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Andy Furillo: Joseph Benavidez finds himself in MMA – pure, primal, refined


You see Joseph Benavidez break people’s noses or open cuts near their eyes or choke them into unconsciousness, or you watch him drop an opponent with a right hand below the ribs, or you notice a kick to the head and the flurry of punches once he gets a guy where he wants him – face down on the mat – and you think maybe he isn’t the type of fellow you’d want to have over for cake.

But those depictions only cover Benavidez doing his job as a top flyweight in the world of MMA. What people don’t see amid the mayhem is a 31-year-old from Las Cruces, N.M., who adores his single-parent mother for showing him the value of hard work. He loves dogs and music. He will be married six days after his fight against Ali Bagautinov of Russia on Saturday in UFC 192 in Houston.

“Honestly, they’d just be surprised at how normal I am outside of fighting,” Benavidez, a member of Urijah Faber’s Team Alpha Male, said Monday before his workout at Faber’s Ultimate Fitness gym on I Street. “Some people are good at fixing computers or fixing cars; I just happen to be good at this.”

Like Benavidez said, some people are good at replacing a carburetor, and others are good at kneeing a guy in the midsection. He might render you bloody and unconscious in the octagon, but please keep in mind it is nothing personal.

“I don’t go into a fight with emotion or anger toward a certain person,” Benavidez said. “To me, it’s an athletic competition and a test of skill. There’s a line in ‘Fight Club,’ not that it’s a favorite movie or anything, but there’s a really good line: ‘How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?’ 

Benavidez sees fighting as “something so pure and primal.” He works his way up to the ring as an everyman from West Sacramento, where he keeps a residence. Soon, he will share it, along with another in Las Vegas, with his fiancée, Megan Olivi, a popular UFC reporter.

His switch gets flipped, he says, only when he steps through the ropes.

“You’re in there, you’re one person, but all of a sudden there’s another guy trying to harm you,” Benavidez said. “So I have to be better than him. I have to be more trained. I have to be stronger. I have to be faster. I have to be slicker. I have to think better.”

Benavidez, 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, has won 22 of his 26 UFC fights. He has knocked out six of his foes and forced nine into submission. He is one of the world’s leading practitioners of the guillotine hold, whereby he pins an opponent’s head against his own chest and chokes away. The art of the guillotine is the same to Benavidez as “Water Lilies” was to Monet. The result is the same, for Benavidez’s victims and devotees of the Frenchman’s impressionism – total blur.

Benavidez discovered in high school he was a pretty good wrestler. He won the New Mexico state championship and rode his ability to William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa. Things didn’t work out for him among the Religious Society of Friends, so he returned to Las Cruces, where he found work as a screen printer. At the same time, MMA caught his eye.

“It made me think, ‘Hey, this is actually something that people do as a job,’ ” Benavidez said. “So I just kind of started doing it. I fell in love with it immediately. It was a passion of mine, a hobby I loved, and my goal was to turn that into my primary job.”

Wrestling has served as the foundation for Benavidez’s game. He added jiu jitsu and the guillotine, as well as other submission devices. He further refined himself with boxing and kick-boxing components.

His project completed, Benavidez departed Las Cruces nine years ago for Sacramento, where he sought a leading master of MMA – Faber. Benavidez connected with the champ, who gave him a day job at the I Street gym to pay his bills.

These days, Benavidez makes his money at night, having shaped himself into a top UFC attraction.

“He’s a guy who has dedicated his life to mixed martial arts,” Faber said of Benavidez. “He’s just a smidgeon from being a world champion. His next fight, I really think he’s going to showcase what he’s got, and he’s going to be a step closer to being a world champion.”

Saturday’s fight can be seen on Fox Sports 1, on the undercard of UFC 192, headlined by the light heavyweight championship fight between title holder Daniel Cormier and challenger Alexander Gustafsson. In Bagautinov, Benavidez will face an opponent who is 13-3 and coming off a loss to flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson, who has beaten Benavidez twice. Saturday’s winner figures to get a shot at the champ.

Now a seasoned pro, Benavidez was asked to answer the existential question posed in “Fight Club”: Just what has he learned about himself through fighting?

“Just everything,” he said. “Courage. Everything you’re physically capable of. Facing fears. It’s great to test yourself beyond your limits, to know you’re always capable of more, if you try.”

In Benavidez’s continuing education, Bagautinov is advised to watch his throat.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

UFC 192

  • When: Saturday
  • Where: Houston
  • Main event: Light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier vs. Alexander Gustafsson
  • Local angle: Flyweight bout between Joseph Benavidez of Sacramento’s Team Alpha Male and Ali Bagautinov
  • TV: Prelims (including Benavidez’s bout), 5 p.m., FS1; main card, 7 p.m., pay per view
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