Joseph Benavidez was hired nearly seven years ago by Urijah Faber to work the front desk of Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym in downtown Sacramento. Saturday night, Benavidez has a chance to claim the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s flyweight title, and pick up some revenge, against champ Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson.
Benavidez (19-3) lost a split decision to Johnson (18-2-1) last year in the UFC’s flyweight elimination tournament that crowned the new division’s belt holder. He’s since gone 3-0and will get another shot at the belt in the main event during UFC on Fox 9 at Sleep Train Arena. The New Mexico native now calls Sacramento home and will headline a card that also features Sacramentans Danny Castillo, Chad Mendes and Benavidez’s former boss, Faber. Each is a founding member of arguably the nation’s top mixed martial arts team – Team Alpha Male.
“I can’t wait to fight on one of the best cards of the year,” Benavidez said after a recent workout at Ultimate Fitness. “It’s been a tremendous year for me and the team, and to have all four of us fighting in front of our friends, family and fans is just really special. But we still have to go out and make it happen.”
Faber (29-6) fights Oakley’s Michael McDonald (16-2) in what could be a bantamweight brawl. Mendes (15-1) continues his climb back to a featherweight title shot with a bout against Nik Lentz (26-5-2), and Castillo (16-5) meets Edson Barboza (12-1) in a lightweight bout.
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Benavidez and Johnson were scheduled to fight for the title Nov. 30 as part of The Ultimate Fighter 18 finale. But when lightweight champion Anthony Pettis was injured training for his UFC on Fox 9 main-event bout against Josh Thomson, Benavidez vs. Johnson 2 was moved into that slot and gave Sacramento MMA fans that much more to be excited about.
Benavidez’s fight Saturday will be his first in Sacramento. The UFC hasn’t had a card in Sacramento since UFC 73: Stacked in 2007. But it was a late 2006fight – UFC 65: Bad Intentions –that got Benavidez, a former high school and collegiate wrestler, thinking about the sport as a possible career.
“I was visiting a friend from New Mexico who was training at Faber’s gym, and we went to the old Arco Arena to watch a UFC match,” Benavidez recalled. “We were up in some nosebleed seats, and the atmosphere was incredible in there. Plus, George St. Pierre won the (welterweight) title that night. I was hooked. I went back to Las Cruces, packed everything I had and moved back to California. Faber gave me a job at the front desk, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Two of Benavidez’s three losses have been split decisions, including the 47-48, 48-47, 46-49 loss to Johnson in September 2012 as part of UFC 152 in Toronto. Since that defeat, Benavidez has won a unanimous decision over Ian McCall and used a flurry of kicks and punches to knock out Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier Mormiga.
Johnson is one of the UFC’s top pound-for-pound fighters and has no real weakness. He can throw gloves, wrestle with the best and force opponents to tap out. Benavidez still believes his best is better than Johnson’s best. But he also admits he has to show it Saturday to become the only title holder in Sacramento.
“I just have to be relaxed because I think I tried too hard in the first fight against DJ,” Benavidez said. “I chased a guy who moves really well. I have to go into this one with the mindset that it’s just another fight and just another opponent. I believe I’m the best in my sport’s weight class.”
Now he has to make Johnson, and at least two of the judges, a believer. Team Alpha Male’s new head coach, Duane Ludwig, certainly believes in him and has sharpened the tools Benavidez will use to try to take Johnson apart.
“When I got here (in January), the two fighters that most impressed me with their striking were TJ Dillashaw and Benavidez,” said Ludwig, a former UFC welterweight and lightweight fighter who once knocked out a fighter in six seconds – still the UFC record. “I really haven’t had to change much for Benavidez. I want him to keep his base, get close and then bang. It’s a simple recipe, really.”
UFC ON FOX 9
• What: Mixed martial arts card featuring UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson vs. challenger Joseph Benavidez of Sacramento in the main event
• When: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (doors open at noon, main card begins at 5 p.m.)
• Where: Sleep Train Arena
• More local interest: Sacramento’s Urijah Faber fights Michael McDonald, and Chad Mendes takes on Nik Lentz, both on the main card.
• TV: Undercard, FS1, 2 p.m.; main card, FOX40, 5 p.m.
• Tickets: Starting at $50 plus fees, available at ticketmaster.com and the arena box office