Former UFC title challenger talks about the genesis of his MMA career
The life of a professional fighter is filled with uncertainty. His successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see.
When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begin, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated – the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins.
What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place. This is what the climb looks like – told in the fighter's words. This is “The Fighting Life.”
A Contender Reborn
In Las Cruces, N.M., family values are ingrained into the desert community nearly as much as the red tint the sun has scorched into the landscape it was settled upon. It is a place where work ethic drives the day, and while a successful life can be obtainable, even when comforts are achieved they are most often kept within the city limits.
To put it in basic terms, it is a place where people take care of their own. UFC flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez carries those values like a badge of honor.
When you take a look at Benavidez’s career path, the parallels to the city he called home for the majority of his life become obvious. To some, Las Cruces is the only place they would ever care to be. But what happens when a catalyst comes along and forces them to look further within themselves to realize their true potential?
After an exceptional high school career in which Benavidez claimed state titles in both wrestling and football, local notoriety became a way of life. But with accolades come expectations, and despite testing the waters of collegiate wrestling and finding it unsuitable, Benavidez returned to Las Cruces and settled into the normalcy of a regular life. The daily grind provided the stability of a paycheck, but it did nothing to tame the fires of competition or dim the flashing lights of life beyond the desert he’d always envisioned for himself.
“I grew up in Las Cruces with a big Mexican family in a single-parent household,” Benavidez said. “I had two brothers and tons of cousins who were all competitive with one another. We were always doing something, whether it was wrestling on the trampoline or putting on boxing gloves to find out who was the toughest. Fortunately, I was always the one coming out on top, and that built confidence in me as a kid. When I got older and took up wrestling, that confidence carried over.
“I started competing and had a great high school career. I was a state champion in New Mexico as well as a two-time finalist. I wrestled one year in college and realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t really enjoy school, so I came back to Las Cruces and started working a regular job.
“Growing up in a town like Las Cruces, you can see successful people and what they are doing, but you don’t really look outside of the city for anything. You never really know how much is out there in the rest of the world and some people honestly don’t care. All I ever wanted to do was make my family proud, and even working a regular job I could have accomplished that. But when this MMA thing started to take off and I realized I could do other things, become successful in other areas, be on TV and this and that, my goals and ambitions shifted into a different direction entirely.”
Where success is typically gauged by completion, Benavidez found growth and confidence in having the courage to forge his own path. Originally, completing college was the first step into the rest of his life. But Benavidez knew in his heart it wasn’t the road he was meant to travel.
Reaching his dreams and obtaining his goals were going to be accomplished, but having the patience and vision to make this possible meant he needed to push farther and have the bravery to do so. Strangely enough, this path wouldn’t carom through the hum-drum world of nine-to-five office life, but in the shadowed world of underground fighting – and eventually into the blossoming sport of mixed martial arts, where a meeting with a world champion would alter his perception forever.
“By the time I returned to Las Cruces, MMA was booming and people started making little fight clubs around town,” Benavidez said. “It made me curious about who was fighting. I wanted to know if I’d be able to hold my own and beat these guys up. I kept my day job, started fighting as a hobby, and after I won my first five fights I realized it was what I wanted to do. I was beating a lot of bigger guys and the turning point came when I fought a guy who wrestled from Oklahoma State in a fight that was a total set-up. He was an entire weight class heavier than me and I ended up winning the fight. It was at that point I decided to quit my day job and pursue it.
“This was around the time of the first season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter,’ and seeing that really inspired me to go after this. I watched these fights on television and it looked as if these guys were making a living competing in this sport. I knew it was what I wanted to do, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to get there, but my mind was made up. Greg Jackson’s gym in Albuquerque is pretty close to where I’m from, and I imagined I would end up there at some point – but that’s not how things worked out.
“I went to visit my best friend, who lives in Sacramento, and figured while I was there I should try to get in some training with this Urijah Faber dude I’d heard about. He seemed to be pretty good, was my size and when I meant him and we trained together it changed everything. He told me I had what it took to be successful in the sport and to have a guy like that believe in me was all the assurance I needed. I decided Sacramento was where I needed to be, and I’ve been here for five years now.”
Without a single professional bout under his belt, Benavidez packed everything he owned into his car and made his way to Sacramento, Calif. While it may have seemed to be a decision made on a wing and a prayer, the encouraging words of a legend in the making were enough to quiet any doubts or fears that arose in Benavidez along the way. As he arrived and fully committed to becoming a mixed martial artist, his once-comfortable world would be flipped upside down and turned on its ear.
