As professional mixed martial arts fighting has grown in popularity, new generations are attracted to the combat sport.
Jorge Masvidal has experienced this firsthand when the popular UFC star encounters his fans.
"It's crazy now," Masvidal said Tuesday. "Thirteen-year-olds will come up to me, 'I can't believe I'm meeting you here at the gas station.' I'm like, 'I can't believe your parents let you watch it so young.' Seven-year-olds come running and hug me."
The Miami native, 37, said MMA made a strong first impression on him as a youth, "but not everybody around me was comfortable with the sport or gravitated to it as fast as I did."
Masvidal, nicknamed "Gamebred," established himself with several organizations, eventually becoming part of Ultimate Fighting Championship. The 5-foot-11, 170-pounder (a welterweight in MMA) sports a 35-16-0 record with 16 knockouts.
"Now it seems like it's a lot more in our culture and society," Masvidal said of MMA. "Kids are loving it. I'm going to say that's why the sport's exploded. As far as males go, it's all across the board — young kids, 7-, 8-years-old, 40-year-olds are watching it, diehard, every week, every show.
"They know every fighter from top to bottom. A lot of these guys now, hardcore fans, are schooling me on the cards from top to bottom. A lot of guys that I don't know on the cards, they're letting me know who's who, and it shows because I put on my shows and we consistently get great views, great turnouts."
While Masvidal has built a fan base as a fighter, he also is developing young fighters as a promoter. Last year, he started Gamebred Fighting Championship for bare-knuckle bouts.
This year, he launched a second promotion company, iKON FC, for gloved fighting. Through his relationship with UFC, Masvidal has been able to show the fight cards on the UFC Fight Pass subscription streaming service.
Here for Savannah Bananas, returning in August
This week Masvidal will be in Savannah to promote a new event, iKON FC 4, on Aug. 5 at the Savannah Convention Center. Look for him Saturday as a guest of the Savannah Bananas when the collegiate summer league baseball team hosts the Macon Bacon before a sellout crowd at Grayson Stadium. Promoters know to go where the people are, especially sports fans.
The 10-fight card in August features Savannah-based featherweight Josh Blyden (9-2) in the main event against Steven New (8-3) of Tennessee. In the co-main event, featherweight Quinten Culpepper (5-1) of Macon faces Canaan Kawaihae (6-2) of Hawaii.
Flyweight Lydia Warren (1-0) of New Mexico will be in her second iKON promotion and is slated to battle Valerie Wong (1-2) of Chico, California.
iKON FC 4 also includes middleweight Joe "Stitch 'Em Up" Schilling, a native of Dayton, Ohio and a veteran of four combat sports, having fought in boxing and MMA, and holding championship belts in kickboxing and Muay Thai.
In welterweight action, Macon native Lindsey Jones (4-0) will face Kenny Gaudreau of Sterling, Virginia.
Also on the undercard, 145-pounder Brandon Moran (1-0) of Savannah vs. tbd; 185-pounder Torrez Finney (2-0) vs. Louis Brewington (0-1); 155-pounder Eddie Lamonte of Savannah in his pro debut vs. tbd; and 135-pounder Malcolm Wellmaker (1-0) of Augusta vs. Kasim Ruffin (2-2).
The Grand Ballroom will seat about 2,000, with the doors opening at 6 p.m., and the first bout at 7 p.m. Tickets are $50 for general admission, $1,000 for a VIP table of 10 seats. Tickets went on sale at 11 a.m. Friday at ikonfc.com.
The UFC Fight Pass segment likely begins at 9 p.m., and for those unable to get tickets or who would rather watch from home, Masvidal has a friendly tip on the streaming service.
"I think the first month is free, so enjoy yourself," he said.
He promises a card of evenly matched fighters, making for compelling bouts. With iKON FC's position as a developmental circuit one step below UFC, fighters know what's on the line and want to make the best of their opportunities to impress and get called up.
"I really take pride in finding the best up-and-coming talent of the country, the next rock stars, the next super heroes in fighting," Masvidal said. "I think I consistently find a good batch of those guys, that are proven guys, that are up-and-coming very best versus the next up-and-coming very best."
While his focus has been showcasing promising talent in the first five or 10 bouts of their pro careers, there's also a place for former UFC veterans looking to get back to the big leagues.
"They got cut and went back on the regional circuit and they're killing it," Masvidal said. "Now we're putting them up against that guy that's 8-0 versus that UFC veteran that has two, three fights in the UFC. Those fights are always entertaining because we're really testing the up-and-comers and the veterans."
Being tested, one on one, is at the heart of combat sports such as MMA. Masvidal talks about the violence of the sport, that in a few seconds or 15 minutes, one competitor sets himself apart from the next by finishing him through knockout, submission or judges' decision.
Masvidal has won various ways, but among his accolades and accomplishments he's perhaps most famous in MMA for his 5-second knockout of Ben Askren by way of a flying knee on July 6, 2019. It's the fastest KO in UFC history.
Mental, physical toughness required
For all of the physicality, pounding and pain as well as the studied technique and discipline required and the entertainment factor, Masvidal said he is drawn to MMA for the "science" behind it.
In any match, the better fighter is not necessarily stronger or quicker, not necessarily the better athlete.
"Fighting is so many things," he said. "It's like a marathon mixed with a sprint, mixed with dancing, mixed with gymnastics. You've got to be athletic. It's a crazy sport, and that's why I love it.
"There's never a certainty in anything. Any one guy could beat any guy no matter how good that other guy is. It doesn't exist that thing that this person is unbeatable. It's a sport that I love and is ever evolving. It just keeps getting better and better. Every year the kids see it, they get hungrier, meaner, younger, tougher — more skill guys are coming up. Just the evolution of the sport is another thing I'm into big time."
Nathan Dominitz is the Sports Content Editor of the Savannah Morning News and savannahnow.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NathanDominitz
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: MMA fighter Jorge Masvidal promoting fight card in Savannah on Aug. 5