front row on Saturday for UFC 287.

In many ways, Masvidal was a rags-to-riches story. He was a journeyman earlier in his career, turning pro in 2003 before MMA’s big boom and fighting in inner-city Miami backyards alongside his close friend, the late Kimbo Slice. Masvidal fought in Japan, Russia and Costa Rica. He competed for Bellator and Strikeforce and Sengoku and Shark Fights. Everywhere he went, he put on exciting fights. But he didn’t make it into the UFC until 2013, a decade into his career, when the UFC purchased Strikeforce.

Things didn’t click for him right away then, either. He went 6-4 in his first 10 UFC fights. Again, Masvidal was always fun to watch — his fights and tough-talking interviews — but he wasn’t a star. Not even a contender.

After losing to Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson in 2017, Masvidal took almost two years off. He did the Latin American-centered athletic competition reality show Exatlon and said he found himself while he was isolated there without his phone or a television. Masvidal made a pact with himself then that he would be more aggressive as a fighter, and he wouldn’t overthink things and continue being the king of split decisions. For his background coming off the streets of the Miami neighborhood of Westchester, Masvidal was a fight nerd at heart. He was technical, and he watched a lot of film. For fun, he attended amateur wrestling tournaments.

But he had to go back to what made him Jorge Masvidal, the kid from Miami who grew up the son of a Cuban father who defected dangerously to Florida, the child whose first language was Spanish, not English. He had to reconnect with his roots. He had to become “Street Jesus.”

And in 2019, he did. Masvidal went full “Scarface,” wearing Tony Montana suits and coming out to the movie’s theme tune. Then he destroyed Till, who was coming off a title shot. He lit up Askren in record time. He then beat Diaz via doctor’s stoppage. In the postfight news conference at MSG, Masvidal was beaming, eating pizza and realizing everything had changed.

He parlayed his incredible 2019 run into two title shots, a big-money pay-per-view main event against former best friend Colby Covington, millions of dollars and a co-main event role Saturday night in Miami.

Masvidal was clearly the biggest star here this week. He has been among the biggest, highest-paid stars in all of MMA for the past four years. The run is over now, but it’s been a heck of a story. Masvidal never had the UFC’s promotional push behind him until he left it no choice. It’s been a lesson for fighters that no matter how the early years of your career go — Masvidal’s record was a crooked 32-13 before the Till fight — lucrative success can be just around the corner.

When Masvidal put his arms in the air after the second round Saturday night, there was some frustration there. He knew the end was near; he alluded to it coming into the bout. But there was some joy there too, hidden behind the irritation. Masvidal wasn’t a winner at UFC 287 in his hometown. His professional MMA record now has 17 losses. But that hardly matters when you consider where he started, as a person and fighter.

“The UFC came here 20 years, and it inspired me to chase this dream for 20 years,” Masvidal said. “Fifty-something fights later, hopefully I inspired somebody in here to fight for theirs, no matter what it is. If it’s in the sports world, if it’s in the f—ing entertainment world, if it’s in whatever world. The 9 to 5. I love everybody. I love this sport. I’m a multimillionaire. I didn’t have s— when I started. I can say I’m set for life now.”

Wagenheim: Fighting power with power brought Adesanya back to the title

It was starting to look like more of the same for Israel Adesanya. He had lost twice to Alex Pereira over their years in kickboxing, the second time by knockout. Then Pereira came to MMA and knocked out Adesanya again in November to take away the UFC middleweight championship.

On Saturday, they met for the fourth time, and once again, it didn’t start well for Adesanya. He absorbed a heavy onslaught of leg kicks in the first round and early in the second, and his footwork and movement — a key to disarming a powerhouse like Pereira — appeared to be compromised. As Round 2 moved into its final minute, Adesanya was backed up against the cage, covering up, as Pereira unloaded punches.

Was the end near?

Yes, it was — just not the ending that seemed to be imminent.

Adesanya suddenly unleashed a counterattack, and a lightning-fast right hand stopped Pereira in his tracks. A second one put the champ on the canvas. And with the crowd roaring once again just moments after an “Izzy! Izzy!” chant had died down, Adesanya pounced with a hammerfist that finished the fight and put him back atop the 185-pound division.

With Pereira lying motionless on his back, Adesanya stood over his conquest and mimicked an archer sending arrow after arrow toward his prey. It was the evening’s first hint of showmanship for Adesanya, who often turns his walkouts into performance art. But on this night, he ran out to the cage wearing the look of a man who was not there to mess around. “My house!” was all the Nigerian-born New Zealand resident said on his way to the cage.

Then he took ownership of the building.

