It was March 16, 2019, and London’s O2 Arena was packed for a UFC Fight Night. Darren Till, a popular local fighter from Liverpool, was facing Jorge Masvidal in the main event. Till was favored to beat Masvidal and then face Ben Askren, who was in attendance, for a shot at the welterweight title.
But plans — and Masvidal’s career — took a dramatic turn that night. It was a turn that eventually led Masvidal to Saturday’s UFC 261 main event in Jacksonville, Florida, where he will get his second crack at champion Kamaru Usman.
There was nothing about how that fight started in London that suggested Masvidal was destined for stardom. Masvidal raced across the Octagon and delivered an illegal kick to Till’s groin in the opening seconds, pausing the bout almost immediately after it started. A few seconds after action resumed, the powerful Till floored Masvidal with a straight left hand.
To many, this was just how the fight was expected to unfold. Till, ranked No. 3 by the UFC, was coming off his only professional loss, to champion Tyron Woodley six months earlier. Masvidal, ranked No. 11, was coming off two consecutive losses and was 4-5 in his previous nine. He hadn’t fought in 16 months, during which time he participated in a reality TV show and reevaluated his career. Masvidal was generally viewed as a stepping stone for Till to get another title shot.
But by the time Masvidal left the arena that night, his losing streak and relative anonymity would be cast aside. He would take the first steps toward becoming one of the UFC’s biggest draws and one of its most recognizable personalities. And it wasn’t just because he came back to knock Till out in the second round.
People who were there tell the story of a fighter who displayed grit inside the cage and street cred — or reckless behavior, depending on who’s asked — after the bout when emotions boiled over into an altercation with Leon Edwards, a Birmingham, England, resident who won on the undercard. It was a night that produced a new star, a video that is the fourth-most watched in the history of ESPN’s MMA YouTube channel and a phrase coined by Masvidal that has taken root in MMA pop culture.
Editor’s note: The following quotes were gathered from interviews conducted recently and some dating back closer to the event. Some quotes were edited for brevity and clarity.
Till tried to get Masvidal’s back after knocking him down, but Masvidal was able to scramble to his feet and land some solid shots later in the round.
Mark Goddard, referee: Darren came out super quick. I think it was a straight left initially that more caught Jorge off balance and going backwards. But he put him down really early. And again, true to form, what’s the first thing Jorge does? Smile and stick his tongue out. As if to say, “Thanks for that, you reminded me I’m in a fight.”
Masvidal: I wasn’t hurt at all. He turned the lights off, and then turned them back on just as quick. It was one of those flash knockdowns, where it gets you woken up. I felt good when I got back up to my feet. I wasn’t wobbled or anything, so I was able to get right after it.
Dan Hardy, commentator and fighter: It was a really hyperactive fight that was going back and forth. The tension in the arena was pretty high. It was an environment that had you hanging on the edge of your seat with every punch.
Forty seconds into the second round, Till accidentally poked Masvidal in his left eye. The fight once again was paused and the doctor came in to examine the eye, but Masvidal didn’t complain about not being able to see, so the action was allowed to continue. With two minutes left in the round, Masvidal switched to southpaw, floated a right jab and then came over the top with a huge left hand that landed on Till’s jaw. Till might have lost consciousness at that moment and began to fall backwards as Masvidal landed a couple more shots during a chaotic rush. Till’s head violently bounced off the mat, and he laid there unconscious while Masvidal walked around the cage looking at the stunned crowd.
Goddard: I already knew that Darren was out. You can tell by his arm. He goes stiff as a board while still standing.
Obviously, I’m closing the difference very quickly because I already knew. I’ll try to catch him if I can. I could tell just by the body shape and the way he was falling that you’re not bouncing back from this. I’m glad I did, because Jorge was on top of him, too, super quick. He’s just doing his job, right? It’s the referee’s job to get in there and separate them in the heat of the moment.
