“I would love to submit him since he’s supposed to be a grappler and that would be a great feather in my hat, to submit another black belt.”
Miguel Torres. Rani Yahya. Jeff Curran. Three prodigious, widely-respected Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts, and also three men whom Joseph Benavidez has defeated in the cage. Those big-name triumphs help explain why the explosive bantamweight is feeling especially frisky before Thursday’s battle with 14-2 veteran Wagnney Fabiano. In fact, in a sport where top fighters commonly craft gameplans to exploit their opponents’ weaknesses, Benavidez (12-2) claims he’s not afraid to attack Fabiano where he’s strongest.
“I would love to submit him since he’s supposed to be a grappler and that would be a great feather in my hat, to submit another black belt,” Benavidez said. “I’ve fought Rani Yahya, Jeff Curran and Miguel Torres, and they’re all black belts, and I’ve had great fights against all of them. A lot of people think I will go out there and try to wrestle him and grind out a decision. But it would be great to submit him.”
The black belt slayer has finished 10 foes, seven by submission. He holds the distinction of being the only man to submit Miguel Torres in an MMA fight, a guillotine choke set into motion by a wicked elbow that created a monstrous gash on Torres’ forehead, causing a downpour of blood that temporarily blinded the former world champion and obstructed his breathing.
Fabiano, a former International Fight League champion, received his black belt from Andre Pederneiras, the renowned BJJ instructor who also (rather quietly it seems) happens to be one of the world’s pre-eminent MMA instructors. This is the same Andre Pederneiras who awarded B.J. Penn his black belt a decade ago, the same Andre Pederneiras who produced seven-time BJJ world champion Robson Moura (one of the great jiu-jitsu technicians of our day), the same Andre Pederneiras who has produced WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, superstar-in-grooming Renan Barao (23-1) and a sizable stable of hungry, talented Brazilian lightweights who could half-way fill a UFC fight card if they had to. Fabiano, a native Brazilian who now lives in Toronto, journeyed to his motherland for the final six weeks of his camp to train alongside Aldo and the outstanding cast of others.
“I know he’s not going to have the training camp that I’m going to have,” Fabiano said. “But it’s a big honor to fight him. He’s a big challenge. If I beat him then maybe I’ll have an opportunity for a title shot and that’s my goal, to become champ.”
Benavidez knows what it’s like to compete for the WEC hardware. The short and stocky 26-year-old fought 135-pound kingpin Dominick Cruz in August, waging a spirited five-round campaign against the champ before losing a split decision. The elusive Cruz is the only man to beat Benavidez, and has done so twice. And while it’s tempting to presume that perhaps Benavidez emerged from the championship defeat a bit heart-broken, he indicated that his performance actually bolstered his confidence and ignited his passion to return to the cage as quickly as possible. That’s why, when Brian Bowles suffered an injury, Benavidez jumped at the chance to replace him on the WEC 52 card despite only five weeks’ notice.
“Against Dominick Cruz, I went out there for five rounds, with a world championship on the line, and lost a split decision to the best guy in the world. For five rounds,” Benavidez said. “It was just a matter of inches, otherwise I would be the world champion right now. That made me mature a lot and gain a ton of confidence. I was in there for five rounds against a crazy standup guy like Dominick Cruz. Now I’m going against a slower, less dynamic standup guy in Wagnney Fabiano. So that definitely gives me confidence.
“Wagnney’s standup is not bad, it’s actually really technical and powerful. He’s just a slow fighter; he’s not very speedy and that’s where I will have an advantage. He uses his standup to get you to the ground. I’m definitely looking to exploit him on the feet, but I feel like I can grapple with black belts and I feel 100 percent confident being on top of anybody … his main game is holding someone down but I’m like a greased pig out there and I’m not letting anyone hold me down.”
While Benavidez won a high school wrestling state title in New Mexico, Fabiano, one of the more muscularly shredded fighters at 135, is also known for his well-timed takedowns and smothering acumen. A featherweight for much of his career, the Brazilian decided to drop a weight class after Mackens Semerzier submitted him with a triangle choke, generating one of 2009’s most memorable upsets. It marked the first and only time Fabiano has been finished in his 10-year career, though he is 2-0 since the move south.
“My ground is the strongest part of my game but I’m ready to stand and exchange with him if I have to,” said Fabiano, who owns two TKO wins. “But I’ll come with my surprises.”
Benavidez, who will be fighting on Thursday’s main card along with fellow Team Alpha Male products Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes, was asked if he considers Fabiano to be an elite fighter. His response proved interesting.
“He was the crème of the crop, the IFL champ, before he came to the WEC,” Benavidez said. “He was doing really good at 145 … and then I heard a lot of things about his loss to Mackens, that he wasn’t really into it. I think he was ranked Top 3 in the world at 145 at one time, but since he’s dropped down to this weight, I don’t think he’s faced an elite bantamweight, so this is kind of to see if he’s elite or not. I’ve fought a lot of elite guys. I’m looking to show that I am the best of the best and that he’s not. I think cardio and speed will play a big factor and I might be able to catch him in a submission or a knockout.”
Benavidez speaks for a lot of WEC fighters when he says that the organization’s looming merger with the UFC (its Zuffa brethren) is “huge,” but conceded he’s going to miss the little-guy brand that raised his profile.
“It’s kind of sad to see the WEC go because it’s been a huge part of my life, it’s changed my life,” he said. “I’ll always look back and be proud to say ‘I was part of that and it’s something historic.’ This happens in a lot of major sports, when leagues merge, and it’s cool to be a part of that. This is my last WEC fight and so I’m looking to fight my tail off for the organization and go out with a bang.”