“It was a total life changer,” Benavidez said of the transition. “Rolling and training with Faber for the first time, I could tell things were going to be different. But when I moved to Sacramento and committed myself to making a career out of it – oh my God, was it an adjustment. The intensity, commitment and my entire set of priorities changed immediately. There was no social life to be had because I was training and working out nonstop, night and day. I became a total hermit outside of the gym, but inside, it was 10 hours a day of intense training. I was training with the best fighter in the world and at that point, I was his main training partner. Here I was a no-name guy from Las Cruces, no professional fights, and I’m training with Urijah Faber. He was dominating the WEC, and it gave me confidence I could become something in this sport.
“It helped me understand that you have a certain amount of untapped talent inside of you, but you never break into it until you really have to. I feel if I would have kept training in other places I never would have tapped into that talent because you need someone to push you to that place. Had I stayed in New Mexico, I would have done what I needed to become the best in the gym – but when you are training with someone who is already that much better than you, it lights a fire to reach their level of talent.
“It pushes you further than you could have pushed yourself, and training with Faber did that for me. Eventually we started to build a team, and more tough guys started training with us and it got to the point where every single one of us could beat one another up on any given day. We pushed each other to become the best and we’ve never stopped.”
The daily grind in Sacramento began to turn the former state champion wrestler into a full-fledged fighter. Where the training sessions typically ended with Benavidez on the business side of the back-and-forth, suddenly he found his footing and began to return the favor to his training partner.
It wasn’t long before Benavidez was thrown into the fires of professional competition. On the competitive California regional scene, he handled his opposition with minimal effort. And after winning two fights in the Palace Fighting Championships promotion by convincing fashion, a buzz began to build around Benavidez.
But despite his impressive showings and dominant performances, the big fights weren’t coming his way. Without big-name opponents, the money was slow to come, as well. Against his wishes, things appeared to be slowing down – until an amazing opportunity came from halfway around the world.
Benavidez was offered a bout with Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, a fighter considered by most to be one of the top featherweights on the planet. And even though he had yet to face an opponent anywhere near the caliber of Yamamoto, a confident Benavidez immediately accepted the offer.
“When I took the fight with Kid Yamamoto, I was trying to pick up momentum in MMA,” he said. “At that point, I felt I was good enough to compete in the WEC (and) beat some of the best in the world, but at that point the 135-pound weight class wasn’t too established. I was looking to gain a little notoriety and thought beating Kid Yamamoto would accomplish that for me.
“How that fight actually came about, I was venting to Faber how I would beat all of these other guys out there, but yet I’m getting paid this amount fighting at the Palace. I was fighting for PFC, wasn’t getting a title shot and was confused about the entire situation. Literally at that second, he was like, ‘Whoa – I just got an email seeing if you want to fight Kid Yamamoto in Japan for Dream.’ Right when I got the fight, it felt as if I hit the jackpot. I knew I could beat him and whoever they put in front of me – which is the outlook you have to have. You can still respect your opponents, but you have to believe you can beat whoever you face.”
Pumped and ready to face Yamamoto, Benavidez arrived in Japan ready for war. In a strange turn of events, Yamamoto pulled out of the scheduled fight just days before the event, leaving Benavidez to face Junya Kudo, who he defeated by submission in the first round. Even though he never had the opportunity to face the Japanese superstar, the victory in Japan opened the doors to the little blue cage of the WEC.
“It had always been a dream of mine to fight in Japan, and I wanted the exposure that would come from fighting Kid,” Benavidez said. “I was ready for it, and the day I landed I started doing media for the fight. The very next day I was informed he pulled out of our fight, which was extremely weird. I was down for the exposure and to fight in Dream, but I knew it could get me to the WEC and under the Zuffa umbrella where everyone wants to be. That fight helped me out a lot and it was a turning point in my career for sure.”
Five months after his victory in Japan, Benavidez made his WEC debut against Danny Martinez at WEC 37. The fight would be the first time he saw a bout go to the judges' decision, but Benavidez came away with the victory unanimously on their cards. His next fight would end in similar fashion, but along with his win over MMA veteran Jeff Curran came a scheduled bout with former featherweight contender Dominick Cruz.