Hardy: Darren’s family was over my left shoulder. I remember the arena just falling silent at the knockout. When Masvidal’s punch landed, he actually walked toward the commentary booth and pointed at Paul Felder and I, and said, “You knew I could do it.”
After Hardy interviewed Masvidal in the Octagon, it was time for Masvidal’s postfight television interview. Usually, fighters walk to a desk on the television set to talk with analysts. But on this night, one of the analysts was Michael Bisping, who had a verbal confrontation with Masvidal two years earlier in the fighters hotel before UFC 217.
Laura Sanko, UFC reporter: At the time, there was a little bit of concern that might not be the best dynamic to have there. They said, “We’re going to have Jorge go to you instead, Laura, and we’ll throw to you live.” I was kind of secretly excited, because in those specific situations, I don’t usually get the main-event winner.
As Masvidal was doing his interview, his eyes locked on Edwards, who was walking behind the cameraperson.
Sanko: Normally, the interview area is positioned where we’re out of the main flow of traffic. There’s usually about 30 to 40 feet between where I stand and where people would be walking in any sort of corridor or hallway situation. But for whatever reason, the way the O2 Arena was set up, I had the shallowest set I’ve ever had in my life. I was right on top of the backdrop, and the camera was right on top of me. And so, when Leon walked past and said something to him, normally that person would be really far away, but he was right up on us. I would say maybe 8 feet to 10 feet, maximum.
Jorge for sure heard him. And I thought, this might get interesting. They might chirp back and forth a little bit. I saw Jorge’s eyes move away from me and start moving past me.
Jorge Masvidal provides his perspective on what caused the backstage fight between himself and Leon Edwards at UFC Fight Night in London.
I never entirely heard what Leon said. He didn’t say anything crazy at first. The first thing he said was some sort of question, like, “How about us next?” “How about us in July?” Then Jorge is like, “Maybe, maybe not.” Immediately after that, Leon called him a p—y. Leon kept walking.
Then you see what happened. I immediately was like, OK, they’re going to go over there and yell at each other. But it’s not going to be what it was, because I saw Jorge walking with his hands behind his back. That, to me, was a less threatening posture. In retrospect, it’s kind of not.
Masvidal: So I’m doing my interview, and this hooligan comes by, saying some stuff, “July, get your ass kicked, July.” And I go, “Maybe, whatever,” maybe I want to kick your ass in April, maybe I don’t want to wait till July, maybe I don’t even want to fight you because you’re not worth a training camp. I’ll just fight you here, because you’re a scrub. So I tell him, “Just say it to my face, like a man. You’re saying it walking away.”
As I’m walking to him, I’ve got my hands behind my back to signal I’m not coming here for problems. But he puts his hands up and walks towards me. Well, where I’m from, if you do that, you’re going to punch me in the face. And that’s not going to happen.
Edwards: We were both doing media. I was walking past. He was staring at me. I said, “Are we fighting in July?” He walked out of his interview. I walked towards him as well.
Abe Kawa, Masvidal’s manager: I was actually on the phone with Jon Jones, and I’m watching as all this is happening. Leon was coming my way, so ok, they’re going to start yapping at each other, or he was going to start yapping at Jorge. So when I saw Leon start yapping, I was like, “here we go.”
What people don’t understand is the way Leon was walking, there were double doors, and he was supposed to go through the double doors. He decided not to and turned to go towards Jorge. If Leon was absolutely not trying to start anything, he could have walked through the double doors.
Knowing Jorge, you can’t do that. If he keeps walking, nothing happens. The second I knew they were going to get face to face, I knew at that moment, Jorge was going to go.
The cameraperson who was shooting Sanko’s interview stayed on Masvidal as he and Edwards met near a metal guard rail. When they got within striking distance, Masvidal threw a quick combination and the two were quickly separated. Edwards suffered a cut and swelling under his left eye. He later disputed Masvidal’s version of how he approached the encounter.
