Blood and sweat, sometimes tears
Battered hands, countless fears
Highest highs lowest lows
Shattered dreams, the hurt just grows
Your smile shields the pain you hide
All the while you’re dead inside
Your faith is absent, your will gives out
Now clear your mind, erase the doubt
Everything you have you gave
To feel self worth, that’s all you crave
The world’s a stage, this is your role
You break your heart, you sell your soul
Stay the course, endure the pain
You were born to entertain
- Joseph Benavidez
The next time someone tells you that a fight is just a sporting event, read the words written by Joseph Benavidez in the time after his UFC 152 bout with Demetrious Johnson last September. This was no sporting event; this was the end game of years and years of training and sacrifice, of punches given and taken, limbs twisted and blood spilled. To fight for a world championship – correction, to fight for the UFC’s first flyweight world championship – was all Benavidez thought of, and losing was a thought that never even crossed his mind.
Until it happened, with a five round split decision going to Johnson. It wasn’t a performance for Benavidez to hang his head about, and with the closeness of the fight, along with his talent and name recognition in the UFC, it was likely that he would get another crack at the belt sooner rather than later, but that was little consolation to him the morning after the fight.
“I guess the best way to describe it is a little heartbreak, disappointment, just the realization that it didn’t play out like I had planned it for months and years,” he said. “I envisioned something totally different and I was in disbelief. I would have been in disbelief if I would have won as well. I would have had to actually look at the belt and hold it and touch it to know it was real. But the fact that I didn’t have it, it was hard just coming to the realization that the opportunity that I had was really a once in a lifetime opportunity. To win the belt might not be, I think I’ll go for it again, but to be the first ever (UFC flyweight champion) was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I had to accept that. It was hard.”
When you say that Benavidez had planned for a completely different outcome may be an understatement. He was expecting to meet his family, including the two brothers he hadn’t seen together for five years, at the airport, have a local news camera crew meet him at his home, and most importantly, he was going to be able to remove the Polaroid picture of the UFC championship belt he had on his mantelpiece and replace it with the real belt. But things went south from the moment he left Toronto that Sunday morning.
“My body hurt, my face got messed up, our flights got canceled,” said Benavidez. “We had to wait in the airport, and we were in San Francisco, which is an hour away from Sacramento, and we had to wait until six in the morning over there or take a rent-a-car. So it was hell. The people were being super rude to us at the airlines, and I’m just cruising around super disappointed.
“I hadn’t seen my two brothers together in like five years,” he continues. “They were over there, a news crew was supposed to meet me if I won the belt, and none of that happened. Everything that I envisioned didn’t happen. Instead I’m in a rent a car, our luggage is still in San Francisco, so I have no luggage, no belt, and I’m thinking to myself, this is not how I envisioned it. Looking at my mantel, I had the Polaroid picture of the belt that I was going to replace with the real one, and in my mind, that had already happened. But here I am, the fight’s over and I’m still sitting on my couch staring at just the picture. There were little things like that that were hard to bounce back from.”
Admitting that getting over just the third loss of his pro career (the other two coming at bantamweight to current 135-pound champ Dominick Cruz) was a long process, Benavidez is far from a glass half full guy when it comes to his fight with Johnson, with the whole event leaving a bad taste in his mouth.
“The thing about my other losses is I went out there and even when I lost to Dominick, especially the second time because it was for a world title, I felt like it was a performance I could be happy about,” he said. “In the year from one fight to another I improved and I fought good and I did a lot of the things that I wanted to do, where in the Demetrious fight I didn’t feel like I performed and that bothered me a little more. I know a win and a loss is something you can’t control; you can only control how you go out there and perform, and I wasn’t really happy with that. So this fight took me a little longer than both of my other losses.”
But eventually, with the help of his family, friends, teammates, and girlfriend, Benavidez began to gear up for another trek toward the UFC Promised Land. But maybe the most important aid in his ability to get back to business was the poem he wrote, entitled “The Entertainer.” In 14 lines and 87 words, Benavidez put the real fighting experience on full display, a move that could be considered gutsier than anything that happens in the Octagon. Needless to say, it was cathartic for him.
“That’s kind of the reason I did it and got it out there,” he said. “It’s something you kind of hold in and almost hide from people when you talk to them, but just letting everyone know is such a relief, and you can move on from that point and know that everyone knows how I feel and what I’ve been through. There’s no more hiding, so let’s move on. I do research on a lot of artists that write songs and that’s the feeling they get when they’re struggling with whatever and they get it out there.”
And for a guy who goes out and fights on the sport’s biggest stage in just his shorts and gloves, it’s really not surprising when he says it wasn’t difficult to release his work behind the keyboard to the world.
“It wasn’t hard for me to share that; it felt good to me,” he said. “We go out there and we put out heart and soul on the line every single night, and usually there’s thousands or millions of people watching us get beat up on TV, and you’re not more vulnerable at any other point than that one. We’ve all done that, so what else is there to possibly feel vulnerable about?”
Very true. And once that chapter of his career closed, Benavidez was back. Just like that.
“You’ve just got to sit back and realize how close it (the Johnson fight) really was and realize how lucky and blessed that I get to do what I love for a living,” he said. “The only thing now is I got to get better, and it’s just another challenge to myself. And that’s why we fight: to challenge ourselves.”
The next challenge comes this Saturday in a UFC 156 main card bout against Ian McCall. To many, this was going to be the first UFC flyweight title fight when the promotion launched the 125-pound weight class in early 2012. Benavidez did his part in the four man tournament, with McCall coming perilously close to joining him in the championship bout before coming up with a draw and decision loss to Johnson. This weekend though, they will meet, and Benavidez knows that an impressive win may just put him back in a title fight with “Mighty Mouse.”
“I definitely feel it is, not only skillwise, but namewise,” said the 28-year-old Benavidez. “We’re two of the bigger names, and me and Ian are the next best guys. A lot of people did think this was gonna be a title fight, and that first fight (between Johnson and McCall), if it would have gone to a fourth round, this could have been the first title fight. So I’m looking at it just like that. I look at every fight as the biggest fight of my life and even though the last one was for the world title, and the first one ever, this fight is bigger than that fight just because it’s what’s in front of me right now. In MMA, it’s all about what have you done for me lately, and you have to have a short memory.”
He won’t forget what he lost last September though, and that’s what’s fueling him today.
The Polaroid is still on his mantelpiece.
“It’s not going down until the real one goes up. That’s how it is.”