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On Saturday night, at the age of 35, Joseph Benavidez will make his third -- and likely final -- shot at Ultimate Fighting Championship gold when he steps into the Octagon against Brazilian marauder Deiveson Figueiredo for the vacant flyweight belt.
It has been over six years since the former screen printer last competed in a UFC title fight, with his last tilt lasting only 128 seconds courtesy of Demetrius Johnson’s right hand at UFC on Fox 9. Eighteen months prior, he fell to Johnson via razor close split decision at UFC 152, which resulted in “Mighty Mouse” and not “Joey B” becoming the company’s first-ever flyweight champion. Johnson would go on to have unprecedented success as a champion, dutifully defending the mantle 11 times before eventually losing to Henry Cejudo and defecting to One Championship.
Since dropping down from bantamweight eight years ago, Benavidez’s only missteps have been against Johnson and a contentious split decision loss to Sergio Pettis in 2018, mounting a 13-3 record over eight years and solidifying himself as something of a permanent No. 1 contender at 125. Amongst Benavidez’s conquests are wins over three men who fought Johnson for the flyweight title (Ali Bugautinov, John Moraga and Tim Elliott) and the one who eventually usurped the throne in Cejudo.
Despite his consistency inside the Octagon and popularity outside of it, until now, a third crack at the title has alluded Benavidez. Johnson was apathetic about a potential trilogy bout whilst he was champion, and when Cejudo defied the odds to beat Johnson, “The Messenger” immediately set his sights on a super-fight with bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw before abandoning the division altogether for greener pastures at 135-pounds.
The Cejudo-sage played out over a backdrop of divisional uncertainty, as the promotion flirted with dissolving the 125-pound weight class altogether. In between lobbying for a rematch with Cejudo, Benavidez found himself as one of the figureheads of the informal “save 125” coalition, cutting perhaps his most memorable promo to date in the aftermath of first round win over Alex Perez, telling the UFC brass the flyweights “ain’t freaking leaving.” It’s an arguable proposition that, in between putting on two of his most violent finishes to date against Perez and Jussier da Silva this last June, this advocacy was one of the deciding factors in the UFC’s decision to lower the axe hanging over the 125-pound weight class and give the remaining flyweights a chance to build a post-Cejudo world.
Which brings us to Saturday night, which will either by Benavidez’s crowning achievement, the culmination of a 14-year career punctuated by false starts and silver medals, or the fight which solidifies his “always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride” legacy, reminiscent of long-time Benavidez mentor and training partner Urijah Faber.
For his part, Benavidez seems intent on avoiding exactly this kind of binary. In interviews with UFC and MMAFighting this past month, he’s been at pains to understate the impact of winning the title on his career, emphasising that he’d embraced “do-or-die” pressure in the past and paid the consequences in his self-worth. Instead he’s regarding a title reign as “just an extra line on [his] Wikipedia page” and “bonus” in an otherwise long and rewarding career.
Such a mindset is understandable, especially in a sport with so little margin for error. But it’s also a fundamentally dishonest one. If Faber’s career stands for anything, it’s that it’s one thing to survive successive generations of contenders but another thing altogether to rule them. On Saturday night Joseph will either transcend this comparison or concretize it forever.
Such is the cruelty and austerity of the fight game.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.