Joseph Benavidez’s pursuit of UFC gold will be decided tonight in the main event of tonight’s UFC Fight Night in Norfolk, Virginia.
Benavidez meets Deiveson Figueiredo in a bout, which will now be fought at catchweight, to potentially determine the new UFC Flyweight Champion, which was vacated by Henry Cejudo.
Figueiredo (17–1) missed weight by two-and-a-half pounds, which means, even if he is victorious, he is ineligible to win the title. If Benavidez (28–5) wins, he will become the new Flyweight Champion.
Once seemingly destined for multiple title runs in the UFC, Benavidez’s journey has been filled with injuries, missed opportunities, and now an ongoing battle with Father Time. The 35-year-old is the last opponent to have defeated Cejudo, and he also competed for the title twice previously, but lost both times to Demetrious Johnson.
The most accomplished fighter to never win a title, Benavidez looks to change that tonight. He spoke with Sports Illustrated to discuss his journey, the fight against Figueiredo and his future in fighting.
Justin Barrasso: What has stood out about your training camp?
Joseph Benavidez: I’m at a point where I can choose my coaches. Being in Vegas, you have all the resources at your disposal. For me, I’ve been a part of a super-team in Team Alpha Male for so much of my career. But it’s hard to cater to one guy when there’s 50 or 100 others. I still have a team aspect and a gym at Xtreme Couture, and I pick my classes and my coaches.
That selection has come from people who have my best interests, and that’s why I’m working with my coaches Eddie Barraco and Casey Halstead. When I’m fighting, I’m their No. 1 priority, and that goes a long way. I’m lucky to get to a point in my training to make those decisions.
Barrasso: There are tremendous fighters that have never been champion, but what would it mean for you to finally win UFC gold?
Benavidez: It is the pinnacle of the sport. It carries a ton of weight because it is an official title of being the best in the world. Every single person that starts in MMA, that is their main goal. It’s special, and I’m close to attaining it.
No matter what happens, I know I was one of the best. You can be a great fighter and even be considered one of the best without a title, without that extra line on your Wikipedia page. But it’s nice when it’s not opinion. A time I can point to when I was world champion. That is what every single person in the sport is trying to accomplish. It’s a life’s work, and it’s worth all the wait.
Barrasso: Eight years have passed since your first UFC Flyweight title fight in 2012 against Demetrious Johnson. Your perspective, fighting style, and entire life has evolved so much over the past eight years. What is the biggest difference between then and now?
Benavidez: I was 28 in that title fight. My motivations and my outlook on life were so different. Fighting was all that defined me. Fighting was the only way I felt self-worth, with people thinking I was the best. Now, fighting is such a bonus to me. It’s precious to me, and I’ve dedicated my time and life to it, but it’s a bonus to my actual life—not the other way around.
Fighting was the only thing that mattered in my life, and I didn’t realize that until I lost. Winning was the only thing I thought would happen, but when it didn’t, life was still there. My loved ones were still there.
It’s great to be young and fearless, but I’m older and I have experience. There is also a time when those two meet up perfectly, and that’s where I’m at right now. My athleticism and experience are lining up to be optimal for my performance.
Barrasso: Fourteen years ago, you could control those 15 or 25 minutes in the cage as well as anyone, but your life was in a far different place. Now you have a much firmer handle on everything in your life outside of the cage. But the constant is your drive for that championship. It once defined you, even if it no longer entirely does.
Benavidez: I stopped fixating on an object. I am focused on a destination—the minute in front of me, the round in front of me, the practice in front of me, the fight in front of me.
I was always focused an object—the title. I wanted it so bad, but I didn’t get it. But I realized I already had what I needed. That’s something that has changed hugely. It’s not about the object anymore. I literally enjoy all the moments. That’s the fight game. You can only do what you can do to the best of your abilities, then you go out there and perform. Nothing is guaranteed.
You only have a chance at winning, no matter how good you feel. So I learned to look at what is in front of me and be grateful for that. But I still have not lost faith in myself and the people around me, and it’s led to this.
Barrasso: You were out for 18 months with an ACL injury. More than a title, longevity and perseverance define your career.
Benavidez: I wouldn’t change anything in my journey. The destination is the belt, but you never arrive at just the belt. You’re always on the way to something else. You never truly arrive anywhere. But winning the belt, it’s a nice pit stop.
Barrasso: How do you envision this fight against Figueiredo?
Benavidez: I see a finish. I always see a finish.
I’m always prepared for the hardest time of my life. This could be hell. I am prepared to go in with the intention to finish the guy faster than that, but I’m ready. This could be the hardest 25 minutes of my life, and that’s how I’ve trained. I see this ending with my hand raised and a finish. I see a million ways of it finishing, and I have a lot more ways to finish the fight.
Barrasso: If this goes the way you envision, how do you plan on celebrating?
Benavidez: I’m most excited to hug my wife. Food, friends, loved ones, all that. I’m not a guy who typically has an after-party. I like to have pizza in my hotel room with the people that went out to support me.
I’ll be excited to go home on Monday and start the next goal. Checking this off the list, then seeing what's next. Then I’ll take out the trash, make coffee for my wife, and pet my dog, Benny. That’s what I’m looking forward to most.