Joseph Benavidez is out of bantamweight purgatory, into a new division, and onto smaller and better things.
When he was fighting as a bantamweight, Joseph Benavidez walked around at 145 pounds. For all those years, he was a Lilliputian among little dudes. Now that he’s a flyweight— the new 125-pound division in the UFC that was unofficially (yet very specifically) designed for him—he’s been known to tip the scales north of 150 pounds. Just like that, he’s become a gargantuan among Urushitanis. Now he has to lose one-sixth of himself just to fight. How did this happen? He doesn’t know exactly, but after dwelling in divisional purgatory for so long, maybe he feels like, you know…like he’s been set free.
OR MAYBE IT’S BECAUSE HE SALTS HIS PANCAKES.
That’s what he’s doing at the Cracked Egg in Las Vegas. He has a stack of banana pancakes, which he samples first to make sure they need it. He’s looking for that perfect contrast of sweet and salty, and, not getting it, he starts dashing. He is aware that he’s observed. So he defends himself.
“It’s delicious,” he says, “It’s the only way—but you have to do it right. You smear the butter on, then you salt the butter, and then put the syrup on. It has to be just in that order.”
Benavidez is once again in a bit of limbo. He’s in Vegas—which he calls his “home away from home”—because his friend/training partner Urijah Faber is coaching opposite Dominick Cruz on The Ultimate Fighter 15. Everything is intertwined. Faber’s a major reason Benavidez has ascended to such great heights, having formed the Sacramento-based team with Benavidez in 2007 that they’ve long since dubbed Team Alpha Male.
Cruz, on the other hand, is the reason Benavidez ended up in No Man’s Land to begin with. Benavidez is officially 16-0 against everybody not named Cruz. He’s 0-2 against those who are. If the flyweight division was created for Benavidez, its chief architect was Cruz. Of the four contestants in the inaugural tournament to establish a flyweight champion, Cruz has made entrants of three—Ian McCall, Demetrious Johnson, and Benavidez. Cruz doles out eviction notices like a no-nonsense super at 135 pounds.
But Benavidez is in Las Vegas salting his goddamn pancakes mostly because somewhere in Australia there’s a man in need of a calculator. He smoked the counter-puncher Yasuhiro Urushitani fittingly with a counter punch in his flyweight debut in early March, yet the McCall/Johnson scorecard fiasco—a fun bout that should have gone to a sudden-victory round to resolve a draw but didn’t because the scorecards were added up wrong—set him back kicking it on the Nevada horizon. Since that night in Sydney, he’s been playing a familiar game of wait and see, just like he did after the second loss to Cruz when there was nowhere left to go but sideways. And it’s all he can do to stay raveled.
“It’s frustrating that the flyweight division is here, and I went out and did my job, that now I’m basically back in the same position,” he says. “It’s a little frustrating, too, that Johnson and Mc-Call get to go in, get paid again in a main event, while I sit on the sidelines. But, the positive is that when my turn comes, it’s for a UFC title. And I’ll be better in October than I would be in June or July. Once I have the belt, the fights will start rolling.”
Overall, the positives are perceptibly deeper than he’s used to. Flyweight is a division he’s meant to dominate. What Anderson Silva is to the 185-pound weight class, so is Benavidez being groomed for 125 pounds. At 27 years old, with his prime in front of him, he’s already entering the pound-for-pound discussion. Best of all, there isn’t a Faber in his path, so he doesn’t have to explain the meaning of “no” to people that keep asking if he’d face his longtime teammate.
As for Cruz, the lone man in creation that has his number in the cage? Well, he’s no longer the summit. It’s Benavidez’s Time (or it will be just as soon as time permits).
There are things about Benavidez that make him peculiar, and that he’s 5-foot-4 isn’t one of them.
The shortest fighter to compete in the UFC was Phil Johns, who fought at UFC 30 against Fabiano Iha. Johns was 5-foot-2…and the novelty there was that he was a lightweight. By comparison, Joe-B-Wan Kenobi (as Benavidez is sometimes called) isn’t that short. In fact, he’s taller than many of his feather cohorts. He’s an inch taller than Demetrious Johnson, Louis Gaudinot, and his New Mexican brethren, John Dodson—the happy-go-lucky fink of TUF 14.
