The Great Divide: Who will rule Fight Island?

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA — whether it’s news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

July has always been an important month for the UFC and its fighters, but with COVID-19 putting the kibosh on International Fight Week, the promotion instead embarks on a journey to “Fight Island.” Even though it’s actually just a return to Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, if the UFC marketing team insists on selling a fantasy then we may as well play along with and propose the question:

Who will leave as the ruler of “Fight Island?”

To be more specific, who has most to gain from a win in the next four weeks? Is it short-notice savior Jorge Masvidal? Fresh champions looking to build on their legacies? Former titleholders getting another crack at UFC gold? Contenders chasing vacant titles that could stabilize their divisions? Or any of the other popular names who are just one dramatic victory away from reclaiming glory?

The islands are rife with opportunity is what we’re saying, so here to pick one name to rule them all is Alexander K. Lee and UFC Fight Island expert Jed Meshew.

THE MAN OF THE HOUR
Lee: I’ll save you the suspense: It’s Jorge Masvidal.

Before Gilbert Burns’ unfortunate withdrawal from the UFC 251 main event due to a positive COVID-19 test, there were a number of fighters you could have made an argument for having the most to gain on “Fight Island.”

Burns himself, of course, could have completed a stunning transformation from middle-of-the-pack lightweight to UFC welterweight champion. Champions Kamaru Usman and Alexander Volkanovski are looking to build on their budding legacies, while featherweight great Jose Aldo has the opportunity to become a two-division champion. Max Holloway could make his loss to Volkanovski a footnote in his legend, while Petr Yan, Joseph Benavidez, and Deiveson Figueiredo are hunting for that first taste of undisputed UFC supremacy. Even Paige VanZant has a story worth keeping an eye on as she fights to potentially leave the UFC with as much leverage as possible.

But once Masvidal signed on the dotted line to replace Burns, passed his COVID-19 test, and boarded that plane to Abu Dhabi, he immediately became the UFC’s most interesting man.

Already coming off of a 2019 campaign that ranks among the most shocking as far as how rapidly he turned his career around (keep in mind, Masvidal entered 2019 on a two-fight skid and a 16-month layoff), Masvidal was poised for a massive 2020. His five-second KO of Ben Askren and the “BMF” title he won by defeating Nate Diaz made him a white hot commodity. A shot at Usman’s welterweight belt was destined to happen.

Then came the public dispute with the UFC over compensation and the airing of much dirty laundry. According to Masvidal, he was offered less for a UFC title fight than he was to headline UFC 244 against Diaz and that was definitely no bueno for Masvidal and his team. He would hold out and if it came to it, secure his release from the company to pursue other more lucrative opportunities. The Usman fight was dead.

Until it wasn’t. With Burns’ withdrawal announced just eight days before UFC 251, officials had to scramble and unsurprisingly it was Masvidal, a veteran of almost 50 fights who also just so happens to be a Miami street fighting legend, that answered their call.

With one more win, Masvidal silences any doubters who still view him as a journeyman. He rises to the top of a promotion that never had plans for a fighter like Masvidal to have their name plastered on the marquee. He earns a belt—a real belt—that not only says he’s the best in the world in his division, but it gives him another hammer to bring to the negotiation table (mileage may vary here as champions like Jon Jones and Randy Couture are well aware of).

Perhaps just as important as any of that for Masvidal is that he truly gets to live up to his reputation as a fighter who has always said he’ll take on any opponent anywhere. Yes, he’s become more vocal about his demands now that he has leverage, but the fact that he’s willing to challenge Usman with essentially no time to prepare and instead having to face a week of testing, travel, and media obligations, that sends the strongest message possible that “Gamebred” is exactly what he claims to be.

You can’t put a price on credibility. Win or lose, Masvidal will forever have that in spades after salvaging this main event, but a win makes him truly untouchable. There are surely plenty of highlights to be had over the next four weeks and many fighters will have moments that will resonate for some time, but a Masvidal triumph won’t be topped. Every inhabitant of “Fight Island” will have to pay respects to its new king.

