On Sunday night in Milwaukee, the internet would have you believe that bantamweight Joseph Benavidez will be participating in his 17th professional bout at UFC Live: Hardy vs. Lytle. The Internet would also have you believe that his first professional fight was against Brandon Shelton in June of 2006.
The Internet is wrong.
Then again, maybe it depends on what your definition of 'professional' is. If you mean professional in terms of the overall quality and credibility of the event, some vaguely official quality that separates the serious promoters from the amateurs, then okay, the Shelton fight might have been it.
But if you mean professional in the sense that it was a fight for which a fighter was paid (and to the man who is or is not going home with money in his pocket, this distinction often matters a great deal), then no way.
For that definition of professional, and for the very humble beginning of Benavidez's MMA career, you've got to go all the way back to 2005 in Silver City, N.M., and into a slightly terrifying bar called the Brown Derby.
"It's this place where it's actually kind of scary to go in there by yourself," Benavidez recalled. "And then they just put a boxing ring in the middle of the bar, which only made it scarier."
Benavidez might never have ended up there that night had he not had a job as a screen printer in Las Cruces, N.M. It was a good job and he liked it, mostly because he could make his own clever T-shirts when the mood struck him. But one day a man came in looking to make some posters advertising a kickboxing event, and Benavidez started asking him about it.
"He looked at me and was like, 'Hey, aren't you that wrestler?'"
In Las Cruces, Benavidez was that wrestler. He'd won a state championship in high school, which was the kind of thing people in a relatively small town tended to remember. The man asked Benavidez if he'd be willing to help out his teenage son, who'd been kickboxing for a while but wanted to move into MMA. First he needed someone who could help him with his wrestling, and who better than a former state champ?
It sounded like fun to Benavidez, but after two months of training with this rag-tag MMA club, he decided he'd like to find out whether he could win an actual fight. He was beating all his training partners, and he'd seen the sport on TV, so how hard could it be?
"I figured that if I was fighting guys around my size and from around my area and my state, and I was the best wrestler in my state, that at the very least I could out-wrestle them," Benavidez said. "Even if I didn't know a whole lot else, I had that."
Benavidez asked around and, sure enough, someone was putting together a night of MMA fights down at the Brown Derby in Silver City. It wasn't the kind of deal where they offered you an opponent and you could accept or decline. Instead it was the kind of deal where you were either in or you were out. And if you were in, it meant you showed up an hour before fight time and got a look at your opponent for the first time across a crowded bar.
No weigh-ins. No rules meeting. No sanctioning. Not even a locker room to warm up in.
"I get there, and I'm the first fight, so I'm warming up in the bar," said Benavidez. "There's people around me drinking beers. There's this old drunk Mexican dude in my face, telling me what to do. And this is probably 20 minutes before I'm going to go out, and he's totally drunk, trying to give me advice and tell me what to do. It was bizarre."
It probably didn't help matters that, instead of normal fight trunks, Benavidez was wearing a pair of underwear he'd bought at Target. That was a trademark of his all the way until he entered the WEC, he said. Even in his fight at Dream.5 in Japan he came in sporting the Target underwear.
"I just thought they looked so good, no one would know," he said.
When the event was finally ready to get started, Benavidez and his opponent, who at least looked to be around his size, were called into the ring. There were chairs set up at ringside, but the bar patrons quickly ignored them in favor of crowding as close to the action as they could get.
"The people just ended up hanging off the ring like it was Lionheart, the [Jean-Claude] Van Damme movie. There's no security, nothing like that, so they're just all up on the ring."
Once the fight started, Benavidez wasted no time. He threw a leg kick, went for a takedown, then stood over his grounded opponent and started hammering him with elbows to the head.
"I was literally bouncing his head off the ground -- boom, boom, boom -- and his corner threw in the towel."
The whole thing took maybe a minute and a half. One of Benavidez's teammates acted as the referee -- not that he was actually called to do any officiating other than peel Benavidez off the guy once the towel flew into the ring.
"So I'm happy, I got my first win. Then some cops come in. They'd been watching the whole thing, and they went up to whoever was in charge and said, okay, you guys can keep doing this, but all the fighters from here on out have to wear headgear."
Apparently the police were a little taken aback by the brutality of Benavidez's fight. When the fighters complained that no one in MMA wore headgear, the cops gave them the choice of gearing up or getting shut down.
"All my teammates were pissed at me then, because they had to do MMA with headgear after my fight," said Benavidez. "I thought it was pretty funny and unique. It just showed how bush league the whole thing was. Like, oh no, that was too hard and too violent. Wear headgear and it's okay. I guess the drunk people cornering me was totally fine, though."
Bush league or not, when the night was over Benavidez left the Brown Derby with two hundred dollars in his pocket. Considering that he was pulling in around a thousand bucks a month at his screen printing job, it was a nice boost to his regular income. It also had him thinking about how far he might be able to take this thing with a little more practice.
"It felt good and it gave me some confidence, like I could do this. I had a little Lionheart moment of my own where I was like, man, I'm a prizefighter now. I'm getting money to beat people up."
It wasn't more than two or three weeks later that Benavidez had his second fight, then his third and his fourth. By the time he fought Shelton in what the internet records identify as his debut, he'd already had five bouts.
"So I actually have five fights that aren't on my record, which kind of sucks because it would look a lot cooler if I was 19-2 than 14-2," he said. "They just weren't documented, and honestly, some of them probably shouldn't be."
Things didn't start to get serious for Benavidez's MMA career until he went to visit a friend in Sacramento in November of 2006. They bought tickets to UFC 65, where they watched Georges St. Pierre take the welterweight title from Matt Hughes.
For Benavidez, it was a glimpse of what the big time really looked like, though he didn't know if a 135-pounder like himself could ever even dream of getting there. The UFC had only recently reopened its doors to 155-pounders. Below that, the best you could hope for was the lesser-known WEC, and even that seemed far away.
Before he left Sacramento and returned home to New Mexico, Benavidez made it his mission to seek out the then-WEC featherweight champ Urijah Faber, who he'd heard ran a gym in the area. If Faber could make a living as a smaller mixed martial artist, then maybe he was someone who could help, or at the very least, give Benavidez some idea of where he stood as far as skill level.
So he looked in the phone book for Faber's gym, but couldn't find it.
"I went into the first gym that I found and basically beat up everybody, all the instructors, whoever. Those guys told me, hey, we got nothing for you. You need to go get with Urijah and his guys."
When Benavidez explained that this was exactly what he'd been trying to do, they gave him Faber's contact info. By then, however, it seemed too late. He had a 7 a.m. flight back to New Mexico in the morning. He was out of time, and he hadn't even managed to lay eyes on Faber.
But when Benavidez showed up to the airport in the morning, he became the rare traveler to regard it as good news when he saw that his flight was cancelled. He took the opportunity to stay three more days in Sacramento, which allowed him the chance to finally get on the mat with Faber.
"I definitely think it was fate," he said. "I went in and we had a roll, and Urijah basically told me, 'You need to come out here and get serious about this. You've got a lot of talent, so stop wasting time.' That was pretty much it."
After that, Benavidez returned home only to get his things and head for California. He was about to start a new life in MMA. From here on out, all the fights would be for real, with no doubt as to what counted and what didn't. From this point on, he was definitely a professional. Even if he was still fighting in underwear he bought at Target.
Check out past installments of MMA Fighting's 'My First Fight' series, including Rashad Evans, Pat Miletich, Matt Lindland and more.
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