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Underrated Joseph Benavidez ready to seize second shot at Demetrious Johnson, UFC gold

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

 

The UFC has such a strong public relations and marketing team that very few of its fighters are ever underrated, or not given their just due.

 

But flyweight Joseph Benavidez is one of the rare elite UFC fighters who isn't given nearly enough credit for how talented of a fighter he is and how much he has accomplished in the sport.

Benavidez is 19-3 heading into a flyweight title bout on Saturday at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, Calif., against champion Demetrious Johnson in the main event of a Fox-televised card.

His losses came to two men – two to bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz and one to Johnson, the reigning flyweight champion – and two of those three were close.

The loss to Johnson was an agonizingly close decision that could have gone either way.

Benavidez, though, isn't the type to spend much time talking about his accomplishments or about his stature in the game. Those who watch him regularly and know him the best know how talented he is and how highly regarded he should be.

"Joseph is a fantastic fighter," Johnson said.

Urijah Faber, Benavidez's teammate at Team Alpha Male and his long-time friend, knows full well Benavidez's capabilities.

There isn't an obvious area of weakness in his game, Faber said, and he's able to compete at a high-level even when he's having an off-night.

Faber said Benavidez was injured when he fought Johnson for the title last year. He said Benavidez was very limited over the last month.

"A lot of people don't know that Joseph, before the last fight [with Johnson], got kicked in the head by one of our other guys," Faber said. "That really messed up his neck and split his head open. He wasn't able to do anything before the fight for about three-and-a-half weeks.

"He couldn't grapple. He couldn't spar. All he could do was shadow box and a little bit of running. People don't know that and it made a difference for him."

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Joseph Benavidez reacts after defeating Jussier Formiga. (USA Today)

Benavidez sighs when the topic was broached. He's not one for excuses and doesn't want to talk about it.

He doesn't want to take away from Johnson's performance, which he and Faber both concede was outstanding.

"When you go in there and fight, you pretty much relinquish and give up the right to make any excuses about something," he said. "I said I was ready to fight and ready to do it, so I don't want to start making excuses now. I hate when people come out after a fight and they talk about injuries."

The bout was outstanding, but Johnson's grappling was probably the difference in his split-decision win.

"Demetrious did some amazing grappling in that bout," Faber said.

It's something that Benavidez needed to work on, because Johnson has only gotten better at it in the 14 months since that match.

Benavidez has been dominant since his loss to Johnson, reeling off wins over Ian McCall, Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier Formiga. He finished both Uyenoyama and Formiga.

He has looked like one of the top five or 10 pound-for-pound fighters in the sport in those matches, but it's no different than he's looked for years.

He gave the gifted Cruz one of his best fights in their rematch at WEC 50 in 2010, dropping a split decision.

He didn't spend a lot of time thinking about the two losses to Cruz, but did lose a bit of sleep going over the defeat to Johnson.

"In the fights with Cruz, I lost, but I came out of those totally happy with my performance, because I felt I fought as well as I could at the time and he was just better," Benavidez said. "I believe you have to recognize that sometime and say, 'Hey, this guy was the better man on this night.' And when I fought Dominick, that was the case.

"The thing is, it's really hard to be the No. 1 absolute best in the world at something, no matter what you're doing. And it hurts a bit more when you feel like you could have done more than you did. And I felt in that fight with Demetrious, I put pressure and intensity on myself I did not need and I fought with emotion and anger. That isn't how I fight my best, and that cost me."

So Benavidez plans to go into the fight not consumed by winning the title, but rather on fighting his best.

If he does that, said Team Alpha Male coach Duane Ludwig, good things will follow.

"He's such a talented guy, he just needs to go out and control his emotions and do his thing," Ludwig said. "It's what I've been working on since I got here in January. A lot of people look at me like I'm the secret pill, which I guess I am to an extent, but there is a great amount of talent on this team and they're the ones doing the work.

"In [Benavidez's] case, it was just a thing of getting him to control his emotions. When he does that and doesn't go out to make it a fight and goes out like he's going to spar, he's pretty tough to beat."

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