Even with a dominant UFC 156 victory, Joseph Benavidez in no rush for a title shot

Thearon W. Henderson

Talk to most fighters at the top of their division and ask them what their upcoming bout means to them. Chances are you'll hear a response that involves the words 'title shot' in one form or the other. More often than not, it'll be about why they believe they're deserving of one or why it's near.

UFC flyweight Joseph Benavidez, however, is no ordinary fighter and his bout with Ian McCall at UFC 156 on Saturday places him in no ordinary situation.

Benavidez and McCall are incontestably two of if not the top two flyweight contenders. Both have previous losses to current UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, but outside of the recently defeated John Dodson, there are no other flyweight contenders close to a title shot.

Does that mean their main card bout on Saturday at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas is a title shot eliminator? "No one's told me that besides fans and people on Twitter and everything, which is cool," Benavidez explained to Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour.

But just because no one from the UFC brass has made it official doesn't mean folks can't put two and two together about what's realistically possible. "If you do look at it, it is kind of like 'who else would they really pick?'," Benavidez contended. "Me and Ian both gave Mighty Mouse [Johnson] such good fights. In reality, we're the next biggest names and next biggest guys in the division, so it makes sense especially with the division so new to give us the title shot."

And yet, something isn't sitting right with Benavidez. While he's honest about the landscape of the division and what the winner of this impending bout faces in terms of opportunity, he's in no rush to get right back in front of the current champ.

Benavidez says his last fight - a loss to Johnson for the flyweight title at UFC 152 - was a humbling and even depressing experience. It shocked him that something he says he "knew" he was going to get, namely, the UFC flyweight belt, instead went to his competitor. It put him in a position he never imagined he'd end up in. The loss forced introspection about what went wrong, what went right and how to move forward.

It also made him rethink exactly who Johnson was. Sure, Benavidez always viewed the fighter out of Seattle as talented, but this good? No, Benavidez admitted. Johnson's improvement took him by surprise.

"I knew he was going to be awesome and that was going to be my hardest challenge at the flyweight division, but I obviously pictured myself winning. So, no, I didn't think he was going to be that good," Benavidez confessed. "He's awesome, man. The flyweight class is just perfect for him. He's got to fight in it a few times, so he's improving in the weight class and his body's adjusting to it.

"He's been really in wars in the weight class," the Team Alpha Male-product continued. "You just improve so much as a fighter there, so he's definitely hitting his stride and taking advantage of it. I knew he was going to be the toughest guy in there and he is."

With more respect and a better understanding of who the flyweight champ is, Benavidez is having a new, more honest dialogue with himself. He is certain he can defeat Johnson, but two considerations stick out in his mind: title shots don't come very often and when they do, you'd better be ready.

Benavidez is willing to take a title shot if it comes his way, but if it doesn't? That's even better. He's got some improving to do. Fights like those against McCall are good challenges, yes, but they don't all need to lead to an immediate title shot.

"That's why I was surprised [UFC] put this fight this early, right after both of us lost, because we're the only two other contenders in the division with it being so small. If I go out there and do what I think I'm going to do to Ian on Saturday, then I can see why'd they want to give me a title shot. But also, no matter how bad I beat him, I wouldn't mind getting another fight and becoming better. Just keep improving before I get another title shot because you can't just keep having those.

"I want to be the best fighter I can be before I do get one," he noted.

Did that mean Benavidez believes the UFC make a mistake by booking the fight with Johnson and McCall? "Not necessarily a mistake," he said. "I would never doubt the matchmakers. They're the best guys in the business as a whole. It's not a mistake putting two guys as exciting as me and McCall in there. There's no doubt about that. It's awesome. It can't be a mistake."

Maybe not, but the rub is whether this is best for Benavidez. As the flyweight himself will tell you, he knows he has unfinished business with Johnson. It's a score he wants to settle. It's a day he's looking forward to, but only when he's ready. The loss to Johnson and time itself have matured him and his view of progression in the sport. When he eventually earns that second chance against Johnson, he'd prefer to do when he knows the timing is right.

"I don't think I've been my best that I could be at flyweight," he explained.

Benavidez wants a second chance; he just wants one completed the right way.

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