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TUF coaches Joseph Benavidez, Henry Cejudo set aside personal goals for ‘investment’ in flyweight division

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LOS ANGELES — When Joseph Benavidez first heard the idea for The Ultimate Fighter 24, he was understandably not happy about it.

On paper, there's not much more Benavidez can do to earn another shot at Demetrious Johnson's UFC flyweight title. Yes, he has lost to Johnson twice already, but he also has five straight wins over top competition. Benavidez has only lost to two men in his entire career: Johnson and bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.

So when Benavidez heard that TUF 24 would be a tournament to determine the next flyweight No. 1 contender — featuring champions from outside organizations — he was a tad steamed.

"When the show started and the premise came out, I was a little bitter about it," Benavidez told MMA Fighting at a media breakfast Tuesday in Hollywood. "Because if anyone should get the title shot, it should be me. Five wins in a row, whatever. World-class guys. And now you're going to bring in someone who isn't even in the UFC to get it?"

Benavidez and fellow elite flyweight Henry Cejudo were chosen as TUF coaches. The idea of training and advising fighters that are vying for the very same thing as them — the UFC flyweight belt — was strange. But after getting the opportunity, both Benavidez and Cejudo are happy with the outcome. TUF 24 premieres Wednesday night on Fox Sports 1.

"It's good for the flyweight division," Cejudo said. "Maybe Joe didn't get the title shot that he wanted, but we're able to hype this freakin' division back up. People are gonna be watching, they're gonna tune in. I think this is gonna have the highest ratings in the history of TUF, I really do."

The flyweight division has been panned in the past and Johnson's drawing power has been called into question. Benavidez and Cejudo think TUF 24 will be a shot in the arm for the 125-pounders, something to draw some more eyes to it.

"It's a nice investment in the division," Benavidez said. "I care about the division a ton and everybody in it. When I see a great flyweight fight or flyweights succeed or people care about us, it means a lot to me since I was one of the first ones. To have this show now, it's a nice way to go about it."

The TUF 24 winner will challenge Johnson for the flyweight title at the TUF 24 Finale on Dec. 3 in Las Vegas. Benavidez and Cejudo will face each other on the same card and presumably the winner will get the next shot at the belt. Johnson beat Cejudo by first-round TKO at UFC 197 in April.

Benavidez (24-4) understands the situation and is OK with it.

"I'm also a realist," he said. "I don't believe in when people say, ‘Oh, I deserve the title shot.' If you're not getting the title shot, you don't deserve it. Somebody thought you didn't deserve it, being a boss, the fans didn't want it enough and you're not getting it, therefore you don't deserve it. You think you deserve it, but you don't always get what you deserve, right?"

Benavidez and Cejudo both agree that the winner of TUF 24 will deserve the fight against Johnson, though he will have gotten it through unique means. The TUF tournament — winning four fights in a manner of weeks — is a brutal one. Cejudo believes it's harder than the typical path.

"I think it's worse," Cejudo said. "You have to win four fights to win the whole tournament. I'd rather go the Legacy route or the RFA route, though a different route. There's no way, making weight four times."

Cejudo (10-1) said this is not the reality show you've come to expect over the last decade or so. With 16 champions from around the world, everyone is deserving of their spot and the talent level is perhaps the highest it has been since the early days.

"This isn't your average TUF where you get the loudmouth who ends up on the show, the flamboyant dude with the pink hair," Cejudo said. "All these dudes are elite, elite athletes. This is like no other TUF show that they've produced. The winner of The Ultimate Fighter may well just beat Demetrious."

That's what everyone is trying to do, Benavidez and Cejudo included. This might not be the path Benavidez envisioned when he beat Zach Makovsky in February, but if he's not getting the title shot right now he's glad the division — and he, as a coach — is being given some extra promotion on the show.

"Not getting it was one thing and another manner would have rubbed me another way," Benavidez said. "But the fact that it was like this, with a giant production and exposure, I mean I think it's good for all parties."