September 22, 2012

TORONTO -- Tito Ortiz was the light heavyweight champion. Jens Pulver was the lightweight belt holder. And both were on the Las Vegas fight card on the night when Dave Menne defeated Gil Castillo to make mixed martial arts history, becoming the UFC's first middleweight champion.

That was way back in 2001, when George W. Bush was in his first year as President, Kofi Annan was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, Gladiator won five Oscars, and the Arizona Diamondbacks were mere weeks away from winning their only World Series. A lot of time has passed since UFC 33, and a lot of things have happened in the world and in MMA in particular. But one thing that has not happened in the last 11 years is something we will see Saturday night: two fighters competing in the octagon to become the first UFC champ in a weight class newly created.

The fighters who'll be doing the honor are Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson, and the shiny new brass-and-leather belt they'll be going for in the co-main event of UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre signifies the top of the mountain at flyweight. Also known as 125 pounds. Also known to both fighters as their natural weight.

That last part, as it turns out, is the milestone that seems to resonate most strongly. "My goal is to be UFC champion, and my eyes are on that prize," Benavidez said in an interview with last week. "Being the first ever is really just a bonus, a huge bonus. And for me to finally be able to fight at the weight where I belong is huge. Not having to compensate for always being at a size disadvantage allows me to unleash all of my skills."

Johnson has expressed much the same sentiment, at one point making an unintentionally comical statement about how he's delighted to no longer have to compete against big 5-foot-9-inch guys. (He's 5-3.) To hear Demetrious and Joseph talk, in fact, you might infer that they were utter failures at bantamweight. That could not be further from the truth. Benavidez is 16-2, with victories over former 135-pound champions Miguel Torres and Eddie Wineland, his two losses coming via decision against current belt holder Dominick Cruz. Johnson is 15-2-1, also with a win over Torres and with a loss to Cruz. If "The Dominator" wasn't around, these guys might be ruling the bantams.

They'll take what they now have. Even after having been bumped from top billing with the addition to the card of a Jon Jones light heavyweight title defense against Vitor Belfort. "My dream has always been to be a UFC champion. It wasn't to be a main event fighter," said Benavidez. "Besides, the addition of Jon Jones adds more luster to UFC 152, which means more people will buy tickets and watch the pay-per-view, which means more people will get to see what I do."

What Benavidez does is bring power, although that's something we saw only in brief bursts during his time at 135. "I'm no longer fighting bigger, stronger guys," he said. "So now I am more likely to hang out in the pocket and exchange punches." He certainly got the four-man flyweight tournament off to a combustible start in March when he knocked out Yasuhiro Urushitani.

That same night in Sydney, Johnson was announced as the winner of a majority decision against Ian McCall, apparently setting up the Benavidez vs. Johnson finale we now have. But a scoring discrepancy was discovered, and the result was changed to a draw. So while Benavidez sat and waited, Johnson and McCall had a redo, which Demetrious won in June to earn him the shot at the belt.

Johnson's calling card is speed. His nickname is "Mighty Mouse," but he's more like another cartoon rodent, Speedy Gonzales. His perpetually bouncy movement will pose a timing challenge to Benavidez, who's normally the speedier man in his fights. "I will do my best to catch him," said Joseph. "And if I do, I feel confident that he'll feel my power."

After all, Benavidez does pack a punch, it's been said, that's more powerful than that of Michael Bisping. Of course, the analyst saying that was Benavidez himself, trying to get in a dig in response to the antagonistic Brit proclaiming that his middleweight fight against Brian Stann is the true main event. "No one cares," he said, "about the little flyweights."

That's not true. What fan wouldn't want to see Benavidez finally get to pick on someone his own size, and for that someone to be the fastest fighter in all of MMA? The flyweights are getting their due from fans, and part of the credit for that actually belongs to Bisping. By treating the 125-pound title bout like it's some WWF midget rasslin' sideshow between Sky Low Low and Little Beaver, and then engaging in a steady flow of back-and-forth vitriol with Benavidez, "The Count" has brought attention to himself, to be sure, but also has shone a spotlight on the historic championship fight.

It's a fight that is bigger than either of its principals. You might say it's the start of something small. "That's why we're here: to leave a legacy that'll be remembered long after we're done," said Benavidez. "And what a great start to my legacy, man, being the first UFC flyweight champion."

Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the MMA mailbag, click on the e-mail link at the top of the page.

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