But to look at him, it’s obvious that here’s a dude who has style—or, at least, here’s somebody who fancies he does. He wears tight eggshell white shorts that he rolls up to the middle of his thigh. He never wears shorts that fall over his knees—that’s unbecoming. He digs Birkenstocks. Often, he sports a beanie or a bandana, usually when he trains so as not to let the heat escape out of his head. “My favorite one is a mauve beanie I’ve had for years,” he says. He is the type of fighter who knows what mauve is. And the real reason for the beanies that lend him a classic stevedore look in sparring sessions? “You look good, you feel good, you do good—it’s that simple.”
When not training, he and his girlfriend watch copious amounts of Fashion Star. In fact, Benavidez says that if he ever introduces a clothing line like his teammate Faber, it’ll be “for fashion—not for MMA.”
Yet, Joe’s cool is also very selective. He doesn’t wear sunglasses. He hates those. And he doesn’t take his nipple rings out unless he has to (read: only when he fights). He wouldn’t be caught dead in a Mini Cooper. That’s because Joe prefers big cars—big rectangular cars that might feel like metaphors in psych circles. The kind of cars people get lost in. Right now, he has a pearl white 2003 Cadillac Deville that he steers through California’s state capitol, bumping to old school R&B.
“I’ve always just been really into a luxury sedan—kind of the boat look,” he says. “I don’t know why—I feel safe in them, and I also feel really cool. I’ve upgraded as I’ve gone along. I started with an Oldsmobile Delta, which was my first car. I actually got that one for free. I’ve just kind of upgraded from there but stayed with the boats. After that, I went with a 1986 Lincoln Continental. That one was kind of special to me. That was the car drove down from New Mexico to California. That was a really cool car—it was kind of a pinkish, mauve color, with sheepskin seats and everything. It was pretty baller. Then I upgraded recently to the Cadillac.”
You might have heard about how he ended up in California training with Faber, and eventually the likes of Chad Mendes and T.J. Dillashaw. It was a trip to Sacramento over Thanksgiving weekend in 2006 when he met the “California Kid.” But as with so much in Benavidez’s fast/yo-yo/impossible trajectory, it was predicated on a stranger turn of events than people realize.
“The story with that is a little more crazy,” he says. “I was visiting up there, and I trained at one gym in Sacramento, and sort of beat everyone up from the instructors to all the students. And the guy there said, ‘Hey man, I don’t know if we can help you as much as somebody like Urijah can—he’s a little more your speed.’ I already knew he was there, and he told me Urijah just opened a gym. That was a Saturday, and I was to fly out on a Monday, early in the morning. So, Sunday I tried to go by the gym, but it was closed. Out of time, I went back to the airport and found out my flight was cancelled. I got stuck in Sacramento for three more days, and that’s why I met him. Had it not been a cancelled flight, I would have probably gone back to New Mexico, never met him, and might have ended up at Greg Jackson’s. I haven’t had a cancelled flight since, in more than five years. It happened how it was supposed to.’
Since helming that big Lincoln to California to help form Team Alpha Male—now a collective of the world’s deadliest small fries—he’s been nearly unbeatable. The people he trains with are always more imposing than the people he’s caged with.
“It’s a family,” he says. “I think that’s why we’ve been successful— we all want the best for each other. There’s no holding each other back, no egos.”
AT THE THROWDOWN TRAINING CENTER IN LAS VEGAS, Joe doesn’t have an ego either. Everybody likes Joe, and Joe likes everybody. Brandon Vera is absorbing big plodding shots from a heavyweight, but when he’s done, he and Joe chat about Australia, where Vera is headed for an upcoming tour. “It’s beautiful over there,” Joe tells him. Lurking around is a swivel-hipped Forrest Griffin, whose head travels like a shark’s dorsal fin over the cage as he walks by.
“Look at him, he’s like a Sasquatch,” says Benavidez. When he greets Forrest, he tells him, “You’re huge.” Griffin does the shucks thing, and says, “I’m about the right size for my size.” Then Joe sees Bellator Lightweight Champion Michael Chandler and says his full name when saying hello—”Michael Chandler!” They ex-change courtesies. There are a lot of champions and former champions bumping into each other, and Joe loves them all.
