Joseph Benavidez has waited long enough for third shot at UFC title


Joseph Benavidez was in the midst of a TV interview backstage in Las Vegas, wearing the cruel facial evidence that he had just been in a scrap. Through bloodied lips, he reflected on his split-decision victory over Henry Cejudo, and when the subject of his immediate future came up, Benavidez’s eyes brightened through the bruises.

He blurted out the one name you would have expected to hear back in December 2016 from a UFC flyweight on a six-fight winning streak.

“The only fight I want is Demetrious,” he said, going with just a first name because that’s all that was needed when referring to the long-reigning champion at 125 pounds, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson.

Then, Benavidez amplified his callout for all to hear. “Me and Demetrious can fight a million times,” he insisted, “and have a million amazing contests.”

The interviewer knew exactly what Benavidez was doing. Megan Olivi was holding the microphone, after all, and she understands this particular fighter better than anyone on the planet. Olivi, a regular on UFC broadcasts, is married to Benavidez, and they have been cast in the awkward role of interviewer and interviewee on several occasions over the years.

In this instance, Olivi was able to discern and appreciate that Benavidez was not spewing empty bombast. Yes, it was the longest of long shots that he would actually get Johnson. That was apparent to anyone who followed MMA and its weight-division machinations. Johnson had already defeated Benavidez twice in title bouts, the second time by first-round KO, and wasn’t likely to be called upon to prove himself still another time. And while the UFC loves itself a trilogy, it was a tough sell when the score is 2-0. But Olivi knew none of that was going to nudge Benavidez off course.

He was going to continue pointing himself in the champion’s direction, no matter how long the odds. Benavidez aspired to be at the top of his chosen sport, and for as long as Johnson was the one residing there, this steadfast pursuit would steer Benavidez into his neighborhood.

“Joe has always been a guy who stays the course,” Olivi said, reflecting on that time and what made it both difficult and revelatory. “Throughout his life, whatever challenge was in front of him, he has always just kept his head down and did the work. If it was going to be a hard, long road, he’d be on it for the long haul.”

This particular haul would take years longer.

“That was a hard time, starting with the second loss to Demetrious,” Benavidez acknowledges. “I knew I had to just keep believing, never lose sight of my purpose. As a fighter, you need to be delusional in a way. It keeps you going.”

That mindset impressed his wife, who sometimes found her own outlook veering toward unsteady. “It was challenging,” said Olivi, “to watch the person you love not being able to reach the goal he so badly wanted to accomplish.”

Yet, Benavidez, for all his inner strength, recalls Olivi being the one who had a way of boosting his resolve whenever hopelessness began closing in. Johnson’s reign rolled on and on for almost six years, reaching double figures in title defenses. Other flyweights — among them, fighters Benavidez had beaten — were leapfrogging “Joe Jitsu” on their way to title challenges. He sometimes felt like he was walking up the down escalator.

“Megan would point out that I’ve always had to do things the hard way,” Benavidez said. “‘Look,’ she’d tell me, ‘if you just keep winning, it’s going to happen for you someday.'”

That someday is Saturday, when Benavidez (28-5), winner of three fights in a row and nine of his past 10, will compete for the UFC flyweight championship. He won’t be facing Johnson, though, and won’t even be rematching Cejudo, who took the belt away from Johnson in 2018. This weekend’s showdown is against Deiveson Figueiredo for a vacant title.

“I could never have expected the roundabout way we’ve got to where we are now,” said the 35-year-old Benavidez. “Life is crazy. It goes in directions that you could never guess.”

Early on in Benavidez’s MMA life, the direction was up, up, up. He fought as a bantamweight in the WEC and, despite being undersized for the division, chopped down everyone he ran into, with one exception: Dominick Cruz. He dropped a pair of fights to “The Dominator” — the second for the WEC bantamweight title — in just over a year, and that put Benavidez in the same position in which he would find himself with Johnson years later: He didn’t have a prayer of getting another audience with the king anytime soon.

But that roadblock just led to a new path.

Soon after the parent company of the WEC and UFC merged the promotions at the start of 2011, the UFC absorbed the WEC’s roster of fighters in lighter weight classes and made a decision to add one more division.

“Honestly, it was such a relief for that weight class to come into being,” said Benavidez. “I don’t know if I would have been around for as long if I was still at ’35, fighting bigger guys. When the UFC announced that 125 tournament, I remember thinking, ‘Finally, this is my spot.'”

