Some fighters fight to provide for their family. Others fight for honour and to test their mettle. When Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez step into the Octagon at UFC 152 on Saturday in Toronto, they will be fighting to make history and cement their legacy.
Only one will be crowned the first ever UFC flyweight champion, but when the belt is placed around the winner’s waist, it will be one of the most significant moments in UFC history.
When Royce Gracie won the first ever UFC tournament, it laid the foundation for what has become one of the fastest growing sports in the world. That had true significance — actually it was the most important moment in MMA history because it essentially created a new sport.
What Johnson or Benavidez do won’t have the same impact on the sport. But it will, however, be more important than other firsts in the UFC.
Mark Coleman was the first heavyweight champion; Frank Shamrock won the first light-heavyweight title; Pat Militech and Dave Menne did the same in the welterweight and middleweight divisions, respectively. When they won those belts, though, the sport was still in its infancy and looking back on it today it doesn’t seem quite as important — no disrespect to those athletes of course.
When Jens Pulver became the first ever UFC lightweight champion in 2001 that did mean a lot because it showed that the smaller athletes, like in boxing, were capable of putting on a good show.
Also, current bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz and featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo were given their belts when the UFC enveloped World Extreme Cagefighting in 2010. Yes, they’ve gone on to defend their UFC titles, but they didn’t win those belts in the same way either Mighty Mouse or Joe B-Wan Kenobi will earn theirs.
Obviously both men are focused on the task at hand; they’ve prepared meticulously for what the other brings to the table, yet they still can’t help but think about what winning a UFC title and making history will mean.
“The Great thing about this is it’s something you could have never really imagined,” Benavidez said at the pre-fight press conference Thursday. “When you put your goals down, it’s to be the world champion … The fact that it’s the first ever, it’s really just the cherry on top. We’re in here to leave a legacy and that’s a great start to a legacy. That’s history. It only happens once and like I said it’s nothing you can really plan for, but for me it’s just the cherry on top and the extra motivation. Being the world champ is everything to me.”
Johnson shares the sentiment of his opponent: “I have to agree with Joseph, being at such a young age at 26 years old, to be able to accomplish something like this at the highest level, at the pinnacle of the sport, being champion and it being even better being the first and cement my legacy as one of the first ever flyweight champions of the world.”
Vitor Belfort, who fights Jon Jones for the light-heavyweight title in the main event at UFC 152, knows a thing or two about making history. When he won a heavyweight tournament at UFC 12 at age 19, he became the youngest fighter to ever win inside the Octagon. Then, at the time he became light-heavyweight champion in 2004, he was the youngest champ in the organization’s history.
“I think in life we all have goals and dreams to fulfill,” Belfort explained at the press conference. “From what I remember it’s a great (memory). With Carlson Gracie I came to America with a dream. Actually my dream was not just being a champion; my dream was for my sport to become a mainstream sport. I fought in a time that a lot of people criticized us. They used to say that we are never going to succeed. … All of us here, we are fighting, this is our living, but most important for me is to leave a legacy in the sport so everyone can respect what we do. We are sportsmen, we’re fathers, we’re men of honour and character and we put on a show for (the fans), so being a champion is just creating a legacy for the future.”
Some people still don’t think flyweights are ready to headline UFC pay-per-view events. They don’t get the respect the other divisions receive just like Belfort and the mixed martial artists of several years ago didn’t garner the same respect as athletes in other sports.
When Benavidez and Johnson take centre cage at the Air Canada Centre, they have the opportunity to enthrall the crowd in a fight that will make UFC and MMA history.
And perhaps their performance may even change the way some people view not only this new weight class, but a sport that is still often misunderstood.