Perennial top 125-pound contender, Joseph Benavidez, will rematch inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Flyweight champion, Demetrious Johnson, in the main event of UFC on Fox 9, which takes place this Saturday (Dec. 14, 2013) at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California.
After spending the bulk of his mixed martial arts (MMA) career at Bantamweight, Benavidez finally made his Flyweight debut against Yasuhiro Urushitani in 2012, cracking the Japanese import with a vicious right hook for an early knockout victory.
This earned him a spot against Johnson in the first-ever Flyweight title bout.
Benavidez was defeated in a hotly contested split decision. Since then, Benavidez has been on the comeback trail, taking a decision over Ian McCall before violently finishing both Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier da Silva. The win streak has earned him a second shot against "Mighty Mouse" and a coveted headlining spot on FOX.
Can Benavidez capitalize on this high-profile opportunity?
Let's find out:
Benavidez was a vicious striker before Duane Ludwig joined Team Alpha Male and "Bang" has only improved his abilities from there. One of the more powerful punchers in the weight class, Benavidez has finished three of his four wins at Flyweight via technical knockout.
One of the biggest improvements to Benavidez's striking game is his ability to box from range. Before Ludwig, "Beefcake" primarily jumped in with a quick combination of hooks, which he still loves. Now, he also has the ability to poke at his opponent with a quick jab or up jab, then step in with a long straight left hand. When on the outside, Benavidez is always feinting with his lead hand.
Benavidez has always had a strong kicking game, but its gotten much more devastating in his recent bouts, as he used to merely damage foes with kicks. He can presently rock or finish with kicks.
Benavidez often works the inside of his opponent's leg and has begun going to the body with round house kicks. In addition to his front kick, Benavidez now will throw a head kick that hooks around his opponent's guard, much like his team mate T.J. Dillashaw frequently does. Benavidez does an excellent job hiding his kicks, either throwing them off of feints, at the end of combinations, or just being quick.
Benavidez does most of his damage by stepping forward with a lightning fast combination of hooks and overhands. Benavidez's timing is exceptional, allowing him to generally get the better of his opponent from inside the pocket. Since this style of attack covers so much distance, it also allows Benavidez to easily mix a takedown into his attack while his opponent covers up.
Benavidez does an excellent job mixing up his attack between the head and body. Throughout his entire career, Benavidez has worked his opponent's body up and down with punches. More recently, "Joe B-Wan Kenobi" has been attacking the body with kicks and knees, too.
For example, his body shot finish of Uyenoyama began with a nasty mid-section kick.
Even more recently, Benavidez crushed da Silva's breadbasket with a nasty stepping knee. After stunning "Formiga" with a four punch combination, Benavidez pushed forward with a knee. The Brazilian, reeling from the punches, had his hands high, leaving his liver exposed.
Benavidez is a naturally aggressive fighter, but has an effective counter punching game as well. He sets up his counter shots by standing just outside his opponent's punching range, where his kicks or even lunging attacks are still an option. When his opponent tries to throw a combination, Benavidez will step back, avoiding the first punch, then interrupt his combo with a brutal overhand.
Benavidez also frequently counters his opponent's kicks. Regardless of whether his opponent is going to the his legs or body, Benavidez will step into the kick and hurl a right hook at him.
Perhaps Benavidez's best skill is his ability to attack his opponent during the transitions between grappling and striking. Regardless of whether Benavidez's takedown fails, succeeds or he's the one defending, Benavidez always does his best to hurt his opponent after a grappling exchange.
My favorite example of Benavidez's mid-transition strikes was against Urushitani. After attempting a drop seonagi, a high risk Judo technique, both fighters land on their knees, facing each other. As both scramble to their feet, Benavidez is a step quicker and grabs Urushitani's head, feeding him a solid knee.
Against jiu-jitsu specialist Wagney Fabianno, Benavidez was forced to power out of side control. As he did, he landed a quick uppercut that snapped Fabianno's head back. The Brazilian immediately went for a takedown afterward, landing directly into a guillotine. Strikes like this make a big difference and can lead to finishes. Both the uppercut and choke can be viewed HERE from UFCs website.
Despite the fact that much of Benavidez's success comes from his striking, his style has some flaws. All three of his defeats come from opponents who have been able to evade his wide power shots and land smaller counters of their own. Especially Johnson, who on more than one occasion made Benavidez look slow by utilizing cleaner punches.