Oddsmakers wholeheartedly agreed. In the UFC’s four-man tournament to crown an inaugural champion, which kicked off in March 2012, Benavidez was a 6-1 favorite in his first-round fight, and he knocked out Yasuhiro Urushitani in the second round. That set up a September finale against Johnson, and Benavidez was favored in that one, too, by nearly 3-1 odds.

But it turned out to be Johnson’s night. The co-main event of UFC 152 in Toronto, slotted right before a Jon Jones title defense, was five rounds of rapid-fire back-and-forth — and Johnson eked out a split decision to become flyweight champion.

Fifteen months later, after Benavidez had won three in a row to earn a second shot at the belt, Johnson knocked him out in 2 minutes, 8 seconds.

“That was supposed to be my incredible redemption moment,” said Benavidez. “Instead …”

Instead, it was welcome back to no-man’s-land.

Benavidez had to remind himself that he was in this sport because he loves it. Journey over destination. All he could do, once again, was stay the course, even if it would prove to be a marathon course.

It was nearly five years later that the UFC-record run of 11 title defenses for Johnson finally ended with a split-decision loss to Cejudo.

“I felt this shift,” Benavidez recalls.

“That is one of the things that I’m proudest of in this long wait for a title fight,” says Benavidez. “I never compromised my integrity by playing a character. I didn’t tweet anybody something crazy. I was just myself, kept winning and stayed ready. I didn’t sell my soul.”

Joseph Benavidez

Flyweight had known no champion other than Johnson. There had been no lineage of eras, as there were in other divisions. At 125 pounds, there’d been only a long line of futile uprisings dutifully and devastatingly squashed. Until that moment.

“You’re never happy for somebody to lose, especially someone like Demetrious, a guy I respect on a personal level,” said Benavidez. “But him losing opened a window for fresh air to get in.”

It was the portal through which Benavidez could reenter the title picture. Before he could cross that threshold, however, there had to be a dance partner waiting for him.

That should have been easy. There was an obvious pairing staring the UFC in the face. Cejudo was now champion, and the No. 1 contender just happened to be the last guy to beat him. Matchmaking 101.

But Cejudo was interested in bigger opponents on bigger stages. He targeted then-bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw and defended his flyweight belt against him. He fought Marlon Moraes for the vacant bantamweight title and won it, becoming the latest double champ. He angled for fights with featherweight belt-holder Alexander Volkanovski, and ultimately booked a title fight against a faded legend from that weight class, Jose Aldo, who is coming off two losses. He even playfully called out flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko.

Cejudo had his eye on everyone but Benavidez.

Two divisions were frozen when Cejudo underwent shoulder surgery in June 2019, which would put him out of action through the first quarter of 2020. Finally, in December, the champ-champ announced he would be focusing on his bantamweight reign and relinquished the flyweight title.

“He pretty much lost the belt,” said Benavidez. “The last guy he’d lost to was up next, and he made the choice not to get that loss back. It’s one thing to lose your title in an incredible, five-round fight. He gave it up without putting up a fight.”

Benavidez does not begrudge Cejudo for his choice, though, other than wishing he hadn’t waited nearly a year to decide his flyweight future or lack thereof. And Benavidez certainly does not feel like Saturday’s title fight is diminished by the absence of Triple-C.

“This was Cejudo’s fight to want, to chase,” he said. “I’m never chasing somebody I already beat. It was never about fighting him again. I was chasing a world championship, and I still am.”

The fight now sitting in front of Benavidez is one he can get excited about. He will compete against a 17-1 Brazilian who, like him, gets it done both on the feet and on the canvas. (Figueiredo has eight knockouts and six submissions; Benavidez has eight KOs and nine subs.) And the two also are similar in how they got to where they are — by fighting, not talking.

“That is one of the things that I’m proudest of in this long wait for a title fight,” said Benavidez. “I never compromised my integrity by playing a character. I didn’t tweet anybody something crazy. I was just myself, kept winning and stayed ready. I didn’t sell my soul.”

And if he becomes world champion on Saturday?

“It might sound crazy,” said Benavidez, a lilt coming into his voice, “but I’ll just fight the next-best guy in my division. No other weight class. No other gender. I know, sounds like crazy talk. But what’s so wrong about just wanting to defend your belt like a champion?”

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