SACRAMENTO, Calif. – With one crushing right hand, showing punching power many did not believe he had, Demetrious Johnson knocked out Joseph Benavidez, retained his UFC flyweight championship and put himself squarely in the middle of the race for 2013 Fighter of the Year.
Johnson watched tape of his 2012 bout with Benavidez at UFC 152 and noticed that his footwork was leaving Benavidez open for counters. He was correct, and it led him to his third win of the year, including his second finish in a row. No current UFC champion has more consecutive finishes in title bouts than Johnson.
The end came at 2:08 of the first round Saturday before a heavily pro-Benavidez crowd of 11,573 at Sleep Train Arena. Benavidez went to throw a wide shot and it took far too long to get to its target. After going over so much film with coach Matt Hume, Johnson knew he had to come back with a counter right.
He landed to the side of Benavidez's face, dropping him, then cracked him with four hammer fists before referee John McCarthy mercifully ended it.
"We were working a lot on that in camp," Johnson said. "The first time I fought Joseph, I was able to display my footwork and make him miss. Tonight, when I was in there fighting, I heard my coaches say, 'OK, you've got his timing. You've got his range down.' … I just let it go and I was happy to get the finish tonight."
Since winning a split decision over Benavidez at UFC 152 last year, Johnson has made three consecutive successful defenses of his belt this year. He overcome some hard times early against John Dodson to pull out a unanimous decision in January. He submitted John Moraga in July and then knocked out Benavidez on Saturday.
There are plenty of quality contenders for the Fighter of the Year Award. Vitor Belfort is 3-0 with three violent knockouts. Urijah Faber, who submitted Michael McDonald on Saturday, is 4-0 and has been outstanding each time. And heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez had two finishes in his two title fights.
Johnson, though, has worked his way into consideration with a typically good, but quiet, year. He's not much for self-promotion, and he spent most of Saturday's post-fight news conference with a grim countenance.
That was in great contrast to Faber, who sat to his left and laughed, joked and soaked in the atmosphere of a big win in his hometown.
But one of Johnson's secrets to his success is that he's so even-keel. He rarely loses sight of what is important and what has made him successful. He said he learned long ago there is always more that could be done.
"That's the way Matt Hume trains me," Johnson said. "Even when I was an amateur, the first thing we'll do when we got back was go look at film. He goes, 'You did that wrong. You did that wrong. You could have done that better.' It kind of grew on me.
"So even now that I'm at the pinnacle of the sport and knocking out people who are considered the best fighters in the world, when you go through that for seven years, it's like, 'OK, go home, relax and get ready for the next one.' "
UFC president Dana White said he felt Johnson still wasn't getting enough credit for his accomplishments. White raved about the year Johnson put together, which carries a little extra significance when White spoke of his thoughts of the year with just one card remaining.
"Two thousand and thirteen has been an amazing year and I would have to say that 2013 has been the best year we've ever had as far as fights go," White said.
And Johnson, who is unquestionably the UFC's fastest fighter and just may be the most technically proficient, stands right at the front of the line when it comes to performance in 2013.
He doesn't have the charisma of a Faber or the drawing power of Georges St-Pierre, but Johnson has put a great amount of distance between himself and the competition in a division brimming with talent.
He can no longer be derided as safe, boring or unable to knock anyone out. Saturday's knockout was his first with his hands – he scored a KO with a head kick in 2010 – since his second pro fight, on July 14, 2007.
Watching how fast he's improved, it's most certainly not going to be another six-plus years before he gets another one.