It could be easy to look at this weekend’s UFC 152 event in Toronto and forget there are two title fights on the card, not just one.
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After all, the hype leading up to Jon Jones’ light heavyweight title defense against Vitor Belfort overshadows anything coming out of the mixed martial arts world since Anderson Silva’s vitriol-filled rematch with Chael Sonnen in July. First and foremost are the much-ballyhooed reasons why Jones is even in this fight: the injury that caused Dan Henderson to drop out of his UFC 151 fight against Jones, Jones’ refusal to fight Sonnen on short notice, the inability to find a suitable replacement and the subsequent cancellation of UFC 151. Add that to the fact that many would call Jones not just the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world (with apologies to Silva and Georges St. Pierre) but also the future face of the UFC, and you have an easy recipe for ignoring anything other than the main event.
That would be a huge mistake.
Because the second title fight on the UFC 152 card, just below Jones-Belfort on the billing, promises to be a lightning quick matchup for the UFC’s first flyweight title. It’s a fight that Vegas oddsmakers tell us ought to be a much more heated affair than the Jones-Belfort mismatch.
“Big guys who fight like small guys beat the big guys,” said Joseph Benavidez, one of the two small guys competing for the flyweight belt. “A small guy who fights like a big guy comes out and gets terrorized. With us, you’re not going to get two guys hunkered over and tired. This is going to be non-stop action.”
But maybe the top reason the title fight between 125-pounders Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson matters has less to do with what will go on inside the Octagon on Saturday night in the Air Canada Centre and more to do with what has transpired outside it. Sure, it promises to be a good fight. There’s the virtual guarantee that these smaller fighters — one a 5-foot-3 dude nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” — will put on a better display of cardio than any heavyweight, even if UFC fans might prefer to see two heavyweights banging each other around. But that’s not why this inaugural title fight matters. Why these flyweights matter is because common sense tells us there’s no way these two men ever should have made it this far.
“Even when I started this sport, I never thought I’d be in this position,” Johnson told FOXSports.com.
The favored Johnson, a former bantamweight who won a rematch against Ian McCall for a shot at the flyweight title, started out with a rough lot in life. Born premature to a mother who was deaf, Johnson has never met his biological father — has never even seen a picture of him. His stepfather wasn’t necessarily the best replacement. He had a military background and raised his stepson with a military demeanor, which sometimes meant corporal punishment for an infraction as simple as watching cartoons and interrupting his stepfather’s sleep.
Johnson played basketball and football growing up. But by high school, wrestling — matching guys of the same weight classes — seemed a better fit.
“When I was in middle school, I was still growing,” he said. “Then I stopped. It was what I got from God, so I went along with it.”
He started mixed martial arts in college just to stay fit. He tried the amateur circuit as he worked the odd array of jobs he’s held: slinging burritos at Taco Bell, running a forklift at a recycling plant, working in construction, hanging gutters and cooking at Red Lobster, where he met his wife. He quit working to train full-time only a year ago, as he was preparing to fight Dominick Cruz for the bantamweight title.
It’s that sort of dedication — Johnson trained two times a day with his wife when they were on their honeymoon in Hawaii earlier this year — that brought these two flyweights to the pinnacle of their sport. Benavidez’s story of conquering the odds in many ways mirrors Johnson’s. Benavidez won a state wrestling title in high school in New Mexico and went on to wrestle in college until he dropped out.
But his early sports success came despite a family where men simply didn’t succeed. Every male in Benavidez’s family has been to prison, he said. Substance and alcohol abuse was rampant in his family. His dad was in prison from when Benavidez was 6 years old until his teenage years, Benavidez told FOXSports.com, and his older and younger brothers have spent time in prison throughout Benavidez’s professional fighting career, which began in 2006.
“Seeing everything that had gone on in my family… that was tough, but it was almost good to see that,” Benavidez said. “Knowing it was in my blood to have alcohol problems, to have drug problems, and I’m going to be better than that.”
Not to say he didn’t have a taste of that road. He was drinking and doing drugs daily as a teen. Today, he calls his old self an addict, but back then it was just being unhappy, or feeling out of touch, or not being able to handle the struggles of everyday life without being drunk or high. Giving it up was simple — once he realized this wasn’t the life he wanted to be living and this wasn’t the person he was. He was destined for something better. After coming to terms with his demons at age 20, Benavidez said getting and staying clean and sober wasn’t a matter of attending daily meetings. It was just willpower.
“It was like life in HD for me,” Benavidez, now 28, said of his first days of sobriety. “I felt like myself for the first time in years, which was awesome. All the experiences you have after that, after your mind’s been altered in some way every day for a few years, it’s different. The high point is realizing this is life, so grab it for what it is instead of being altered the whole time.”
It took getting sober to make Benavidez serious about fighting. It also took chasing down former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber at Faber’s gym in Sacramento and then training alongside Faber to bring Benavidez to the point he’s at now, days away from a chance at UFC history. Like Johnson, fighting became a way for Benavidez to prove himself as worthy and to release himself from his struggles of the past.
And so on Saturday night, instead of tuning in only to see big guys go for the light heavyweight belt, do yourself a favor. Tune in for the little guys. For all they’ve been through in their crooked paths, Saturday night’s fight means something. It means as much as a middleweight title means to Anderson Silva or a light heavyweight title means to Jon Jones. As Benavidez put it, Saturday night’s flyweight title fight means this: “Am I as good as I think I’m going to be?”