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LAS VEGAS – Joseph Benavidez had surrendered the comfort of his family, the security of a full-time job, the ease of a familiar routine, rounded up everything he owned and drove about 1,000 miles from New Mexico to California hoping to fulfill a dream and become a world-class mixed martial arts fighter.
Benavidez left his home in Las Cruces, N.M., with no illusions. He knew it would be hard and that the odds were stacked against him. He has beaten the odds to this point and will meet Dominick Cruz on Wednesday for the World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight title in the main event of WEC 50 at the Palms Resort.
Moving north and giving up everything he knew and everything that was familiar to him to take a chance at fulfilling dream was risky, but Benavidez said he never let the thought of the risk deter him.
"I didn't care," he said. "I knew that if I was going to take my career to the next level, this was what I would have to do. Nothing meant more to me than that."
Benavidez had an official record of 2-0 when he left Las Cruces in January 2007, but he had many more underground fights for which he was paid that weren't recorded. He'd wound up in the Sacramento, Calif., gym owned by Urijah Faber, then the WEC featherweight champion.
Benavidez had flown to Sacramento on vacation around Thanksgiving 2006 to meet Faber. But Benavidez is only about 5-foot-3 and Faber mentally dismissed him as a potential high-level fighter almost instantly upon seeing him.
"I thought he was too small," Faber said. "I really didn't expect much."
Benavidez, though, wanted it, badly. He rolled with Faber and some of Faber's high-level protégés. No one had an easy time with Benavidez and most of them absorbed a terrible beating from him. It wasn't long until Faber was favorably impressed by Benavidez's grit, determination and talent.
Faber offered him a job at the gym and a spot on his growing Team Alpha Male fight club. Benavidez accepted quickly and moved to Sacramento in January 2007. The first day, Faber asked him to pass out fliers advertising the newly opened gym, which wasn't even listed in the local telephone books at that point.
"I went into every parking garage in the city and went up and down every aisle on every floor, putting fliers on the windshields of cars," Benavidez said.
Faber saw quickly that Benavidez was a perfectionist and an extraordinarily hard worker. Benavidez would open the gym in the morning, mop the floors, clean the toilets, wipe down the mats and answer the telephones. He jumped into the fitness classes and was the hardest worker in them. He would stick around for the pro training sessions and was giving his new teammates everything they could handle.
He quickly won his first five fights after joining forces with Faber and was developing a reputation as a bantamweight to watch. But Benavidez was frustrated. He was beating the best the lower-level circuits had to offer, but wasn't getting close to a championship opportunity.
The pay was low. He wasn't seeing the reward for the long days and hours of sweat. So, one day, he knocked on the door to Faber's office and decided to have a heart-to-heart.
"He said, 'I'm putting in the time and doing everything I should be doing and it doesn't seem like anything is happening for me,' " Faber recalled. "He was pretty disappointed. He was being paid chicken scratch and nobody was working harder than he was. But as he's talking to me, I got an email."
It was from an official with DREAM, an MMA promotion in Japan, asking if Benavidez would be interested in a fight with its star, Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto. And, oh yeah, they were going to pay $20,000 for the fight, more than 10 times what he had been earning per match.
"He's telling me how he feels like he's this whipping boy and I asked him how he'd like to fight Kid Yamamoto in Japan," Faber said. "He thought I was messing with him, but I said, 'Come here and look at this email.' "
The email was the break Benavidez had so desperately sought. Yamamoto was injured and pulled out, but Benavidez instead fought and submitted Junya Kudo in the first round on July 21, 2008, in Osaka, Japan.
That match prompted the WEC to sign Benavidez. A little more than two years after that seminal victory, he stands on the precipice of the biggest fight of his career. A win will put him on top of the world and validate that decision to give up his job as a screen printer and the comfortable life he'd known to take a shot at his dream.
He has allowed himself to dream of hearing himself announced as the champion and it invariably sends shivers down his spine.
"It's so hard to put into words what this means to me," Benavidez said of the title shot. "It's a crazy feeling just thinking about it. When I envision that moment, just thinking about having my arm raised and them putting the belt around my waist, I almost break into tears. I get chills all over my body. It's kind of crazy. It's not even a real moment yet and I feel that way.
"A lot of people have sacrificed and done a lot to help me, and I think about what it will mean to them if I can do this. It's a tremendous motivation for me."
It's not as if Benavidez needs a lot more motivation. He's 12-1, but his only loss came Aug. 9, 2009, when he lost a tight decision to Cruz at the Hard Rock in Las Vegas.
Benavidez said he thought Cruz's takedowns were the difference in the fight. But he said he didn't want to dwell on the first fight, though he has watched it repeatedly.
Winning the belt is important to him; keeping it a long time is the ultimate goal, however.
"I've gone out since that loss and I've gotten so much better," said Benavidez, who has wins over former champion Miguel Torres and Roni Yahya since losing to Cruz. "I'm a different fighter than I was then. I'm smarter. I understand more."
One thing, though, hasn't changed.
"I still want this more than anything," he said. "All the sacrifices I've made in my life were for this and I can't imagine letting it slip past me."