THE SHOW CLOSER
Meshew: I mean, look it’s hard to argue with Masvidal here, for all the reasons you just outlined. But let’s be honest, picking “Gamebred” is the sensible, smart choice, and no one has ever accused me of being either of those things. And while you just outlined a very strong case for why Masvidal has the most to gain, it ultimately fails for a number of reasons.

First, it’s too easy. Low-hanging fruit may be ripe for the picking, but it doesn’t taste as good as the meal you’ve got to work for. It’s called picking yourself up by your bootstraps. Ever heard of it?

Second, it’s happening too early in the lifespan of “Fight Island.” After UFC 251, there will be three more events in the span of two weeks taking place in Abu Dhabi. That kind of saturation is going to drown out all the happenings of the early events. Think about it: 2020 already feels like it’s about 47 months long. Add in three events in nine days and when people reflect on UFC 251 they’ll be like, ‘Damn, that feels like a lifetime ago.’ Recency bias is a powerful thing (just ask Joe Rogan re: Max Holloway GOAT status) and it’s gonna kick Masvidal in the teeth.

Speaking of kicking Masvidal in the teeth, the single biggest problem with your argument is that Usman is going to put the wood to “Street Jesus,” meaning no matter how much he has to gain, the point is moot. Masvidal could be fighting for the King of the World title, complete with gold-plated scepter and a trained hyena that poops the finest Mezcal, it’s not going to matter. He’s simply outmatched.

Don’t get me wrong, Masvidal is an excellent fighter and a deserving challenger, but Usman is one of the three best fighters on the planet and the only reason people don’t talk about it more is because he’s been an afterthought in all the various beefs and storylines in the welterweight division the last few years. Pretty soon, everyone is going to recognize just how special Usman is and when they do, we’ll all look back and think it was wild that many people thought Masvidal was going to “baptize” him.

So given all that, the King of Fight Island can’t be Masvidal, but it also can’t be Usman either. What Usman really needed was a fight against Ben Askren to boost his profile (or a prolonged media campaign for this Masvidal fight) and so now he’s going to have a slow progression up. No, the King of Fight Island is going to be none other than the King of MMA Photoshop himself, Darren Till.

In the very final fight of “Fight Island,” Darren Till squares up with former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, and in all honesty, it’s one of the fights I am the most excited about. Till’s move up to middleweight always seemed like a good idea and beating Kelvin Gastelum in his first outing was about as strong a start as you could hope for. Now, he gets a chance to cement his status as a serious contender by taking on another former welterweight.

More to the point, if Till beats Whittaker, he’s the next middleweight contender (after Paulo Costa). The UFC loves Till and beating Gastelum and Whittaker would be more than enough to justify a highly marketable title fight between Till and champion Israel Adesanya. Can you imagine how fun that will be? Adesanya is on the precipice of a major star turn and Till is exactly the kind of opponent who will bring out the best in him on the mic. Adesanya vs. Till is going to be one of the biggest fights of 2020.

And of course it will happen because Darren Till is going to beat Whittaker. I have great affection for “Bobby Knuckles,” but I think it’s hard to believe the 50 minutes he spent in the cage getting bludgeoned by Yoel Romero hasn’t irrevocably changed him. Listen to the way Whittaker talks about Romero and then realize he fought that monster for damn near an hour. Some fights just change you as a person (think Robbie Lawler vs. Carlos Condit) and that was one of those. Whittaker can still be a great fighter, but he’s not gonna be what he once was and Till is going to take advantage.

Till is not just going to beat Whittaker, he’s going to score a spectacular KO to close out the show on Fight Island and for weeks afterwards, Till’s performance is going to be the one that people talk about. In the end, the King of Fight Island is going to be determined by who gets the most interest coming out of it, and that’s going to be Till. So, in the most perfect Scouser accent you’ve ever heard Let’s fu**ing get it!