Make no mistake about it: Joseph Benavidez wants to fight Demetrious Johnson again, and he still wants to replace the Polaroid of a UFC championship belt that sits on the mantle in his living room with the real thing.
But rather than charge into a second battle with “Mighty Mouse” in less than a year, the 28-year-old from Team Alpha Male (by way of Las Cruces, N.M.) is heeding the famous sentiments of George Santayana, looking to his own past in an effort to avoid repeating it in the future.
“It’s not that I don’t want the title shot,” laughed Benavidez when we spoke Thursday afternoon. “I think everyone expected for me to be like `Give me a title shot!’ after I won. All I’m saying is that I don’t mind another fight.”
Last weekend, Benavidez got back into the win column with a unanimous decision victory over Ian McCall in a bout many expected to produce the next title challenger in the shallow flyweight ranks. With McCall and Benavidez positioned near the top of the rankings, and Johnson having already dispatched of his first challenger (John Dodson), having one of the two men the current champion beat along the way to the belt in 2012 stand across from him in the cage later this year appears to make sense.
It does to Benavidez as well; if that’s the way the UFC wants to proceed.
“If the title shot is there, obviously I think I’m ready,” explained the now 17-3 former bantamweight standout. “I think the first fight was close; he fought a perfect fight, and I have no doubt that I can go in and get the win next time.”
A look back at the path Benavidez took to being one of the best flyweight competitors in the sport shines a spotlight on why he is reticent to jump right back into the cage with Johnson so quickly after their first encounter.
After pushing his record to a perfect 10-0 with a win over Jeff Curran, Benavidez squared off with Dominick Cruz at WEC 42. Cruz came away with a unanimous-decision win, and went on to beat Brian Bowles for the bantamweight title that he still holds to this day.
Benavidez, meanwhile, rebounded with a dominant victory over Rani Yahya and becoming the first person to submit former bantamweight champion Miguel Torres at WEC 47. Those two wins set up a second meeting with Cruz, and 374 days after suffering the first loss of his career, Benavidez got closer, but still came up short, dropping a split decision to the champion at WEC 50.
Until the UFC unveiled the flyweight division, Benavidez was stuck in a state of pugilistic purgatory jokingly referred to by some as “The Rich Franklin Zone,” a place where fighters with multiple losses to the same reigning champion are forced to exist knowing another shot at championship gold is highly unlikely.
Despite a trio of strong winning efforts against Wagnney Fabiano, Ian Loveland, and Eddie Wineland, Benavidez was unable to get any closer to a third meeting with Cruz. Now that he’s already down 0-1 to Johnson in the UFC’s newest division, the talented flyweight contender wants to make sure he doesn’t make a return trip to the hell he endured at the end of his time as a bantamweight.
“That’s 100 per cent why I’m thinking like this — from experiences I’ve already had,” admitted Benavidez. “Yeah it was great having the title shot, but I wasn’t as good as I could be, and after that I was stuck in limbo. That was hard, and that definitely goes through my mind now. I’ve already had that experience at 135 and I don’t want to have to be that guy again.”
It’s a difficult position for Benavidez to be in, especially given his familiarity with the situation. Few — if any — other options exist at the top of the flyweight ranks, and save for a marquee name following the trend of moving down into an immediate title shot, he is easily the most marketable and most logical choice of opponent for Johnson.
While the lack of depth in the division could help Benavidez avoid a second stint in purgatory if he were to lose to Johnson for a second time, it’s a scenario the charismatic competitor would much sooner avoid altogether. Having already come out on the wrong side of a close decision against the current champion, Benavidez is realistic about knowing another bad night in the cage with Johnson could press pause on his championship pursuits indefinitely.
Benavidez is happy to let that fight come to him organically; confident the outcome will be different whenever they do meet again, and reflective enough to ensure he does everything in his power to make sure he avoids the fate he suffered during his time at bantamweight.
“The second time I fought Cruz, yeah I had two great wins in between, but it was still like, `It has only been one year later, and I’m fighting him again?’ I was proud because of how much I had improved during that time, but it was the same thing (as could potentially happen here). Yeah it was great having the title shot, but I wasn’t as good as I could be, and after that I was stuck in limbo.
“Everyone expects me to go for the title right away, but I don’t mind having another fight. It’s only been one fight (since Demetrious and I fought), so whatever. Obviously, I’d like to be more prepared because you can’t just keep getting title shots. Once that one happens, who knows?
“Of course I wouldn’t mind it, and I would train my butt off, doing everything in my power to win that fight if they did decide to give me a title shot, but it’s up to (the UFC).”