Edwards: Why would I walk towards him with my hands up? If I did do that, he wouldn’t be able to land nothing on me. He threw a few shots, and the security grabbed us back, and that was it. That was the whole situation. He got away this time, but it will never happen again.
Sanko: It all happened pretty quickly. But Leon definitely did take a step toward him aggressively, and his hands were not behind his back. Jorge for sure swung first.
Tim Simpson, Edwards’ manager: It was effectively a cheap shot, and then they were separated by security. There’s been no chance for him to redeem that, on the night of or any time since. Anyone can land a few shots on someone by surprise, and then Leon has been robbed of the chance to retaliate.
“So I give him the three-piece with a soda, and then just glide out of there.”
Goddard: Leon’s there with his friends and family. There’s a lot of people. It could have gotten ugly. It could have gotten really ugly. Fortunately, it didn’t.
Dana White, UFC president (to Yahoo Sports): I do blame my staff. There’s never a scenario where you let guys walk up to each other like that backstage. We have enough people backstage that that shouldn’t happen, including security. I’m super disappointed in my whole crew for that one.
These guys are fighters, they’re in the heat of the moment, he just won, he’s got the adrenaline pumping and [Edwards] comes by, plus Masvidal is ‘that guy.’
As soon as he walked up the stage with his hands behind his back, 10 people from the UFC should have jumped in there. That stuff shouldn’t happen.
The thought of potential legal trouble for Masvidal surfaced, but ultimately he didn’t face any repercussions from law enforcement or the UFC.
Dave Lovell, Edwards’ coach: To me, it was a case of assault. If we had reported it as an assault, which it was because Leon sustained a nasty cut under his eye, technically he would have been charged.
But we just said, “OK, he got away with it. His time will come.” We’re not dwelling on it. If that fight happens, it happens. God willing, Leon wins the title and [Masvidal is] still on the scene, but personally, I think he’s on the tail end of his career.
Kawa: I called Hunter [Campbell, the UFC’s executive VP] right away. I said “Hunter, Jorge is not in the wrong here.” Hunter told me, “Dude, I saw the video.” I said, “You can call your security and let them explain to you what actually happened. Because what you’re seeing on camera is Jorge approaching him, but you aren’t seeing that the doors where Leon was supposed to go through, he didn’t go through.”
So the initial thing was ‘Jorge did this, Jorge did that,’ and then once security and everybody said exactly what happened, the parts the camera didn’t catch, everything was ok.
Masvidal: It’s just stupid. It’s just something that happened. In some ways I wish I can control myself, but at the same time, I can’t if someone disrespects me on the constant. This guy’s been attacking me on social media, talking crap. I wish it didn’t get more attention than what I love to do, which is to fight.
Kawa: I’m so happy that nothing really bad came out of it. People can say what they want, I’m not happy that it went down that way. It’s not professional. But people have to defend themselves. If he feels threatened, he’s going to defend himself. I would encourage everybody to do that.
Masvidal: It’s on video, me defending myself. This hooligan threatened my well-being, my life. I was scared, maybe I didn’t look like it because I’m cold-blooded, but I was scared out of my mind.
The video of the skirmish has over 6 million views. According to Kawa, Masvidal’s team told Sanko “We owe you one,” for not finishing the interview, then they went back to the locker room.
Kawa: He actually didn’t want to do any media at that point. He was like, “Let’s get the f— out of here.” I said, “It’s better if we say our side of the story,” because talking to Hunter, talking to everybody, I’m already getting the impression that everybody is thinking he went up to Leon and just struck him. And that’s not what happened. I said, “If we don’t tell our side, they have the right to go with their narrative the way they see fit, and I don’t want that to be the case.” What I wanted was to say our side, and whatever they take, they take. I wanted to make sure to put our version up there as well.
