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UFC 239 Masvidal v Askren Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 251’s Jorge Masvidal

Long-time mixed martial arts (MMA) veteran, Jorge Masvidal, will finally fight for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) title opposite dominant wrestler, Kamaru Usman, this Saturday (July 11, 2020) at UFC 251 inside Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Skilled everywhere with an unmatched level of composure, “Gamebred” is slick. Wherever the fight goes, Masvidal has seen it before, and he likely has an answer. However, that didn’t always equate to consistent wins. Of Masvidal’s 13 losses, seven are debatable decisions. He just seemed destined to be one of those always-tough fights who never quite reaches the title. Now, Masvidal seems to have finally found the balance of calmness and explosion, resulting in a whole new level of effectiveness and bringing his career to greater heights.

It’s been a ton of fun to watch Masvidal maximize his potential. Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

Despite his well-rounded skill set, Masvidal likes to strike more than anything else. He’s competent pressuring and countering, an extension of his comfortable everywhere philosophy.

Regardless of his chosen strategy, Masvidal’s deep understanding of distance is fundamental to his game. Masvidal stands tall, a trait that carries with it some defensive risks. However, Masvidal nonetheless manages to be very slick defensively. The “Gamebred” fighter slides and slips just out of the way of punches thanks to his excellent range control, which is what allows him to rely on reaction time to defend himself so effectively.

Against Darren Till, range was definitely a major issue given Till had a significant height and reach advantage, and he made good use of it with his sharp left hand. However, Masvidal was able to learn the timing of the punch, allowing him to counter by slipping inside with an overhand or looping a left hook over the shoulder.

The left hook actually ended the fight in very tricky fashion. From Southpaw — somewhat abnormal for Masvidal — he showed a lot of side kicks. These proved a disguise for the later switch step. Bursting forward, Masvidal switched Southpaw to Orthodox with a right hand then rolled back into Southpaw with a sweeping left hook. All these stance shifts helped cover distance against his rangy foe, landing his power shot perfectly (GIF).

MMA: UFC Fight Night-London-Till vs Masvidal Steve Flynn-USA TODAY Sports

Masvidal is a fighter who uses his lead hand and lead leg very effectively. It all goes back to that distance management: Masvidal’s left side is closer to his opponent, so that’s what lands first.

Being more of a boxer, Masvidal’s jab is of great importance, and it rarely lets him down. Being effective with the jab is largely about variety: Masvidal will stick opponents with a hard, snapping jab, shoot out a fast jab without committing his legs, double up, jab to the body, and most importantly, feint one variation before throwing another.

There are numerous examples throughout his career of Masvidal’s jab completely disrupting his opponent. For instance, Masvidal’s tall stance and reliance on the jab saw Al Iaquinta throw a dozen overhand rights in an attempt to land a cross counter. A couple brushed off his shoulder and most missed completely, as Masvidal’s range control and feints prevented Iaquinta from honing in on his target.

In one of the biggest wins of his entire career, Masvidal’s jab helped him end Donald Cerrone’s Welterweight rise. Much of the time, Masvidal did not commit his legs behind the jab, simply snapping it at the arm. By keeping his legs beneath him, Masvidal kept himself in good position to check Cerrone’s low kicks, and his quick jab often found the inside of Cerrone’s wider punches.

Masvidal complicates the above spiel about mixing up jabs with his left hook as well (GIF). The Cuban athlete will hook directly off the jab or feint a jab and throw the hook immediately.

While Masvidal does do much of his work with his lead hand, he’s always looking to set up the cross. To that end, Masvidal does a couple things very well: keep his weight back and loaded while working with his left and vary the angle on how he fires the right.

Masvidal’s strong boxing fundamentals open up the rest of his game, and there are definitely a few signature “Gamebred” techniques that come into play once he has a good feel for distance and his opponent’s reaction. Two of the most damaging strikes in Masvidal’s arsenal are useful in the same situation: against an opponent circling away from his right hand, especially if his foe is against the fence.

MMA: TUF Tournament of Champions-Ellenberger vs Masvidal Tracy Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Both the left hook to the body — which Masvidal will set up with a shuffle and slip of the head — and the switch kick to the belly are potential fight finishers. Check out this GIF, in which Masvidal lands both on Jake Ellenberger as he tries to circle to safety while trapped along the fence. Another similarity between the two is that Masvidal closes distance suddenly, aggressively stepping forward with either the slip or stance switch.

Another strength of Masvidal’s is reading his opponent’s head movement. Against a foe actively slipping his punches, Masvidal will definitely look to time a head kick. This is a theme throughout his career. A few examples: a wheel kick interrupting Iaquinta’s movement and creating a whole for Masvidal’s straight punches afterward, a right high kick flooring K.J. Noons as the boxer ducked into the strike (GIF), or way back in 2007 when Masvidal knocked out Yves Edwards.

Masvidal recognized his foe slip to the left to avoid the jab, feinted, and threw a right high kick that landed perfectly.

Masvidal is an underrated clinch technician as well, always looking to land in the clinch. The best example came opposite Cezar Ferreira, as Masvidal managed to land a knockout while trapping on the fence. The sequence began as Masvidal used a frame to briefly create space and spin the bigger man slightly, allowing him to switch to a double-collar tie. From there, Masvidal folded over an elbow that his foe ran into before following up with a hard cross (GIF). Against men actively pressuring into the clinch — which includes names like Cerrone, Benson Henderson, and Rustam Khabilov — Masvidal does a great job of creating a bit of space before ramming the mid-section with body knees (GIF).

