After a lengthy run as one of the top bantamweights on the planet and often being referenced as one of the best fighters in the UFC without championship gold around his waist, the creation of the flyweight division made it feel like the stars were aligning for Joseph Benavidez.
He was tabbed as the odds-on favorite to win the title, and solidified that distinction with a blistering finish of Japanese veteran Yasuhiro Urushitani when the two met in Australia.
Heading into his UFC 152 showdown with Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, winning championship gold consumed the charismatic and usually carefree Benavidez.
He talked about becoming the “George Washington of the flyweight division” and looked forward to replacing the Polaroid of a UFC belt that sat on the mantle in his living room with the real thing.
During the months and weeks leading up to the fight – a period that was extended when Johnson and Ian McCall battled to a draw the same night Benavidez turned aside Urushitani – Benavidez built up the contest to epic proportions. It altered his approach in the gym, his demeanor during fight week, and ultimately his performance in the cage.
In his mind, it was life or death… and then he lost. > Watch: Joseph Benavidez's Signature Moves
Johnson earned a split decision victory, and Benavidez had to stand in the cage, watching as Dana White wrapped 12 pounds of leather and gold around the waist of someone else. The belt that was “destined” to be his was going to be resting on a mantle in Kirkland, Washington, not Sacramento, California, and all the people that had supported Benavidez along the way were sure to be through with him.
At least that’s what he thought.
He thought wrong.
His family and friends still showered him with love and support. His teammates continued to train with him. And the UFC and MMA community continued to view him as one of the very best in the sport. The only one who saw the flyweight championship loss as a catastrophic event in the life and career of Joseph Benavidez was Benavidez himself.
“It was definitely a life-changer, but it really changed my attitude towards life and fighting back to what it was,” says Benavidez of his first meeting with Johnson as the days count down to their second encounter. “It was really just that one fight that I feel like I kind of got away from myself as far as enjoying (the experience) and taking the fight as `just another fight.’ It was just so colossal to me, and with the wait, I built it up and obsessed over it way too much.
“I had never done that for a fight before, but I also never had a fight that was the first-ever flyweight title, so it really helped me just get back to what I did before – keep it easygoing, stay relaxed; know that it’s another day at the office out there, and have fun. I’m lucky to be doing this and it’s fun for me, so it’s really just been getting back to that for me.
“I always want to win, but if the last fight was life or death, it’s never going to be like that again. That was the worst it could possibly be – I built that up so much, I couldn’t imagine losing, and I did lose. That’s the worst that’s going to happen, and I’ve gone through that, so what else is there to worry about as far as the rematch is concerned?”
The first two fighters to compete for the UFC flyweight title renew acquaintances Saturday night as the UFC returns to FOX. > Watch: Benavidez vs. Johnson I
Originally scheduled to take place at the end of November in Las Vegas, an injury to lightweight champ Anthony Pettis necessitated the bout being moved back and relocated to Benavidez’ adopted hometown of Sacramento, California and a fight card that features three of his teammates – Danny Castillo, Chad Mendes, and Urijah Faber.
Following his initial loss to Johnson, Benavidez made a point of stating he was in no rush to return to a championship contest – equal parts fearful of being stuck in limbo as he was at bantamweight following a pair of decision losses to Dominick Cruz and being focused on taking the time to make improvements.
Through his first three fights of 2013, it has been evident that the 29-year-old contender has accomplished the latter.
There has arguably been no bigger story in MMA this year than the dominance of Team Alpha Male since Duane “Bang” Ludwig assumed the role of head coach with the elite squad of lighter weight fighters. The unit has lost just once in the Octagon – TJ Dillashaw’s close decision defeat to Raphael Assuncao in October – with each member of the team showing obvious developments in their striking technique since starting to work with Ludwig.
Benavidez has been the most impressive of the bunch. > Watch: Team Alpha Male's Secret Weapon
In February, he earned a decision win over Ian McCall, following up that performance with a second-round stoppage victory over Darren Uyenoyama in April. Then in September, he traveled to Belo Horizonte, Brazil and finished the highly regarded Jussier Formiga in just over three minutes, literally punching his ticket to a rematch with Johnson in the process.
“The biggest change (since our first fight) is that he had a kid and I got a dog; that would be the biggest thing. We’re fighting to put food on the table,” laughs Benavidez, clearly approaching his second meeting with “Mighty Mouse” in a much more relaxed and casual fashion.
“Since (the first fight), I think I’ve shown improvement, and that goes with the mentality that I’ve switched back to and the techniques I’ve been learning and the training I’ve been getting from a new coach.
“Those are two pretty big things that have happened in between a fight. It’s easy to have a fight and say, `I’ve changed this and I’ve changed that,’ but those are two pretty big things that I can talk about and are concrete that you can see. There have definitely been some big improvements that I’ve made since our last fight.”
While highlight packages make it easy to focus on the technical development Benavidez has shown since Ludwig’s arrival, talking to the once-and-current flyweight title challenger makes it readily apparent that as much as he has grown as a fighter inside the cage, it’s his mental approach to Saturday night’s rematch that could have the greatest impact on the outcome.
Odd as it may seem given the circumstances and stakes – a championship fight, a chance to avenge a loss and achieve a career milestone, at home, on network television – Benavidez really does see this as just another fight. > Watch: UFC on FOX 9 Pre-Fight Presser
“I don’t want to make it seem like I don’t care about it or anything, but the reality is I can’t do anything about it,” he laughs. “The biggest thing that helps is that I built the last one up so much that I felt like my world was going to come crumbling down if I lost. I really, honestly thought there was no way it was going to happen – it was never in my mind – and it happened. It’s not going to get worse than that.
“At the end of the day, I’m fighting for my third world title – there are a ton of people that are never going to get a title fight in their career, and that makes me work that much harder to keep it going and have some success.
“I fight in the UFC. Every fighter that does this sport dreams of fighting in the UFC, and I get to do it. Every person in the world wishes they could do something they love for a living – that’s their main goal – and I get to do what I love. I get to do it for the best organization in the world, and I get to do it with the top guys. I’m lucky to be doing this, and I’m always going to go out there and do the best that I can – and that’s all I can do.”
And if he manages to emerge victorious as the new UFC flyweight champion, don’t expect a wild,Renan Barao-esque celebration out of Benavidez.
“Last time, whenever I thought about winning the belt, I almost felt like I was going to cry. I would tense up and want to yell – just when I was thinking about winning it. Now when I think about winning it, I just kind of think about being like `All right – nice. I get a belt this time.’ It’s weird, but I think that’s the way it’s built up in my head.
“This time I just visualize smiling, looking at the family, the team, and the corners – nothing crazy, because win or lose, I still have to go back and train my ass off. Nothing really changes either way.”
After all, this is just another fight.
Joseph Benavidez: Just Another Fight
"Every person in the world wishes they could do something they love for a living – that’s their main goal – and I get to do what I love." - Joseph Benavidez