On the heels of his victory over Ian McCall at UFC 156, Joseph Benavidez could have easily made the case to get a rematch with flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson. But rather than step back into the Octagon with "Mighty Mouse" in quick fashion, the Team Alpha Male staple thought it best to take another route entirely.
Make no mistake about it: UFC gold is the ultimate goal for Benavidez. But having learned from past experiences, the Las Cruces native understands that rushing into opportunities may not always be the best course of action.
It wasn't all that long ago when Benavidez was ranked as one of the top bantamweight fighters in the world. While competing under the now-defunct WEC banner, the 28-year-old had battled his way to the top of the ladder in the 135-pound weight class. But after coming out on the losing end of a No. 1 contender's bout with Dominick Cruz and then being edged out in a split-decision loss when he contested "The Dominator's" title a year later, Benavidez suddenly found himself in a strange position.
Despite Benavidez being one of the top 135-pound fighters under the Zuffa banner, having two losses to the current champion put him in a limbo of sorts. Even after racking up three consecutive victories over solid competition in Wagnney Fabiano, Ian Loveland and Eddie Wineland, Benavidez was nowhere to be found on the title radar.
Ultimately, his fortunes would change when the UFC made the decision late in 2011 to implement a flyweight division in the coming year. The new weight class gave the once undersized Benavidez the chance to compete at a weight better suited for his frame and a chance for the Sacramento-based fighter to re-ignite his dream of becoming a UFC champion.
Unfortunately, Benavidez would fall short of his goal of becoming the organization's first flyweight titleholder, but he believes the setback is temporary. While Johnson may have earned the nod in their first encounter at UFC 152, Benavidez is confident the 125-pound title will one day be his.
That being said, where his ambition once drove him to jump back into a title shot impulsively, this time around, Benavidez is willing to take a few extra steps to ensure the next time he competes for the UFC title, he will be able to take full advantage of the opportunity.
The first of which will come against Darren Uyenoyama at UFC on Fox 7, and Benavidez is excited to get back to work in quick fashion.
"I was just being practical with my decision-making and looking at what was best for me," Benavidez told Bleacher Report in an exclusive interview. "I feel I'm getting better with every fight, and the more fights I can get in before stepping in for another title shot is all the better for me. I have no doubt I'll get there again, but I kind of learned from the situation I was in at 135 pounds.
"I fought Dominick Cruz and lost, then he became champion. I only fought two times in between my rematch with Cruz. Yeah, they were two great performances where I was aggressive, but I didn't have a ton of time in between, and I took another fight against Cruz for the title. And I was in limbo after that. I could have certainly gotten better during that time. But I jumped back into it.
"Now the situation with D.J., it would have been a five- or six month turnaround between fights. I just want to get better, and I think it's great for the 125-pound division to develop a little more. It's great and I'm honored that I probably could have gotten another title shot. That's awesome but I wanted more time.
"It's good for the division that they matched D.J. up with John Moraga because that's another name people are going to be forced to know," Benavidez added. "Plus, it allows me to go out there and fight someone else. I feel it can only help the division to get these other names out there. Like I said, I believe I'm going to fight for the title again, but I wanted to get better.
"It was too quick of a turnaround. If they would have made me do it, of course, I would have done everything in my power to go out there and get the job done. But I thought the smarter thing to do would be to take a little more time, improve my skills and let everything play itself out."
The matchup with Uyenoyama will come 10 weeks after Benavidez's most recent showing against Ian McCall at UFC 156 on Super Bowl weekend. While it is undoubtedly a quick turnaround, Benavidez believes he is making up for time he has lost over the past two years.
"I'm just trying to be active," Benavidez said. "I'm still getting real comfortable in the flyweight division. I've gone five rounds with Mighty Mouse, which helped in the last fight with [Ian] McCall. But the more time I can get in the cage, the better. I feel I improve with every fight. The more fights I can get before I get another shot at the title is great.
"In both of the last two years, I only got to fight twice in each year. I like to fight at least three times a year and four would be great. I'm just trying to make up for that. I had a big break in between my fight with [Yasuhiro] Urushitani and my title fight against Johnson, and an even bigger break between my last bantamweight fight and waiting for the flyweight tournament to start.
"I train every day anyway, and I'm going to be fighting in the gym against animals like Urijah Faber, T.J. Dillashaw, Chad Mendes, Danny Castillo and Lance Palmer. I'm going to be training hard against those guys so why not beat somebody up and get paid for it?"