Even beyond the result, this fight played out entirely differently from last fall’s first MMA meeting. That time, Adesanya controlled most of the fight and nearly got a finish when he wobbled Pereira at the end of Round 1. It took an aggressive fifth round for the Brazilian fighter to turn things in his favor.

This time, Pereira appeared to be methodically breaking down Adesanya with calf kicks and the occasional onslaught of punches. As the fight moved into Round 2, Pereira moved forward boldly and did not appear to feel in peril while in range of Adesanya’s counterpunches. And Pereira paid the price.

Adesanya’s celebration seemed at least partly rooted in relief. After all, his first combat sports loss to Pereira came seven years ago in a Glory of Heroes kickboxing match. Between that and the knockout a year later, Adesanya had spent a long time coming in second place to Pereira.

But now Adesanya is back on top of the world, and the rest of the middleweight division had better watch out. To finally get a victory in this rivalry, Adesanya had to fight brawn with brawn. This was his first knockout in nearly three years and the first in several more years that did not come from a gradual accumulation of damage. Adesanya is now back in power, and he got there by rediscovering — and believing in — his power.

Okamoto: What’s next for top stars after UFC 287?

Israel Adesanya, middleweight

What should be next: Khamzat Chimaev

Wow. Wow, wow, wow, wow. Unbelievable. Top moment of Adesanya’s career. With everything on the line and the fight starting to go south, he does that. How can you top it? How can you move on to anything that will feel any bigger? I’ll tell you how. You book the new kid on the block, man. You book the scary terminator. I don’t care if anyone says he doesn’t deserve it. He deserves it because it’s the biggest fight in the division. It’s the only way to move on from one of the most incredible moments we’ve seen in the Octagon in recent years. Let’s go. There is no wild-card option here. Book this one.

Alex Pereira, light heavyweight

What should be next: Jamahal Hill

A light heavyweight title shot coming off a loss? Yeah, I’m OK with it. It’s the right move. If Jiri Prochazka isn’t ready to go, Hill needs a contender, and this is the biggest fight the UFC can make for him. Yes, Pereira just got humbled by Adesanya, but let’s not forget how great he looked in the fight leading up to that. The UFC can do many different things at the top of 205, but seriously, ask yourself, are any of them better than this one? Pereira was a huge middleweight. He won a title, which is great, but he was always somewhat eyeing 205. Hill just beat his mentor, Glover Teixeira, in January. There’s a story here. And it’s a great fight.

Gilbert Burns, welterweight

What should be next: Belal Muhammad

Leon Edwards vs. Colby Covington is next. Whether you agree Covington deserves that shot or not (I feel like I’m actually in a minority of people who are fine with it), that’s the situation. So, who is next after that? The top two candidates are Burns and Muhammad, and each is very deserving. The best way to settle it is to have them fight. It’s a great matchup, and the fight would leave no doubt about who is next in line at 170 pounds.

Wild card: wait

Which Burns won’t do. More than just about anyone on the roster, Burns hates waiting. He’ll take whatever fight the UFC throws at him if a title shot or No. 1 contender fight isn’t in the works. But honestly, when I look up and down this division, I don’t see another dance partner for him. Kamaru Usman rematch? No. Shavkat Rakhmonov? They’re training partners. Stephen Thompson? They just fought. For Burns, it’s Muhammad or it’s a wait to let other matchups play out.

Coppinger: Big names, numbers and moments highlight UFC’s return to Miami

Jorge Masvidal, Miami’s favorite fighting son, made his walk to the Octagon one final time, accompanied by the theme song from “Scarface” — the most Miami move in existence — and a raucous chorus of applause from the 19,032 on hand.

Masvidal dropped a one-sided defeat to Gilbert Burns then announced his retirement, but not before Masvidal helped kick off what Dana White said will now be a regular location on the UFC PPV tour.

“There’s a new sheriff in town,” White said, referring to Miami as a marquee destination for future UFC events. “This place is booming. Every restaurant is packed until midnight, 1 in the morning. This place is as cool and as hot as ever.”

The stars were in full force in the sold-out crowd as the UFC’s hosted its sixth-highest-grossing event, with an $11.9 million gate. The last time the UFC was in Miami? The gate was $446,000. The final monetary tally topped November’s UFC event at New York’s Madison Square Garden, featuring the same fight — Israel Adesanya vs. Alex Pereira.

Former President Donald Trump was in the front row in his first public appearance since his indictment in New York. Mike Tyson and Kid Rock flanked him. Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel was in attendance. So too were NFL stars Aaron Donald, Justin Jefferson and Odell Beckham Jr., along with other notable people from sports, entertainment and music.

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