But what he didn’t expect was to run into Dominick Cruz, who’s training there for his fight with Faber. Cruz always looks like a pugilist noir, a throwback to the 1940s. He trains at warp speed, and he’s doing that at Throwdown. He catches Benavidez coming in and they chat for a minute. Cruz says something warm to Benavidez. What did he say? “He said, ‘Nice shorts,'” Benavidez says. “He always says, ‘Nice Birkenstocks,’ or comments on my clothes.” It’s a bunch of bosom buddies, and Joe is more than civil to the one man out there who has solved him in the ring.
He is reverent.
“The fact that my two losses are against the best guy in the world, that makes it a lot easier to accept,” he says. “That makes it a little easier. Dominick’s a great fighter, and it’s just a style match-up. A lot of great champions have had a guy who beats on them. Matt Hughes had Dennis Hallman. Faber had Mike Brown. It happens. I was looking last night, and Jeremy Horn beat Chael Sonnen three times.”
Joe is full of this kind of trivia. He puts his beanie on and gets busy. He no longer notices the gang of stars hovering around him.
There’s a scar that sits over Benavidez’s left eye like a biography. He got it on the wrestling mats in Las Cruces, where he was a high school state champion. Since then, it’s been opened, reopened, lengthened, and gashed anew throughout his MMA career. It’s his scar, and he’s as proud of it as he is the scar he gave Miguel Torres—whom Joe jokingly once called “Miguel Clitorres,” with the gash he put on his forehead bearing resemblances—and the broken nose he gave to Eddie Wineland. It’s all part of the grim trade he finds himself so good at, a place in life that burgeoned from grimmer circumstances still.
While growing up in New Mexico, he was poor. As one of three brothers being raised by his mother, there weren’t a lot of promises of bigger things to come. But he had his mom, whom he idolizes and flies to all his fights, and he admired people who could galvanize a scene—people like Elvis Presley.
“I remember doing school projects on Elvis, every report I did was on him,” he says. “The first time I saw him, with his hair and everything, I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It wasn’t just him as a person or his music, it was the way he came in and shook up the industry. Who doesn’t want to do that? Who doesn’t want to come into MMA and have people saying, ‘Who the hell is that?'”
Although he loved fighting with his “big Mexican family” of cousins and brothers, Benavidez began wrestling in the eighth grade, and he started taking it seriously in ninth. Why wrestling? “Because it was free,” he says. “My mom couldn’t afford karate class or boxing lessons.” He wrestled well enough to earn a scholarship to William Penn University in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and he was off to be the first Benavidez in college. It lasted one year. He struggled to make grades, wrestled very little, and then dropped out. “School was never my thing anyway,” he says.
Benavidez went back home to New Mexico and worked as a screen printer. He began training a team of area toughs that called themselves “The Bonecrushers.” He fought in a series of unsanctioned fights that don’t appear on his record, but he thinks they should. “My record should be 21-2,” he says, “I was paid, and the same rules applied.” And in those days on the local Land of Enchantment circuit, he fought in his underwear. One of the world’s most universal nightmares—showing up to work in your underwear— was Joe’s happy reality. “I didn’t have sponsors and didn’t want to go buy $50 tights, so I would just buy underwear from Target—all the way up to my DREAM fight,” he says.
But the DREAM fight against Junya Kodo in 2008 was still off in his future. He had to get through some demons well before then.
“I just didn’t have direction when I came back from college,” he says. “I actually had a pretty bad drinking problem, where I’d basically do it every day—cheapest beer I could find, and if I splurged, Jäger. I quit drinking seven years ago with the intention of building a better life. I hit bottom, and I realized it wasn’t good for me. I saw people in my family go down that road, and I wanted to make something better for myself. Didn’t know it would be MMA or anything athletic—I just wanted to clear my mind.”
In those days of tumbleweed revelry, Benavidez would wake up with new piercings. One time it was his eyebrow. Another time it was the middle of his ear, through the cartilage. “I took that out immediately,” he says. Then it was the nipples. He got rid of the others, but kept the ones through his love buttons. Why? “Because I am blessed with sensitivity,” he says with a laugh. “Lance Palmer has his pierced too, but he’s not sensitive. I am blessed.”