With the flyweight division entering its second year under the UFC banner, fans are still adjusting to the new faces in the weight class. Whereas veterans like Benavidez, Johnson, and McCall have established names in the fight game, a new batch of future contenders are looking to establish themselves with the organization's fanbase.
While Uyenoyama may not have the biggest name in the division, Benavidez is fully aware of the dangers his opponent presents. He is expecting the 33-year-old California native to come out aggressive, and he can't wait to mix it up with the former Strikeforce veteran.
"Darren is someone I've been looking at for a while," Benavidez said. "I knew once he dropped down to 125 pounds it wouldn't be long before he was a contender. All it was going to take was a big fight against a guy with a name and it just so happens that guy is me. I think it is going to be an awesome fight.
"He has a good win over Kid Yamamoto and got a finish in his first fight at flyweight and looked good doing it. He's mainly a jiu-jitsu guy, but I think the thing that separates him from most jiu-jitsu guys is that he can also wrestle. He also has some great striking and is super aggressive. He's going to go out there and try to bring it. This is a big opportunity for him, but I'm looking at it as a big opportunity for me as well. I'm going out there to make a statement and I'm just going to keep going. I'm having fun with these fights.
"One thing I've realized, especially since the title fight, is that it's not life or death out there," Benavidez added. "This is just what I do and I need to go out there and have fun. I kind of thought like that up to every fight in my career and treated it like it was just another day. But with the title fight, I treated it like it was life or death and didn't go out there and perform as good as I could have. I needed to go back to my old way of thinking and I've done that. I'm having fun and realizing I can't control the result. I need to go out there and have a great time. With Darren, I have a great opponent to do that against and I'm going to go out there to have fun.
"Whether it is for the title or not, a fight is always important. If I can't beat one of the lesser known guys, then I don't deserve to be fighting for the flyweight title. This is just going to make me better for the next time I get there and I have every intention to get there again."
The bout with Uyenoyama will mark the fourth appearance for Benavidez at 125 pounds, and it is a process the former bantamweight contender is still getting used to. After competing for the majority of his career in the 135-pound weight class, Benavidez is beginning to see the advantages of competing against opponents who are closer to his size.
In addition to the physical differences, Benavidez is seeing his skill set reach its full potential in his new weight class. Where he once had to make adjustments to compete with larger opponents, at 125 pounds Benavidez can utilize his versatile arsenal to the fullest extent.
"Everything is going good as far as the physical things, but it is really just a luxury to fight guys my own size and not having to compromise my style because of the size difference," Benavidez said. "I'm a pretty powerful guy, but just because I can hit hard, at 135 pounds I didn't necessarily want to stand in front of a guy like Eddie Wineland and trade punches.
"A lot of the bigger guys I fought I had to compromise my style and get in and out as quickly as possible. I need to be putting pressure on people and getting on top of my opponents. It was a lot harder for me to take people down at 135 pounds and probably easier for them to take me down. But fighting at flyweight, I don't have to compromise my fighting style to make up for size.
"I can use my speed, power, striking and technique to its fullest advantage because I'm going against guys my size. When I was fighting bigger guys, all those skills I work at on an everyday basis could never reach their full potential because I couldn't use them the way I wanted to. Now I can fight the way I need to fight and I love it."
Benavidez's dreams of becoming a UFC champion remain as highly charged as they've ever been. The biggest difference this time around is his ability to allow his ambition to yield to the process needed to carry it out. The ultimate goal is to replace the framed picture of a UFC championship belt on his mantel with the official 12 pounds of gold that comes with being the best fighter in his division.
While Benavidez has chosen to take the longer road back to a title opportunity, he believes the hard work he puts in along the way will only make him that much more prepared when the moment to compete for the flyweight strap arrives.
Until then, he will continue to put on exciting fights and showcase the high-paced action that has become a trademark of the flyweight division.
"I'm going to take chances and bringing high activity," Benavidez said. "I'm always going out there to finish someone. Whether it's throwing a home run punch or jumping to my back to lock up a guillotine; I'm going to go for the finish. I am always going to bring excitement and people can count on me going 100 percent every time I step into that cage.
"I have an awesome opponent in Darren and it's going to be great to fight in California again. I have teammates on the card and it's an inspiration being able to fight with some of the guys who are on the card. Ben Henderson and Gilbert Melendez are two of my favorite fighters to watch, and every time I fight on a card with guys like that it is inspiring. I get to see how good those guys are and they set the bar. You get to see what is possible and what the best fighters in the world look like.
"It inspires me to go out there and want to be put in the same category as they are in. People can expect to see another exciting fight from me because I go out there and put my balls on the line every time. It's going to be a good fight."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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