Perception dictates everything.
When a point of view is established, the realities of a situation begin to fill in. With each element that takes hold, a new set of circumstances develop, until it all takes shape to become something the mind can understand. Once the foundation is set, everything becomes amplified when goals are applied and the wheels are set in motion to achieve.
For No. 1 flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez, the weight of this process became overwhelming.
The Team Alpha Male staple had spent years carving out his place as one of the best lighter weight fighters in the world, but he had come up short in getting his hands on championship gold in the bantamweight division.
Down but not defeated, the Las Cruces, New Mexico native became reinvigorated late in 2011 when the UFC officially announced it was creating a 125-pound weight class. The 28-year-old had been finding success against larger competition since joining the Zuffa banner in 2008.
He would not only be facing opponents closer to his natural size, but he would have an early jump start as a definitive fixture in the upper tier of the new weight class.
In Benavidez's mind, anything shy of becoming the inaugural flyweight champion was a failure. After two disappointing losses to bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz put him in title contention limbo, "Jobe" was determined to make sure the story wouldn't repeat itself at 125 pounds.
While claiming UFC gold was tremendous motivation, a place in the history books added to the appeal. Earning a title is a defining moment in a fighter's career, but even those fade over time. Becoming the first-ever flyweight champion would be an accomplishment that would stand forever, even if it someday became the answer to a trivia question.
But as Benavidez drew closer to the title, the perception of the situation he'd created in his mind became heavy. Here was a fighter who thrived on pressure throughout his career, but suddenly, his quest for the flyweight title became something different.
The goal became all-consuming. When he faced Demetrious Johnson at UFC 152 for the inaugural belt, everything shifted out of balance. Benavidez came out on the losing end of a split decision that night in Toronto, and while the result brought the sting of disappointment, it also yielded a powerful turn in his mindset.
In the aftermath of the fight, the former title challenger realized the weight of the outcome inside the cage didn't carry dire circumstances. His life, and all the great things in it, would carry on regardless. He recognized that if the work was done, the end results would be produced.
With that new perception, he set out to get back on track.
"It's been huge," Benavidez told Bleacher Report. "It wasn't so much of an overall change in mentality for me, but it was a change in mentality from that fight to my next. I feel I've always had that 'another day at the office' mindset, and each fight is a chance to test my skills, but I fell out of that mindset for the Johnson fight and treated it like it was something different. I found out that way isn't for me. It isn't for me to get emotional and put all this serious pressure on one fight.
"Our job is already serious enough. We punch each other in the face and fight. It's already serious and there is no reason to make it any more serious. I had to ask myself why I treated it like I did. I didn't enjoy training camp or anything about that fight. There was nothing fun about that experience and I needed to get back to that."
Benavidez found freedom in this realization, and his change of perspective produced amazing results. He looked solid in his win over Ian McCall at UFC 156 in February, then steamrolled his next opponent, Darren Uyenoyama, via first-round knockout at UFC on Fox 7 three months later.
Following his victory in San Jose, talk of another title shot began to swirl, but with his new mindset at the wheel, Benavidez was in no rush to force the issue.
With Johnson slated to face John Moraga at UFC on Fox 8 in June, Benavidez rolled onto the next challenge. That came against Jussier Formiga at Fight Night 28, and once again the heavy-handed flyweight delivered an amazing performance. He punished Formiga with his striking as he notched another first-round stoppage victory.
Toppling Formiga in Brazil made it three consecutive victories for the Sacramento-based fighter and gave him a clear-cut case for another shot at the title. In the days following his win, the UFC would call to set the title opportunity in stone.
Benavidez will square off with Johnson once again on Nov. 30 at the The Ultimate Fighter 18 Finale in Las Vegas. While flyweight gold is once again hanging in the balance, this time around, the weight of the situation is exactly where he wants it to be.
"All the pressure I put on myself and obsessing about the result of that first fight isn't something I can do," Benavidez said. "Yes, becoming champion is my goal, but it's not something I can control. The only way I can have any control of that is going out there every day and becoming the best fighter I can be. That's my main goal without looking at the bigger picture. If I go out, put the work in to be the best fighter I can be, what else can I do? I can have these goals, but if I don't strive to push myself, those goals are never going to be reached.
"This next fight is against Demetrious, it's five rounds and there is a title on the line. The same things will be on the line as the first fight, but this is going to be just another fight for me. I lost the first one, but I really didn't lose anything. I didn't die, and everything was all right afterwards. My family and friends still loved me just the same after. This is just another fight for me and it's the next fight after my last one.
"I knew I was going to have another fight after Formiga, and it just so happens to be against Demetrious for the title," he added. "I'm going to keep doing the same things I've been doing and I'm going to handle this fight the same way I've handled every fight since our first one. I'm excited though, man. This will be another chance to test my skills, and it will be against the best guy in the world. That makes it a little more special."
While the date has been set for his rematch with Johnson, the preparation has already begun because it never stopped. Benavidez has long understood the sweat equity it would take for him to become successful, and his work ethic has paid off every step of the way.
That being said, being one of the best isn't the same as reaching the top of the mountain to become a champion on the sport's biggest stage. Looking across that divide one year ago caused him to shift his perspective and pushed him off course. Now that he's found his footing, he's vowed not to make that mistake again.
The momentum he's built is nice, but there is no big reward where he's concerned. Each day produces results if the work is put in, and Benavidez believes the investment will yield the greatest reward as long as he continues to demand the most from himself.
"I do recognize momentum, and I see it as a positive," Benavidez said. "I feel myself getting better with each practice, and then it shows in the fight, and that is where it really counts. You build momentum with the fans because of what happens in the cage, but I can also feel it in practice. I want to get better every day and I can feel myself improving as I go along.
"I believe I'm getting that done, and I'm taking it one day at a time. After this last fight, I knew because of the landscape of the division, this would be the one that gets the title shot. It wasn't that I didn't want it or I wasn't ready; I was just looking at it as another fight because at the end of the day, that is what it is. When they asked me what I wanted next, it didn't really matter to me. I just want to fight again, and I know I'm going to get better until that next fight comes.
"Whether that fight comes against Demetrious Johnson, who is just another guy in my mind—yes, he's a great fighter, but he's just another guy in my mind—or it comes against another tough fighter in the division, it's just another fight to me.
"I keep it moving, and I don't sit on my last performance and think about what should be coming to me," he added in conclusion. "I get right back in the gym and keep pushing myself to improve. My goal is to become as good as I can be, and that is going to make me accomplish my other goals. I fought on a Wednesday in Brazil, got home on Friday and was back in the gym training on Monday. I haven't stopped since then."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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