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Masvidal still a superstar after UFC 251 defeat, but can the UFC get out of his way?

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A one sided loss to Kamaru Usman hasn’t killed Jorge Masvidal’s star power, but the UFC’s way of doing business may end up burying him.

UFC 251: Usman v Masvidal Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

After months of build-up, the highly anticipated debut of Fight Island went down tonight and all signs point to it being one of the biggest event of the year, possibly even bigger than Conor McGregor’s return in January. It almost didn’t go down like that though ... while the Fight Island gimmick certainly caught a lot of mainstream and fan attention, the big driver of pay-per-view buys was undoubtedly fueled by the return to action of one Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal, who stepped in on late notice to fight Kamaru Usman for the welterweight strap.

The fight itself ended up being a bit of a predictable letdown. Styles make fights, and Usman’s style is to wrastle his opponents nonstop from bell to bell. Not a great opponent when it comes to letting a slick striker like Masvidal showcase his talents. But as far as the continuation of Jorge’s career and “The Resurrection,” it worked out pretty damn well for Masvidal ... and the UFC if they’re willing to accept him as a new superstar that must be treated outside the box they’ve stuffed 99.9% of their roster in.

And to think, one week ago there were questions as to whether we’d ever see Jorge Masvidal fight again. When the UFC refused his demands for more money and booked Usman vs. Burns for UFC 251 instead, it looked like he might be stuck on the sidelines with Jon Jones, talking a big game about standing up for all fighters but losing valuable time on his own career.

When COVID-19 KO’d Burns, Masvidal got much closer to his perceived worth in the form of a decent pay-per-view cut. And more importantly, he got to face Kamaru Usman under circumstances that made the bout a virtual no-lose situation for him. And here we are now with the results in - a 50-45, 50-45, 49-48 win for Usman, and the internets are already alight with proof that Masvidal certainly didn’t lose in the eyes of fans both casual and hardcore.

Maybe if Kamaru had properly pummeled Jorge or quickly clowned him Ribas-PVZ style, the loss would affect Masvidal’s stock. As it stands, “Gamebred” gets to soak up the adoration for saving Fight Island’s hype, and is receiving props for a performance that at best could be described as defensively effective. Outside of a first round blitz and a quick volley or two near the end of the fight, Jorge never got close to promised baptism levels. He was too busy stuck against the fence fighting off Usman’s relentless takedown attempts.

After the initial round, Masvidal was sucking air. But what else would anyone expect, the commentators helpfully reminded us, on a mere six days notice? After putting his all into the first five minutes, Jorge was content to let Usman pilot the ship. He certainly wasn’t able to overcome the “Nigerian Nightmare” but he fought off the endless takedowns well enough that the blame for any perceived dullness will be levied at the champion.

So Masvidal gets to bank a seven figure payday (possibly even eight depending on how desperate the UFC was, or if the PPV sells as well as Dana White implied it might) and barely loses any shine. He gets the Usman fight out of the way, and can now transcend the title ladder and enjoy a spot as a marquee attraction for the UFC ... if the UFC is capable of fairly dealing with a fighter that isn’t challenging for a belt.

At this point we should no longer be surprised at the UFC’s ability to get in the way of star development. Turning down Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou and GSP vs. Khabib without any serious negotiations are just recent examples. No one even bothers to ask if Nate Diaz is fighting again any time soon. Even negotiations for Conor McGregor’s return nearly fell apart because the UFC tried to insist on having a championship fight above Conor as the main event. It’s that brand-central attitude that may result in us not seeing Masvidal’s return for some time.

The UFC has a formula, and it involves belts at the top of pay-per-views. And if you’re not fighting for a belt, you’re not getting pay-per-view points. At this point, it would be absolutely ridiculous not to have Jorge Masvidal’s next fight be a pay-per-view main event. But watch and see - they’ll try to stick him in the co-main slot under a women’s flyweight championship fight or something, and possibly even try to push Masvidal back down a peg or two paywise on account of his non-champion status.

But if anything, Masvidal’s fame will have only grown from this Fight Island bout. If the event performed as well as all metrics indicate, of course he should be making more, not less. But the UFC’s entire pay structure — the infamous structure that nets fighters a mere 18% of revenue so parent company Endeavor can meet its private equity debt obligations — relies on using championship belts as a pre-requisite for proper payment. It’s a bottleneck designed to keep fighter pay low, which probably seems smart if you’re the one hoovering up the 82%. But it destroys stars like Jorge Masvidal and Nate Diaz.

Can the UFC accept they have a different kind of star on their hands, one that will continue to provide marquee events that print money and generate exciting moments when the matchmaking is done right? I have my doubts. After UFC 251, Masvidal may be the latest big name fighter with enough money to walk away if he doesn’t like the terms the UFC is offering. I hope it doesn’t go down like that, but given the promotion’s recent track record, I’m not exactly optimistic.