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I wonder what Joseph Benavidez was thinking on March 6, 2010—the night Dominick Cruz won the World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight championship by defeating Brian Bowles via TKO at WEC 47. Just seven months prior, Benavidez and “The Dominator” went back and forth in a thrilling and competitive three-round affair at WEC 42, where Cruz handed him his first professional loss. Had Benavidez been able to stuff a few takedowns and land a few extra shots against Cruz, he would have been fighting Bowles for the title.
I suspect Benavidez, upon seeing Cruz win the title, was itching to get back in the cage while at the same time not really sweating it. He had, after all, just lost a narrow decision to the newly minted champion, and at only 25 years old, it seemed like he had plenty of time to get the belt wrapped around his waist.
A year later, he had his next shot. After back-to-back stoppage wins against Rani Yahya—who was riding a streak of three consecutive first-round submission victories—and former champion Miguel Torres, Benavidez fought Cruz again at WEC 50. Over the course of 25 minutes, Benavidez landed the heavier shots, but Cruz landed more strikes and mixed in six takedowns, giving him the split decision on the scorecards. The eight combined rounds they shared in the cage made it clear: Benavidez was every bit as talented as his opponent but just a little too small for the 135-pound division.
Luckily, it was not long before the Ultimate Fighting Championship absorbed the WEC and introduced the flyweight division. Benavidez was part of a four-man tournament, the winner of which was to become the inaugural flyweight champion. Benavidez flattened Yasuhiro Urushitani to punch his ticket to the tournament final, while the other semifinal fight between Demetrious Johnson and Ian McCall ended in a draw, leading to a rematch three months later. No matter, as it only gave Benavidez more tape to study and more time to rest and prepare.
He wound up matched against “Mighty Mouse,” who was also bounced from the bantamweight division by Cruz. Though MMA math is a mirage, there is still practical purpose to comparing how two fighters performed against a shared opponent, and Benavidez was more competitive with Cruz than was Johnson. Yet once again, Benavidez fell just short in a split decision. After keeping it close in the first three rounds, he was handily outstruck in the championship frames while also surrendering five takedowns. Still, it was close, and at 28 years old, Benavidez would surely have his day in the sun soon.
Within a year of his loss to “Mighty Mouse,” Benavidez picked up three consecutive wins against top flyweights and was set to rematch Johnson. This wasn’t just another crack at him; he had started working with Duane Ludwig and had been reaping the benefits of added power in his punches. The rematch also took place in his adopted hometown of Sacramento, California, where he had been training with Team Alpha Male for the majority of his career. Teammates Chad Mendes and Urijah Faber had both won their fights earlier, and the crowd was heavily pro-Benavidez. Everything was lined up for him. “Mighty Mouse” buzz-sawed through him in 128 seconds. It was the first time he had ever been stopped.
Benavidez was in a familiar purgatory: Being better than everyone but the champion while being 0-2 against the champion. Moving back to bantamweight was not going to help—he was a natural flyweight, and the bantamweights were even bigger than they were when he was there—and there was no lighter division at which to try his luck. Benavidez kept trudging forward, knocking off one contender after the next over the course of more than five years. This stretch almost resembled a title reign, other than the minor detail of not defending a title.
He caught a break in 2018 when Johnson finally, if not controversially, lost his championship belt—and to someone Benavidez had already defeated, no less. The clouds cleared, and his next chance materialized. Had he not dropped a bizarre split decision to the overachieving Sergio Pettis just two months prior to Cejudo becoming champion, Benavidez likely would have been the undeniable choice for Cejudo’s first defense. Instead, he fought two bantamweights in his next two fights, one at 125 pounds and the other at 135 pounds.
Cejudo vacated the title while Benavidez beat three tough opponents to get his fourth chance at a major title. He had been denied by arguably the greatest bantamweight ever and inarguably the greatest flyweight ever. At UFC Fight Night 169 on Saturday in Norfolk, Virginia, he did not have a G.O.A.T. standing in his way. Instead, he faced a ferociously talented contender who came in 2.5 pounds heavy. He lost in one of the two ways he can, not by painfully close decision but by getting blown out of the water. After an accidental clash of heads, Benavidez lost focus for a split moment to wipe away blood, and Deiveson Figueiredo capitalized with a crushing right hand. In his fourth title fight, nearly 10 years after his first, Benavidez once again went home empty-handed. He turns 36 in a few months.
Speaking purely in terms of wins and losses, Benavidez has enjoyed one of the finest careers any fighter has had. He has beaten just about everyone who is anyone across two divisions for the last 12 years. He has done everything right. He has trained hard, is a threat in numerous phases of the game, has no glaring weaknesses to exploit and has made improvements big and small throughout his career. It’s not for lack of talent that he’s never become champion—or for lack of opportunity. He just fell short, for different yet eerily similar reasons, every single time. That’s life. Sometimes you get bad bounces, sometimes you get good bounces and still fumble the ball anyway.
Most fighters would kill to have a fraction of the talent Benavidez possesses, and they work their entire careers to have a fraction of the opportunities he has been afforded. It’s unfortunate that his career will almost always be seen for what is absent when there is so much there to appreciate.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.