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Memory is seldom kind to second place. Google “second place sayings” and a litany of familiar sentiments emerge. Second is the first loser; no one remembers who came in second; either you’re first or you’re nothing. These are harsh ways to think of those who are better than every single person except for a single person.
The way we think about individual competitions is binary -- there is a winner and at least one loser -- so we tend to scale up that Boolean framework to encompass an entire field of competitors. It doesn’t matter if winning a silver medal means you beat 100 people. Silver is only as significant as the loss it necessitates. This is compounded in MMA, where number twos abound. Sometimes the number two fighter in the division is actually the number one fighter, but he or she simply hasn’t had the opportunity to prove it yet. Assuming the champion is in fact the ichiban, it’s still not entirely clear how to determine the second best. Is it the loser of the most recent title fight? Depends on who lost and how. While only one person can claim the number one spot in a division -- or two if the Ultimate Fighting Championship thinks slapping an event with some interim gold will yield some increased green -- any number of fighters, from proven veterans to untested prospects, could make the claim that they are the second best. You’ll be hard-pressed to hear anyone vocalize that, as second is the first loser, after all.
There is really only one way to become the best -- win, win, win -- but there are a number of different ways to be second best. Two perennial second bananas demonstrated this at UFC on ESPN 3 on Saturday in Minnesota.
First, there was the Frustrated Number Two. In the co-main event, Joseph Benavidez notched a third consecutive win, finishing top-ranked flyweight contender Jussier Formiga in the closing seconds of the second round. It was the first time Formiga had been stopped since 2013, when Benavidez 187’d him in 187 seconds. It was yet another piece of evidence that Benavidez is one of the most criminally underrated fighters around, as if any more was needed. Consider his career: 15-3 in the UFC (20-5 if you include World Extreme Cagefighting bouts), with wins over virtually everyone who’s been anyone in either the flyweight or bantamweight division. His losses have come against Dominick Cruz, twice, Demetrious Johnson, twice, and in a head-scratcher to Sergio Pettis. Of those five losses, three were split decisions. Even against all-time greats like Cruz and Johnson, Benavidez has always come up just short of greatness.
Despite cementing his position as the clear next in line for the 125-pound title, Benavidez still finds himself in an unenviable situation. The future of the flyweight division remains uncertain, and current champion Henry Cejudo -- another W on Benavidez’s resume -- is injured. When Cejudo heals, it’s anyone’s guess as to which belt he’ll defend first. As champion in two weight classes, Cejudo has some leverage to call his own shots to an extent, but second place affords no such luxuries. Even if Benavidez is, in fact, the best flyweight in the UFC right now, all he can do is wait for another chance to prove it.
Then there was the Despairing Number Two in the main event. Junior dos Santos had his three-fight winning streak forcibly snapped by Francis Ngannou, dashing any hopes at a championship resurgence for the time being. Of course, “Cigano” hasn’t always been second best. He started his UFC career with one of the most outstanding heavyweight runs in MMA history: nine straight wins, seven of them finishes, that culminated in winning and defending the title.
Yet that’s why his current position of being wedged between the statuses of top contender and tough gatekeeper is so disappointing. He’s been at the top of the division before but has never been able to get back to it despite several opportunities. After losing his belt to Cain Velasquez at UFC 155 in 2012, dos Santos spent the next five years trading wins and losses. Amid the seesaw, he got crushed in two title fights. A win over Ngannou would have catapulted him into championship contention with real career momentum. Instead, he’s back at the base of the mountain again.
Luckily for dos Santos, he’s fighting in the heavyweight division. Prospects are scarce, and a title shot is seemingly always a win away. He’s definitely still in the title picture; it’s not like he’s getting old or his skills are declining. He may simply be caught in the vicissitudes of heavyweight, where consequences are compounded by the kilogram, or he may no longer be able to compete with the top of the division anymore; and if nobody cares about second place, you should hear what they think about third, fourth and fifth.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.