For what seems like forever now, people have been telling Joseph Benavidez that he was essentially the champion of a division that didn’t yet exist. At 5’4" and with a frame that hardly had to break a sweat to make 135 pounds, he was already one of the best bantamweights in the world, with only a pair of decision losses to 135-pound champ Dominick Cruz marring his otherwise perfect record. If Zuffa would just add a flyweight class, people said, he’d be the king of it in no time.
A part of him agreed with that assessment, but another part didn’t want to give himself that sort of out.
"[A] 125[-pound division] had been mentioned so many times and it just never came around. It seemed like a waste of time and stressful to think and talk about it," Benavidez told MMA Fighting this week. "I think after the first time it was mentioned and then it didn’t happen, I just kind of accepted that it might not ever happen. But I thought, hey, I’m a pretty dang good bantamweight anyway. I’ve beaten everybody except the champion of the world, so maybe I need to forget about the flyweight thing."
But when he heard that this time it was really happening, and he was really one of the four fighters selected to compete in the mini-tournament designed to crown the first ever UFC flyweight champion, Benavidez finally let himself feel what he’d been holding back.
"It is a relief. I was in such a purgatory in the [bantamweight] division. Not only with me and Cruz, since I’d lost to him twice, but my teammate [Urijah Faber] was the next guy in line. So no matter who was going to be champion, I wasn’t going to be able to fight either of them. It was a weird division for me."
When the UFC’s flyweight tourney kicks off from Sydney, Australia tonight, Benavidez will finally get the chance to find out if he’s as good at 125 pounds as people expect him to be. That puts an awful lot of pressure on his shoulders, but it’s also helped to land him on a main UFC card on cable TV for a change, which is already a step in the right direction, as far as he’s concerned.
"I was stuck on the undercard, the number two-ranked bantamweight, and I hadn’t even really got a chance to benefit from the [UFC-WEC] merger. The people who watch Facebook [prelim bouts], those are the same people who watched the WEC before, so it wasn’t a new audience. But now, getting on a UFC main card, I get a whole new legion of fans to showcase myself to. I feel like I’m finally getting a real UFC fight."
According to oddsmakers, Benavidez also has the easiest draw in the four-man field. He’s as high as a 10-1 favorite over UFC newcomer Yasuhiro Urushitani, while fellow former bantamweight title contender Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson is favored to emerge from the other side of the bracket. That’s no accident, the way Benavidez sees it, which is why he’ll be keeping an eye on the division’s other bout tonight.
"I expect to fight ‘Mighty Mouse’ [in the finals]. I think that’s why [the UFC] set it up like that and I think that’s what people are expecting. Especially since we both lost to Cruz, I think it was obvious that we were both a little small for [bantamweight]. That’s what I expect and what I’m looking forward to, but I’m giving McCall a better chance than a lot of other people. He’s a tough guy and he’s hungry. I think ‘Mighty Mouse’ has an edge on him, but it’s going to be a tough fight either way."
Dropping down in weight may have been a bit of an adjustment after getting used to eating whatever he wanted at bantamweight, Benavidez admitted, but he noted that, all things considered, "it hasn’t been bad at all." If anything, dieting and cutting weight has made him feel "like a real professional."
Now he just has to make the most of the chance he’s waited so long for. The fact that he’s finally getting it means a lot, Benavidez said, but it’s only the beginning.
"It builds confidence in me knowing that the UFC wants to do this. They believe in me, believe in the weight class, and if they believe, that’s a huge sign. This is a great opportunity to take advantage of. When I started fighting, I didn’t want to just fight a few times on a local show. I wanted to be here, in the big time, in the spotlight, and I’m finally getting the chance now. I feel like it’s what I deserve, and I’m going to take full advantage of it."