Masvidal just started a fight backstage with Leon Edwards so he doesn’t have to fight me next 😂
— Funky (@Benaskren) March 16, 2019
Brett Okamoto, ESPN reporter: After the scuffle or altercation or whatever you want to call it, I was in a press area in the back of the arena, and I remember UFC PR telling me Jorge wasn’t going to talk to any more press because of what happened. And I told UFC PR, who are very helpful both at and between fights, “Man, we have to talk to Jorge. He just upset Darren Till in London! This is a big deal.” I think the obvious initial thought by those on the ground was to let the dust settle, and it’s not as if Jorge wouldn’t give an interview at a later date — but of course, I wanted to talk to him when it was still fresh, when the adrenaline was still there.
So, I texted Abe Kawa, and asked if Jorge would talk to me, and Abe was like, “Oh yeah, he’s chilling. He’s in a great mood. Come on back.” UFC PR still wasn’t keen on the idea — again, I think they just wanted to diffuse the situation and keep Jorge and his team isolated — so, I texted UFC president Dana White, who was in the U.S., I believe, and basically said the same thing I’d said to PR, “This is a big result. We need to talk to the man who just won by knockout in the main event.” White agreed. So, it was actually White and Kawa who helped get me in front of Jorge.
We went back to his locker room, and he comes out and sits down in this folding chair, wearing a full white tracksuit — the most relaxed a human could possibly be — and does the interview.
While describing the incident with Edwards, Masvidal coined a phrase that remains popular over two years later.
Masvidal: So I give him the (throws a quick air combination) three-piece with a soda, and then just glide out of there.
Okamoto: We thanked him and walked out, and when we got to the hallway, I turned to the cameraman who had filmed it and said, “Did you hear when he said, ‘Three-piece and a soda and glide on outta there?” The cameraman had heard it, and had found it as funny as I did.
Honestly, the best part of the line to me was the, “Glide on outta there” part, for some reason. Such a visual. Anyway, I knew the interview was going to do well, that a lot of people would see it, and I knew that line was going to get attention, but I didn’t realize “three-piece and a soda” would become such a staple of MMA lexicon.
The YouTube video of the interview has over 1.2 million views, and T-shirts were made featuring the slogan. Masvidal lamented the idea that more people remember the altercation than the win over Till, but it’s unlikely Masvidal’s star would have ascended as rapidly without the entirety of that evening. Instead of Till facing Askren, it was Masvidal who went on to knock out Askren in a UFC-record five seconds on July 6, 2019. Masvidal then won the mythical BMF title by stopping Nate Diaz on Nov. 2, 2019. He lost a unanimous decision in his first shot at Usman’s belt on July 11, 2020, but that was on six days notice. Usman is giving him another opportunity, and the champ admitted one of the reasons he called out Masvidal for a rematch was because of Masvidal’s popularity, which translates into more pay-per-view buys and bigger purses. As far as Edwards, he fights Diaz on May 15. He’s hoping a win lands him a title shot. It’s possible Masvidal and Edwards will fight — officially — at some point.
Kawa: Playing Captain Hindsight, [the whole night] was fantastic. I’d be dumb to say it wasn’t good.
Okamoto: When I look back on ‘the rise of Jorge Masvidal’ it definitely started in London. It started even before the fight. The way he carried himself … it was like Jorge Masvidal had decided he was a superstar before he was a superstar. It’s like someone had shown him the future — ‘This is what’s going to happen for you in 2019’ — and he was just there to enjoy living it.
Sanko: I think really what made him a star was less about the fact that he was throwing punches and more about the fact of how authentic he was and is and always will be, every time he’s on camera. He’s not coming up with these quips beforehand. This is how he talks, how he is. And given his background, I don’t mean to say, ‘What do you expect?,’ but it’s his authentic response. I think people are drawn to that.
You get the sense that he lives and breathes this. This is not a guy who likes to compete — it’s a guy who likes to fight. There’s something kind of dangerous and cool and interesting about a real-life gangster.
ESPN reporters Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi contributed to this report.