Benavidez, a state champion wrestler in high school, utilizes his immense strength to manhandle his opponents, both in the clinch and during a shot. The especially impressive part about this is that Benavidez spent most of his career at Bantamweight, throwing around larger men.
Benavidez's favorite takedown is likely his double leg trip. After distracting his opponent with punches, Benavidez will change levels and blast through his opponent's leg. While he drives forward, "Beefcake" will hook at least one of his opponent's legs. This style of takedown requires speed and is very effective, but it is easy to defend if his opponent is able to defend the initial trip.
Benavidez often takes his opponent down from the clinch, where he has an interesting blend of extraordinary skill and brute strength. Sometimes, Benavidez will try moves that primarily rely on agility and technique, such as the drop seonagi or duck under. Other times, Benavidez will simply overpower his opponent, lifting him through the air and slamming him to the canvas.
Once Benavidez lands a takedown, he doesn't allow his opponent to settle, attacking almost immediately. After the takedown of Miguel Torres that is pictured above, Benavidez slices him open with a flurry of elbows just a few seconds later. By never letting Torres settle into guard, he nullifies most of Torres' submission attempts before they happen and opens up his own offense.
If Benavidez feels that his opponent is successfully slowing down his pace, he'll step out of his opponent's guard. After throwing a few thudding leg kicks, he'll dive back in with a big punch, forcing his opponent to once again try to contain the explosive wrestler.
Overall, Benavidez's takedown defense is very good. The only people who've had any success taking him down are champions Dominick Cruz and "Mighty Mouse," two excellent wrestlers. What those two both excel on is perfectly timing their takedowns, making them incredibly difficult to defend.
Even when "Beefcake" is taken to the mat, he's nearly impossible to hold down. In addition to merely exploding out of bad positions, which he did to Fabianno, a skilled blanket, Benavidez has a unique way of getting out of side control. He'll reach under his opponent's leg, putting himself in a crucifix position, then pull that leg across his body. While his opponent is off-balance, he'll stand up, leading to a possible takedown attempt or clinch.
While Benavidez is unranked in jiu-jitsu, he's made a habit of not only out-grappling talented BJJ black belts, but submitting them as well. With eight submission victories, it's clear that Benavidez is dangerous on the mat.
Like most of Team Alpha Male, Benavidez has a brutal guillotine choke and is excellent at grabbing the choke during a scramble. Unlike team mate Urijah Faber, Benavidez's choke is less based on technique and more pure strength. He doesn't use the high elbow finish, he just squeezes as hard as he possible can. Additionally, it doesn't really matter to Benavidez if the arm is in or not, he's still going to pop his opponent's head off.
Benavidez greatly prefers to finish from the mount if possible. He'll either roll his opponent there from his back or force his way around their guard. Benavidez does an excellent job forcing his way to mount, pressuring through his opponent's attempts to latch onto a leg.
Benavidez rarely uses any techniques other than his guillotine choke. He does have solid guard passing skill and often tries to take his opponent's back, something he successfully did to Urushitani. From there, he was looking for the rear naked choke before time ran out.
Benavidez's submission defense is pretty impressive. The best part about it is simple: he's rarely threatened by submissions. He spent plenty of time on the mat with Torres and Fabianno, two very dangerous jiu-jitsu fighters, and was never in any danger. In fact. those two were the ones in danger. More recently, he spent time in Uyenoyama's guard without much trouble, landing punches at will before bringing the fight back to the feet.
Best Chance For Success
The last fight between Benavidez and Johnson was incredibly close. Both have improved a lot since that bout, meaning whoever makes better adjustments will likely come away the winner.
The biggest key for Benavidez is to not look for takedowns, especially in the clinch. In their first fight, Johnson repeatedly landed knees to the body and elbows while Benavidez unsuccessfully tried to land clinch takedowns. "Mighty Mouse" was also able to land counter shots as Benavidez looked to close the distance.
In addition to scoring Johnson points, those knees likely tired Benavidez.
If Benavidez finds himself in the clinch, he needs to push away and throw heavy punches immediately. Since Johnson is like Benavidez in his ability to strike off the break, Benavidez needs to release the clinch first. This will give him an advantage in the ensuing transition.
Perhaps even more important than avoiding takedowns, Benavidez needs to utilize his kicks more often in this bout. Benavidez repeatedly missed with looping punches whenever Johnson circled out. If he had kicked instead, he would have landed more shots, possibly enough to sway another judge, and slowed down Johnson, making his punches more likely to land.
Will Benavidez finally earn Octagon gold or will Johnson defend his title for the third time?