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Nobody’s more curious about the fate of the flyweight division than Joseph Benavidez

UFC 187 media day photos
Joseph Benavidez
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

NEW YORK – With the uncertainty surrounding the UFC’s flyweight in 2019, some people find themselves more in the dark than others as to what happens after Saturday night. If Henry Cejudo beats T.J. Dillashaw in the main event in Brooklyn, does the UFC keep the division open and begin channeling traffic through its Olympic gold medalist?

Or does it shutter up the division anyway, and make Cejudo — and any other linger flies — jump to bantamweight?

Perhaps nobody is more curious about what’s going to happen than Joseph Benavidez, a perennial top contender who finds himself A) at the mercy of a fight he has nothing to do with, B) rooting for a rival (Cejudo) to keep the flyweight division alive, and C) rooting against his friend Dillashaw who is coming down for the express purpose of killing it. Oh, and Benavidez has his own fight against Dustin Ortiz, a dust devil of a fighter who can put the tamps on him with a quickness.

It’s a lot of anxieties to juggle before a fight, but Benavidez has to think big picture — and that’s why he’s simplifying it the best he can.

“I think the whole division is rooting for Cejudo,” he told MMA Fighting at the media day on Thursday. “I feel like I’m on the side the whole time after comments T.J. said about the division. The division is great. There’s a new champion. There are challengers for him. T.J.’s the next challenge but he’s made it known, he wants to come down and do it one time. He pretty much wants to beat a guy who’s the flyweight champion right now and be a double champ. Not being the best flyweight ever, but the guy who went over.

“So it’s kind of like, I don’t know — I wish it was more a superfight. But the reality is, I guess it is what it is. But yeah — of course the division’s rooting for Cejudo. I got my job to do. What I look at is that this is a No. 1 contender fight, though it’s nothing official.”

Benavidez perhaps has more stake in this roulette wheel set-up than anybody. He was a very successful-if-undersized bantamweight who found himself in purgatory after losing to then-bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz a couple of times. Since he had no path back to Cruz, the opening up of the flyweight division in 2012 felt tailor-made for him.

Yet it wasn’t long before he found himself in the exact same spot. Benavidez lost to flyweight GOAT Demetrious Johnson twice, thus leaving him no path back to a title shot. The only way he could emerge back into that conversation was for Johnson to lose, which — after five years and 11 title defenses — he finally did at UFC 227 in August to Cejudo.

“I became a Cejudo fan even for that last fight, which is funny because we had our little rivalry and all that,” Benavidez said. “But now two fights in a row you find yourself rooting for the guy. Last fight was really amazing what he did, and when he won I was like, this is great for me. Having a win over the champion means everything. It’s all about that title fight.”

For Benavidez, it’s been a game of Jenga. He needed Johnson to fall, even if Johnson falling meant the whole flyweight tower might come tumbling down. Still, he believes there is more than enough talent in the division — and personality — to breathe life into it for years to come.

“I wasn’t expecting DJ to leave, but when he did, it really just opened up more things,” he said. “The best way I can describe it remember when Anderson [Silva] was the champion of the 85 division. His greatness was so good that, towards the end — for his last two or three title fights — it was like, why is this happening? Not that Demetrious was, but it was more like we’re tired of this. When he finally lost, the division opened up. It’s one of the most exciting divisions that there is. There’s freaking new contenders and new champions, and it seems like every card is hard to keep up with.

“Look at that top five. Everyone’s so skilled; everyone has wins over each other, between me, [Ray] Borg, [Sergio] Pettis, [Jussier] Formiga, Cejudo…that’s all a great scramble of talent with up and coming talent still. I think it’s one of those divisions. It’s just coming to life. We’re only on our second champion.”

If UFC Brooklyn were a normal event, the timing would be perfect for Benavidez to set himself up for something big. If he takes care of Ortiz on the same night that Cejudo gets his first flyweight title defense, wouldn’t it make sense to run back a Benavidez-Cejudo sequel? Benavidez won the first fight in 2016 via split decision.

This is the part that has Benavidez shaking his head. That he’s being asked about the flyweights being on the endangered species list rather than him being positioned to end his title drought.

“The first question should be, if you win and Cejudo wins, you guys should be fighting,” he said. “Why isn’t that the question? Why wouldn’t it be? It’s the obvious thing. I have a win over Cejudo. He’s the new champion, the Olympic champion. I’m the longest tenured fighter in this whole thing. I started at the beginning. I have a win over the champ, first time I’ve been able to say that through this whole career. Why aren’t we talking about that?

“That’s the business I’m here for. Beat Ortiz, Cejudo does his job, fight for the title.”

If Saturday night really is the swan song for the flyweights, and the UFC opts to shut it down, Benavidez might once again find himself as the odd man out. What would he do?

“It’s hard to answer unless that becomes the scenario,” he said. “I would need to see what the option is, to fight there or somewhere else. It’s definitely not ideal.”

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