Make no mistake, Joe has some freak in him. And he has some innovation, too. He came up with the JOBE Awards that he handed out virtually on his Twitter, and JOBEs aren’t parodies of typical awards (exactly) but “actually kind of serious.” Some of his categories? The “Nicest, Kindest, Happiest Fighter,” “Best Looking,” “Best/Worst Tattoo,” and “Funniest Twitter”—you know, “The stuff that matters.” It’s an evolving enterprise.
And speaking of Twitter, Benavidez happily points out that he’s the only two-time winner of the newly installed UFC Twitter Bonus for most creative Tweets. He reckons he is the only fighter in existence that has won it twice, as well as all three End of the Night Bonuses handed out on Zuffa cards. Long before he’s known for anything, he’ll already be known for something.
Benavidez knows what to do with the name “Joe.” He refers to his fans as “Jomosapiens.” He has the JOBEs. And he invented JoeJitsu.
“I just like beating guys at what they’re good at,” he says. “I beat four black belts in a row. That’s why I came up with JoeJitsu—I thought, ‘There has to be something better than jiu-jitsu, because I just beat four of their top guys.’ I don’t train in a gi or anything, so I took pride in that. And I take pride in beating somebody at what they’re good at. If you look at my history, I’ve done that quite a few times. I tapped out two of those four black belts. It wasn’t like I beat them with wrestling. I definitely out-grappled the other ones, too, and I knocked out Rani Yahya. If you look at my fight with Eddie Wineland, he’s known as a power striker, and I stood with him the whole time. I didn’t clinch very much, I was in his range the whole time. I basically beat a boxer. Urushitani is a counter-striker, and I beat him with a counter strike.”
So what is Benavidez’s style? It’s whatever he wants it to be—or scarier, whatever his opponent chooses. He’s that well-rounded. In fact, if there’s one thing that he hasn’t used much in the last couple of years, he will tell you simply, “It’s the wrestling.” The one bedrock to his game sits deep back in his reserves in case he needs it. And if there’s a misconception about the lighter weight classes, it’s that theres no power in bird bones.
That’s hooey, he says. The thing people don’t understand is you can’t punch what you can’t punch.
“We’re a lot harder to hit,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of clean shots landing on flyweights. At heavyweight, at 205 pounds, at 185 pounds, these guys are standing right there in the pocket. They’re not quick enough to move out of the way of a punch. That’s the reason you don’t see a lot of knockouts in the lighter weight classes.”
And yet, you see it with Benavidez, who is quick and has a quarterback’s ability to strike where the head’s going—not where it is. He did it with Urushitani in scoring the first victory in the UFC’s flyweight division.
“Obviously, I just like to get the win no matter what, and I want it to be an exciting fight more than anything. A knockout alone is really satisfying, but when you go out there and prove people wrong in the debut of the weight class, with so much excitement? The incredible thing was that the debut of the flyweights was awesome. But the main thing is that I want the crowd to remember it—whether it’s a choke or a knockout or a decision.”
BEFORE HAVING HIS PHOTO SNAPPED IN THE BAKED NEVADA DESERT, Benavidez gets a call from his manager, Mike Roberts. He gets excited, because Roberts is telling him that he’s part of the next Face of Edge Shave Gel contest. That means he’ll get $10,000, at a time when money is scarce, with a chance at $50,000 (Chad Mendes won the last one). Benavidez tells Roberts that he’d like to guest commentate on the McCall/Johnson telecast in June, because he’s vested, and he knows their propensities—and besides, he’d be good at it. Why not?
Benavidez gets off the phone and imitates Roberts so well that it sounds like a perfect Jack Nicholson (and if you’ve talked to Roberts, that means dead on). He’s happy about the direction of things. Whatever the case, he’s one of the game’s good guys. He’s a humble Joe, he’s a mean Joe, he’s anything but an average Joe. Sure his pancakes are too sweet, and New Mexico was too familiar, and he was always too small for the bantamweight division— but Benavidez, for once in his life, knows he’s finally closing in on just right.
Even when he’s on the outside looking in, it’s Joe’s world. Or it will be as soon as the world gets around to him.
“The fact that my two losses are against the best guy in the world, that makes it a lot easier to accept”
“Who doesn’t want to do that? Who doesn’t want to come into MMA and have people saying, ‘Who the hell is that?'”
“Obviously, I just like to get the win no matter what—but the main thing is, I want the crowd to remember it—whether it’s a choke or a knockout or a decision.”