Always considered one of the richest collections of athletes in the promotion, the current makeup of the lightweight division just might be the best it has ever been.
No fighter better exemplifies that depth of talent at the moment than Beneil Dariush, who returns to action on Saturday night at UFC 248 in a rescheduled clash with Drakkar Klose.
The 30-year-old California resident enters on a three-fight winning streak and sporting an 11-4-1 record inside the Octagon, a mark that included an 8-2 run over his first 10 appearances that carried him into the rankings and landed him a co-main event showdown with Edson Barboza to start his 2017 campaign in the cage.
However, that bout kicked off a three-fight stretch where Dariush failed to secure a victory, causing him to slip from the rankings, and despite his recent return to form, the talented Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has been unable to regain entry into the Top 15.
Not that he’s particularly concerned about those types of things.
“All it really does is take away a lot of the stress and lets me say, ‘This is the fight I have in front of me, so this is all I’m going to worry about,’” said Dariush, who has earned Performance of the Night bonuses in each of his last two outings.
“People may not see it or they may not know it, but a guy like Drew Dober is an absolute stud,” he said of the streaking Elevation Fight Team member, who has posted back-to-back first-round stoppage wins since losing to Dariush last March in Kansas. “When I was fighting him, no one talked about him that much, but he’s a stud. He’s knocking people out left and right now and I don’t think a lot of people want that fight.
“I thought, ‘Great — I get to compete against a high-level guy. I’ll take it. I’m in.’”
While eschewing concerns about the rankings and title picture is a relatively new development for Dariush, his willingness to step into the Octagon against dangerous foes, whether they’re known or not, has been a hallmark of his career inside the UFC cage.
He made his promotional debut against 24-fight veteran Charlie Brenneman just one year after committing himself to a career in mixed martial arts, and then rebounded from the first loss of his career with a five-fight winning streak that included wins over Anthony Rocco Martin, Carlos Diego Ferreira, Jim Miller, and Michael Johnson.
He fought James Vick when he was undefeated and in the midst of his first extended run of success in the Octagon, more than a year before he broke into the rankings and started calling for marquee assignments, and Rashid Magomedov when he was on a 12-fight winning streak that had some talking about him as a future contender in the 155-pound weight class.
This weekend in Las Vegas, he’s doing it again by stepping in with the criminally underrated Klose on Saturday’s main card.
“I think people don’t give him enough credit,” he said of the 31-year-old Michigan native, who also enters their battle at T-Mobile Arena on a three-fight winning streak. “He’s had six fights in the UFC and he’s won five of those fights.
“There is a lot that goes into winning decisions in a three-round fight; it’s not just about being tough. You have to be calculating and I think he’s calculating; he knows how to fight well, fight to his strengths. People think he’s just an aggressive guy, but he’s more than that, and I have to go in there and take away his ability to dictate the pace.
“No one has really pushed him around, even in his loss,” he continued, citing Klose’s lone setback to David Teymur at UFC 218. “He hasn’t been pushed around, so I like this kind of fight. I like fighting guys who are calculating and aggressive, so I want to go out there and perform.
“I want to show this guy that ‘as good as you are, I’m better in all those situations.’”
For Dariush, his current string of strong results can be traced back to two factors: increased experience and a return to full health, which had previously limited his ability to train as he did in the past.
The recently married lightweight competed at a high level in Brazilian jiu-jitsu before transitioning to mixed martial arts and he didn’t really go all-in on MMA until after his third fight. He reached the UFC quickly and has fought an impressive schedule over the last six years, competing 10 times in his first three years on the roster and twice per year every year since.
And where some fighters are quick to point to injuries that hampered their training or limited their performance in the cage, the quiet lightweight actually went in the other direction, refusing to admit to himself that it was persistent neck issues and referred pain in his back that kept him from performing to the best of his abilities.
Once he finally stepped back, admitted there was an issue, and took the time to address it, Dariush has returned to being a dangerous threat in the ultra-competitive lightweight ranks.
“It was a big struggle for me just admitting I was injured,” began Dariush, who acknowledged he had never really taken the time to sit down and absorb everything he’d accomplished or let his body recover properly during the first several years of his UFC career. “Fixing my neck has really changed the game for me because I was able to get back and train the way I used to.
“Being able to go into a fight without doubts is the biggest thing and I’ve been able to do that lately,” he added ahead of his 17th appearance in the Octagon this weekend. “To be able to train as much as I can and step into that Octagon with supreme confidence has been the biggest thing for me.”
While he’s elated to be back to full strength, continuing to earn regular assignments against tough competition, and stacking up victories, the truth is that Dariush would prefer to remain a somewhat anonymous figure on the fringes of contention in the lightweight division.
“The problem with recognition is that it comes with a lot of drama,” he said. “I like being under the radar. I like fighting high-level competition and being under the radar. I don’t need much (in terms of publicity and recognition). I just want to continue to work my way up to the title and become a champion.
“Keep the drama for your mama,” Dariush added with a laugh. “I’m happy to compete against these tough guys that I keep getting.”