When the UFC announced it was expanding to open up a 125-pound division, Joseph Benavidez believed that, campaigning at his natural weight for the first time, nothing could stop him from becoming a champion.
His only two career losses at that stage were to Dominick Cruz, but moving down a division meant that the 28-year-old would never again have to deal with opponents possessing the same sort of height and reach as the undisputed 135-pound king.
Benavidez dispensed with Yasuhiro Urushitani in the opening round of the four-man UFC flyweight tournament only to be outpointed by Demetrious Johnson in the final. The fight was sufficiently close to have ended in a split decision, but it is a setback that is still fresh in his memory.
“I think about it a lot (because) that was something I counted on for a long time, that once they start the flyweight division I was going to be the champion automatically,” he said. “I think it was a close fight and the judging's so subjective it depends what they're looking at, but for me I know I didn’t go out there and fight as good as I could.”
Any time a fight finishes and the judges can’t agree on who won there is controversy, but Benavidez’s disappointment stems more from the feeling that he didn’t perform to his full potential than the actual decision.
“I'm not really happy with it to the point where I can say ‘I deserved that' because I don't really feel I went out there and fought as good as I could.”
The failure to become UFC flyweight champion right out of the gate prompted a bout of soul searching and Benavidez even wrote a poem about his feelings in the aftermath of that defeat. An unashamedly introspective athlete, he conducted his own personal post mortem on the fight and pinpointed exactly what went wrong.
“I’m the kind of guy that needs to be happy and have a fun time and everything needs to be real loose and the fight needs to be like another day,” he said. “That's how I've always fought except for that one fight where I thought it was life or death. I'm not a mean guy, but for some reason I was like ‘I hate Demetrious. I want to kill him.' But he's the nicest guy and I actually like him, so I think that definitely affected it.”
Taking an emotional approach to his first-ever UFC title match was a mistake that still haunts Benavidez, but it is one he is unlikely to repeat.
“I learned a lot from that fight. You learn a lot from losing, technically and what you can improve on, but the biggest thing I realized is it's not life or death out there and I don’t need to obsess over the title. As long as I'm getting myself better as a fighter, it's going to be there.”
After back-to-back wins over Ian McCall and Darren Uyenoyama, he is ranked as the number one contender in the flyweight division and a rematch with Johnson seems inevitable. Benavidez has clearly earned his way back into contention, but coming off two fights in three months he’s not in a hurry for UFC title shot number two.
“I'm just waiting it out. I got two fights pretty quick at the beginning of the year, so this is a good time for me to get to travel and mix up my training a little bit, which I always like to do,” he explained. “I'm down to fight anyone they put in front of me. A lot of people ask me if I want a title fight, but that’s going to come so I'm just getting better until then.”
Benavidez took advantage of this break from competitive action to make a trip to Evolve MMA in Singapore, where he spoke to MMAWeekly.com. As a long-term member of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, he’s used to training alongside the best in the business, but says he has still picked up some new tricks on his travels.
“The training at Evolve is top notch. A world champion is right in front of me every single time I go whether it's wrestling, BJJ or the Thai trainers and you don't find that anywhere. It’s amazing,” he stated. “I think the way they have the gym and the team situated is revolutionary. You have these guys coaching the classes and being able to fight and you're going to see a lot of success like that when guys are able to train full-time and be around the sport all day.”
The flyweight title, which he is ultimately working his way back towards, will be on the line next month at UFC on Fox 8. Number-four-ranked Brazilian John Moraga is challenging Johnson, but Benavidez believes that the belt is unlikely to be changing hands that night.
“Moraga's a tough guy and the thing with the top guys in the world is at any weight class most of the championship fights are going to be pretty close decisions, so the judges can always make a difference, but I think Demetrious will do enough to win. He's really on top of his game right now.”
A title might continue to elude him, but dropping down to flyweight has given Benavidez a new lease of life. He didn’t exactly embarrass himself campaigning at 135 pounds, where Cruz was the only fighter to beat him, but feels much more comfortable in this new division.
“At 135, I had to be like a mouse, a faster guy, and I'm kind of fast, but I'm more of a powerful guy. And at 135 I had to compromise so many things to compete. I had to be in and out. I couldn’t just grab the guy or stand in the pocket with guys that were so much bigger than me. At 125, I feel I don't have to compromise my style for anyone, I can be just as strong and just as fast and I think it’s definitely the weight class for me.”