Joseph Benavidez, Demetrious Johnson out to prove flyweights can put on a show

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

TORONTO – The small man in fighting has, usually unfairly, been forced to take a back seat to the bigger man, no matter the relative merits of them.

In boxing, the greatest prize has long been perceived as the heavyweight championship of the world, even though in modern boxing, there are brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko and a vast wasteland beyond them.  

It's not much different in mixed martial arts, where big men such as middleweight champion Anderson Silva, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre are the UFC's biggest stars and garner the majority of the attention.

The UFC just started a flyweight division this year, and Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson will meet Saturday for the inaugural title in the co-main event of UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre.

It likely won't be long, though, before the 125-pounders quickly become the sport's most exciting division to watch. The smaller men don't necessarily have the thudding power that a heavyweight does – though Benavidez and his team created a mini-controversy by saying he hit as hard as UFC middleweight Michael Bisping – but they fight at a breakneck pace and with the kind of athleticism the big men only wish they had.

[Also: Keeping up with the Joneses will be hard this weekend]

The "feud" between Bisping and Benavidez might have been the best thing that has happened to the flyweights since the division was brought to the UFC earlier this year.

Bisping has always been colorful and outspoken, but he's been brilliant in the build-up to UFC 152 and has largely carried the promotion. When the person running the UFC's Twitter account, which has in excess of 778,000 followers, retweeted Benavidez's claim, Bisping feigned indignation and began taunting Benavidez.

At the final news conference Thursday at a downtown sports bar, Bisping was asked if he'd followed through on his threat to strangle Benavidez, who was seated next to him.

"We've settled our differences," Bisping said, grinning broadly. "He's apologized. He's turned down a fight with my son. We're good now. We're good. He knows his place."

But Benavidez's place Thursday was part-promoter, part-fighter. He and Johnson were forced not only to make the case for themselves as the flyweight division’s first-ever champion, but also to cheerlead for the weight class, which is filled with fighters largely unknown to the casual fan.

Their fight will be significant because there is only one first champion and the fighter who wins it will secure a place in the sport's history. Beyond that, though, the Benavidez-Johnson fight could help to kick-start interest in the entire division and bring it into the mainstream consciousness.

Watching a video of a flyweight fight is like seeing a heavyweight fight on fast forward. Their scrambles are lightning fast and they have the kind of agility more reminiscent of Olympic gymnasts than professional fighters.

[Also: War hero Brian Stann will need to earn his stripes Saturday]

Benavidez knocked out Yasuhiro Urushitani to advance to the finale. Johnson scored a decision win over Ian McCall in June after they had fought to a draw in Australia.

"I really love that fight," said UFC president Dana White, who skipped the final news conference. "Those guys bring it."

They still wouldn't have particularly cut it as main eventers, though. The flyweight title fight was initially supposed to be the main event of UFC 152, until Dan Henderson was injured and UFC 151 was scrapped. Then, Jones was moved from 151 to UFC 152, where he will defend his belt against Vitor Belfort.

Even with Jones-Belfort, the card is not yet sold out. It could have been disastrous with the flyweights atop the card.

That would not have been due to them, but because they're still largely unknown figures.

A good brawl on a high-profile event headlined by one of the company's superstars, though, should change that.

"Having the best fighters at 125 pounds fight each other is going to show that the flyweight division is the toughest challenge," Johnson said. “… I think on Saturday, we will cement how awesome our flyweight division is and how many more great fights there are to come."

[Also: Michael Bisping kicks ‘disrespectful’ fan out of UFC 152 workouts]

Both men fought for the world title at 135 pounds, where they routinely had to face much sturdier, bigger opponents.

Going against men their own size should allow them to show off their full range of skills.

Benavidez has seen enough flyweight fights, though, that he knows his bout, and most others, will be the kind of can’t-miss fights that bring fans out of their seats.

"I'm not too worried about [establishing] the legacy of the flyweights, because I know 100 percent every fight is going to deliver," Benavidez said.

That's a bit of a stretch, because there are few certainties in life, not even with flyweights.

But more often than not, the flyweights are going to put on the most high-paced, high-energy fight on the card. Benavidez and Johnson should prove that on Saturday.

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