There is no shortage of things to do in New York on a summer Thursday evening, and this night held a full menu of options. Up in The Bronx, the Yankees were in town, attempting to clinch a playoff berth. In Lower Manhattan, the Feast of San Gennaro was in full swing. In Brooklyn, Madonna was kicking off her latest tour. There are free jazz shows in Times Square. Broadway has something for everyone, from family shows like “Frozen” to risqué fare like “Moulin Rouge” to critically acclaimed offerings like “Hamilton.” There is world-class dining and nightly comedy shows. All of which is to say, if you want to draw a crowd in the Big Apple, you better bring it all. Size. Scope. Star power.
Down in the Seaport District, the line formed early and deep to see Nate Diaz and Jorge Masvidal at Pier 17. This is a matchup that was formed organically and has grown in much the same way. With a few words on a late Saturday night after beating Anthony Pettis, Diaz put the idea out into the universe, and the universe nodded back.
In much the same way Diaz called his shot against Conor McGregor, he created a movement where none had existed. There have only been a handful of fighters capable of creating so much by saying so little.
Masvidal literally became a sensation in a blink. Five seconds against Ben Askren and he was an overnight success, 16 years in the making.
This is a fight that will be sold on reputations earned and paid for in blood. They may crack some clever one-liners along the way, but if one thing is now clear about their approach to each other, it’s that they’re not going to manufacture a rivalry where none exists. They want to compete against each other because each sees a little bit of himself in the other. When they look across the aisle, the cage, the stage, they see toughness, grit, ambition. They see real.
That made for a bit of an awkward event on The Rooftop at Pier 17. Nobody — except for the reporters, or whoever they were asking bizarre questions — was going to say anything too outlandish. Nobody was going to get out of hand. It would all be fairly routine, almost staid. But it hardly mattered. People hoped to see a show, but they to see the stars. The fighters didn’t have to bring the energy because the fans brought it for them.
“This thing took on a life of its own,” UFC president Dana White said when discussing how this all came to be. He’s not wrong, but he’s not exactly right. It’s a respectful rivalry that was birthed and nurtured over the years; it’s just that none of us quite noticed it until Diaz and Masvidal pointed it out.
“After I asked to defend the [Baddest Mother F—ker belt] against Masvidal, I’m pretty sure it was a wrap,” Diaz said.
Against the backdrop of the Brooklyn Bridge and surrounded by the Manhattan skyline, the setting of the event helped solidify the feeling that this was a major thing, a true New York event. Fans dueled it out, chanting “Gamebred” and “Diaz” against each other, helping to build the intensity. Then Diaz walked out in his trademark black t-shirt and Masvidal in his “Scarface” white suit, and that was all they needed. In a sport where “characters” are often created, these two were forged by time, personality, circumstance. They are characters in the favorable sense of the word.
“When people talk s—t, it is motivating because there are some dudes you’re not going to lose to,” Masvidal said. “Askren is that dude I’m not losing in any universe to. The s—t-talking does help, but it also helps when the guy on the other side wants to hurt you and you know it. That’s enough motivation for me right there.”
It’s enough for the fight world, too. The event pre-sale began Thursday morning, and according to White, more than 10,000 tickets have already been snapped up. The event will probably be sold out minutes after the rest of the seats go on sale Friday morning. Through no planning and little cultivation, the UFC has hit the jackpot.
At some point during the proceedings, boxing came up, as it occasionally does in the combat sports conversation. The pay-per-view business is a ruthless one, and competition between the two remains savage. Less than a week after the UFC announced Masvidal-Diaz for Nov. 2, the boxing world announced Canelo Alvarez would fight Sergey Kovalev on the same night. The battle for eyeballs will be fierce, but the UFC and its UFC 244 headliners feel all the winds blowing in their direction. They feel the phenomenon building, the movement fanning out. They’ve already conquered New York, and think the rest of the fight world will fall in line. Why do we want to watch them? Why should anybody care?
“We’re fighting for ‘the baddest mother f—ker in the game’ belt,” Diaz said. “That’s why.”