For a huge part of his fighting career, Joseph Benavidez was consumed with becoming a champion.
After rising up the ranks in the WEC’s bantamweight division, Benavidez fought Dominick Cruz to a heartbreaking split decision that saw him come up just short in his bid to win the 135-pound title. At that time, the WEC was home to the sport’s top featherweights and bantamweights. But after falling to Cruz on two occasions, Benavidez’s hopes of winning the title were seemingly dashed.
After Benavidez moved to the UFC with the introduction of a men’s flyweight division, he battled his way to a fight for the inaugural 125-pound belt against Demetrious Johnson. A back-and-forth battle ensued over five rounds, resulting another razor-close decision. But in the end, Benavidez left without the belt. Fifteen months later, he took another shot at the UFC flyweight title, but this time, he fell in dramatic fashion with a first-round knockout loss, a stunning turn of events in his career.
With two losses to Johnson, Benavidez was again stuck in purgatory. Looking back now, he believes his relentless desire to become champion probably backfired.
“I obsessed over it,” Benavidez said in an interview with MMA Fighting. “It was like this ultimate thing that only added more pressure.”
In the six-plus years since that fight, Benavidez has continued to win against the best competitors the flyweight division has to offer him. He’s gone 9-1 over his past 10 fights, including a victory over now-former flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, with his only loss coming in a split decision to Sergio Pettis after an 18-month layoff that came with recovery from major knee surgery.
During that time when it seemed like the title might simply be an unattainable goal, Benavidez learned to appreciate everything else that surrounded his career. From his marriage, to the friendships he forged with coaches and fighters in the gym, he started to take stock in how much MMA had given him, and suddenly his obsession with the belt didn’t seem nearly as important.
This Saturday night, Benavidez will take a third bite at the apple when he faces Deiveson Figueiredo for the vacant flyweight title in the main event at UFC Fight Night from Norfolk, Va. It’s been a long road back to the belt, but Benavidez has found a much different appreciation for this occasion than any other opportunity in his past.
“To me, the best part about winning the belt is hugging my wife after,” Benavidez explained. “That is a moment. You can have things but moments are everything. That’s a moment that is more important than anything. Hugging my coach and my corner men and seeing the UFC staff that I’ve seen every event backstage for years and years, the fans that have watched me for years and years, those moments are more important. I’ll be motivated to have more of those moments and those feelings and everything that goes along with it.
“That’s what got me here. Just respecting those moments every single day. It will be a bigger moment. [The belt] is just an object.”
It’s that perspective that has allowed Benavidez to prepare for his fight this weekend with a free mind rather than focusing solely on the title that has eluded him for so long.
According to Benavidez, he’s already put together a resume going back more than a decade that will define his career, and he refuses to allow a UFC title to define his entire body of work.
“People would ask me about my legacy, and I would tell them my legacy is what I did,” Benavidez said. “You can’t change it. It’s just what you do or what you did. This one, I’m grateful for the opportunity, and I’m excited but it’s a bonus for everything honestly. I never needed this. Every other one, I needed it. This one is incredible. It was almost an unexpected thing, even though I worked for it and earned it. You just never expect things like this.
“There’s no expectation. Because I’ve put so much expectation on every other one, and this is what happens. So what’s the worst that’s going to happen? The worst has already happened. Every single thing has happened so there’s no expectation. I’ve been through that part.”
Make no mistake, Benavidez acknowledges that winning the title will absolutely mean a lot to him but it’s a much different feeling now than when he battled Cruz in the WEC or faced Johnson for the first flyweight title in the UFC.
He still covets the opportunity to become champion but Benavidez has moved past his entire career revolving around it.,
“I will be 100 percent so grateful winning the title and hopefully it will afford me a lot of different things that come with the title and I’ll be appreciative of that,” Benavidez said.
“Of course, I’ll never want to lose it but it is an object. It can’t all be about the belt. When you appreciate something and you’re grateful for it — like going into work everyday or just your partner or your job — you just do it that much better because you’re lucky that you’re doing it.”