Opposite Nate Diaz, both Masvidal’s clinch work and newfound explosiveness were majorly effective. As Diaz punched into the clinch, Masvidal repeatedly punished him by clubbing the head into a double-collar tie. From that position, Masvidal would let elbows and knees rip, then he’d flurry forward as Diaz backed off (GIF).

As mentioned, Masvidal adapts well to his opponents. More accurately, Masvidal does an excellent job of turning fight-specific defenses into offense. The best overall example is likely the “Cowboy” knockout, in which Masvidal’s non-committal jab took the center stage in disrupting Cerrone’s offense.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Cerrone vs Masvidal Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

There was more to his strategy than just the jab. For one, Masvidal continually advanced behind big steps, lifting his lead leg and putting it in position to check preemptively. Aside from the obvious goal of not getting shinned by one of the sport’s best low kickers, Masvidal later used this setup to step into the jab, or disguise teeps as well as his favorite switch kick (GIF).

The finale was a well-drilled defense and counter as well. Twice in the fight, Masvidal perfectly caught and parried their shared favorite technique: the left switch kick. Throwing the caught ankle across Cerrone’s body, Masvidal slammed a hook-cross down the pipe and basically knocked “Cowboy” out twice with the same counter (GIF).

Historically, Masvidal’s great problem is a lack of aggression, though it’s largely been solved. In the past, Masvidal has also been guilty of admiring his own work, feeling slick while slipping a four-punch combination and acting as if his head movement negated the low kick that did actually land at the end.

Wrestling

Masvidal is one of the more unique wrestlers in the sport. He stands up very tall and does not have a high-level wrestling background, yet he’s incredibly difficult to take or hold down, transitioning into his own shots extremely well.

Offensively, Masvidal starts with a snatch single, dropping down at the waist to yank his opponent’s leg into the high-crotch position. From there, Masvidal will look to finish the dump, but more often than not he transitions into another takedown as his opponent defends.

Against Till, Masvidal snatched up the single twice, releasing one to land hard punches and finishing the other with a dump while smacking across Till’s head with a collar-tie. It’s really difficult to defend against an opponent who mixes it up like that.

Masvidal tends to offensively wrestle less frequently against the larger men at 170 pounds, but his older victory over Tim Means was a great display of chain wrestling. From the high crotch, Masvidal continually transitioned into other takedowns and tossed his opponent to the floor. Most of the time, Masvidal would attempt the dump to off-balance “Dirty Bird” and then drive back in with either a double leg or knee pick. Alternatively, Masvidal would circle all the way around his opponent from the high crotch into the back clinch and then work from there. On that note, Masvidal’s clinch skill is not limited to elbows and knees, as evidenced by this sweet inside trip opposite a Sambo specialist (GIF).

UFC on FOX: Means v Masvidal Photo by Ezra Shaw/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Masvidal’s wrestling defense really is incredible. Despite his tall stance, Masvidal’s hips are very difficult to penetrate, meaning opponents are rarely able to secure deep single legs. Even when they do, Masvidal is an expert in that position and is very difficult to dump to the mat. Often, Masvidal looks to balance until he hits the fence. Once there, Masvidal is comfortable, able to land small strikes and fight hands until his leg is free.

Masvidal does everything correct in scrambles — such as keeping his head high, controlling his opponent’s head position, and never allowing his foe to settle. More than anything else, His comfort and confidence in every position really gives Masvidal an advantage when scrambling (GIF).

In the last decade, the only man to consistently hold Masvidal down for long was really Demian Maia (you could make an argument for Gilbert Melendez as well, but he rarely established a true top position). Maia’s suffocating wrestling/grappling hybrid is an inherently bad match up for Masvidal’s incredible scrambling. The Brazilian does not scramble, he gets to his few mastered positions and locks things down completely.

Masvidal does not have the insanely powerful hips of someone like Kamaru Usman or Tyron Woodley, who were both able to stop Maia’s shot before being forced to scramble. It’s simply not his style, build, or background. As such, Masvidal did spend costly minutes of the fight trapped in the Maia Backpack, but he still did an admirable job of defending many takedowns and escaping to his feet when dragged down.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Though it’s the often least seen aspect of his game, Masvidal is an excellent grappler. Don’t simply take my word on the subject though: Demian Maia was very complimentary toward “Gamebred’s” grappling after their competitive battle.

For the most part, Masvidal’s jiu-jitsu only makes itself known when his opponent is trying to take him down. Recently, he’s been fishing for front chokes far more often, as they can be used to submit, sweep, and cause scrambles. For example, Masvidal used the guillotine to reverse Krause and Chiesa in the midst of defending his opponent’s takedown.

UFC on FOX: Chiesa v Masvidal Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Against Chiesa, Masvidal eventually locked up the second submission victory of his career. From the front headlock, Masvidal threaded his outside arm around Chiesa’s arm and neck. From there, he rolled Chiesa onto his side using a technique called the bolt cutter, though he used a variation of the grip. This allowed him to sink the arm even deeper and lock it down in a rear-naked choke grip.

Cutting off both sides of his opponent’s neck, Masvidal had secured the d’arce choke and squeezed until the tap inevitably came (GIF).

Conclusion

Masvidal is undoubtedly performing better than ever, and even on short-notice, he spent plenty of time preparing for the grinding challenge that Usman presents while the two were originally planned to fight. Now that he’s finally performing to his potential, we’ll find out if the veteran can snag a championship 17 years into his professional career.

MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 251 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the ESPN+/ESPN “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+.

To see the latest UFC 251: “Usman vs Masvidal” fight card click here.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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