The WEC announced the fight would be an official title eliminator bout. Even though Benavidez put forth a solid effort, the decision ultimately went to Cruz and Benavidez was handed the first loss of his career. Where defeat most often times will bring momentum to a screeching halt, Benavidez’s ability to keep things in perspective helped him continue to progress despite circumstance.
“That loss was a tough thing for me,” Benavidez said. “When I came into the WEC, I had the title on my mind and I knew I could beat whoever they put in front of me. I knew Dominick was a tough guy. I had seen him fight before and knew his style was crazy. I also knew a loss was going to come at some point in my career, and I think it came at the right time.
“In MMA, you have to have a short memory. You have to be able to learn from your losses, but you can’t dwell on them. You have to move on. It was hard to deal with because I knew he was getting the next title shot. The way I saw it, he had been fighting for a lot longer than me and I used that as a measuring stick in the situation. When I moved to California to train with Faber, with no professional fights under my belt, Dominick and Urijah were fighting for the world title in the WEC.
“I had to put things in perspective. This guy was fighting for the world title when I was packing up my car and driving to California to begin my career. He had experience on me, a little size, and it was a tough fight. I don’t think I performed my best, but you have to use those experiences to make you better. I think it showed in my next two fights because I came out and finished two tough opponents in devastating fashion.”
Looking to shake off the sting, Benavidez returned to action three months later and cut like a buzzsaw through the always game Rani Yahya. In less than one round, he was able to pound out the savvy veteran, and looking to keep his momentum building, Benavidez accepted a bout with Miguel Torres.
The former champion had recently lost his title to Brian Bowles and saw a fight with Benavidez as his way to jump directly back into title contention. Unfortunately for Torres, he ran into a Benavidez who was at the top of his game. From the opening bell until he ended the fight in the second round, Benavidez smashed and dominated Torres in every regard.
With the victory, Benavidez was granted a rematch with Cruz, who had gone on to become champion since their last meeting. The two meetings would come 12 months apart, and while the second go-'round between the two fighters saw a much improved Benavidez, the end result was the same. When the judges' decision was announced, Cruz’s hand was raised and once again Benavidez was forced to deal with the fallout of defeat.
While he was able to keep his positive perspective in check, the second loss to Cruz put Benavidez in the frustrating position of divisional limbo. It was clear he was superior to the rest of the fighters in the division, but having fought Cruz twice in one year meant it would be some time before he would be afforded another opportunity. If these circumstances weren’t stressful enough, Benavidez suddenly found himself lost in the shuffle of the WEC/UFC merger.
“The first loss made me a better fighter, but of course it was frustrating losing to the same guy for a second time,” Benavidez said. “Although the second fight was a lot closer and it showed how much I had improved since our first go around, it was frustrating. You can lose and be like ‘Oh sh*t’ and be negative, or you can lose and look at it from the positive aspects like I did. I saw it as a gauge where I could measure how much better I’d become in a year’s time. It was still a performance I can be proud of because it was a five-round war. If a few small things had gone differently, I feel I could have won that fight.
“I almost think I took the rematch too early. It was only a year since our first fight, and that’s not a lot of time in our sport. I still improved, and after the second loss I went right back to my winning ways – which made it easier to get over. I ended up fighting Wagnney Fabiano shortly after the second fight with Cruz, and that made it easier to get over the loss when you pick up a win directly after. It did create questions in my mind though.
“I was in such a weird position at 135 pounds. I called it 'The purgatory of the bantamweight division.' It was tough. I didn’t know who I was going to fight next. I fought Ian Loveland, who I had barely heard of, and I’m the No. 2 bantamweight fighter in the world and I’m facing Loveland on a non-televised card. Mind you, I’m trying to build myself up and my next fight comes against Eddie Wineland, who is coming off a loss, on another non-televised portion of the card.
“It was extremely frustrating and I didn’t feel as if I was benefiting from the whole WEC/UFC merger. It was great to be in the UFC and I knew it was going to pay off, but it was frustrating nonetheless. I knew it would bring better opportunities down the road, but it was frustrating because I was putting on exciting fights, working my ass off and I wasn’t being offered matchups with other contenders.”
Stay tuned for Part II on Tuesday as Benavidez is announced as a member of the UFC's inaugural flyweight division, becomes the pound-for-pound UFC Twitter king and reveals what he sees waiting for him on the horizon.