Benavidez, Johnson poised to make history

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
2:41
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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Demetrious Johnson vs. Kid YamamotoRic Fogel For ESPN.comDemetrious Johnson brings a ton of similarities into his UFC 152 matchup against Joseph Benavidez.
Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson are so very similar that it just makes sense they'll meet this Saturday at UFC 152 in Toronto for the opportunity to become the organization's first flyweight champion.

"They both have a championship spirit, so neither will stop whether they're winning or losing," UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz said. "They're just going to go. Pedal to the metal. If there's no finish, they'll go until the bell rings. It's going to be insane to watch that pace."

Cruz speaks from experience. The first and only man to hold a UFC title at 135 pounds did so, in part, because of two hard-fought decisions over Benavidez and one against Johnson.

Moving away from Cruz when UFC adopted a flyweight class earlier this year, Benavidez and Johnson -- each affable, easygoing and extremely competitive -- were pegged as top contenders at 125 despite never fighting there before. Both made good on expectations.

Benavidez dismantled Japan's Yasuhiro Urushitani; Johnson needed two attempts to assert himself against then top-ranked Ian McCall. The UFC billed the quartet as a flyweight tournament, and though it seemed likely they'd meet in the finale, Johnson and Benavidez shared many more reasons to like one another.

They became friendly during trips to Australia and Toronto. In Sydney this spring, each felt as if he represented the UFC against outsiders Urushitani and McCall. During a PR tour in Ontario, Canada, promoting UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre, they hung out, joked around, ate a ton, and saw Coldplay in the building that will host UFC's first flyweight championship fight.

"I thought [Johnson] was sabotaging me because he kept trying to get me to drink milkshakes," Benavidez recalled. "I've never fought anyone that I like more than I do Demetrious. I always liked him and respected him as a fighter, his style and being the smaller guy and everything."

Though they enjoyed success at 135 pounds, each was thought of as too small for the weight class. They're equally (or as close as two people can be) fast, athletic and dynamic. Each has stepped in the cage as a professional 18 times. Each has fallen short in five-round championship contests against Cruz.

"I think they're very well-matched in the sense of how they fight," Cruz said. "Both of them are great strikers, have good submission defense and great wrestling. The difference in this fight, plain and simple, is pretty much power. I think Benavidez has the edge in power and Demetrious has the edge in speed and movement. The question is which is going to dismantle which? That's what makes this fight so interesting to me. Will the power of Benavidez dismantle Johnson's footwork, speed and in-and-out angles?"

Cruz understands well what it's like to hold the mantle of king of the little fighters. This weekend that title will be ceded to Johnson or Benavidez, and some fans -- the ones that covet blood and guts and war, Cruz explained -- simply won't care.

They'll miss out, Cruz went on to say, because Johnson and Benavidez are capable of delivering the best type of mixed martial arts. They'll stand and grapple and transition seamlessly between each realm. And do so with an intensity that underscores just how much it means to each fighter.

Dominick Cruz and Demetrius Johnson
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comUFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, left, knows from firsthand experience the challenges posed by both Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez.
"We have similarities in the fight game," Johnson said. "We know it's a business, but at the same time I don't need to be pissed off to punch someone in the face."

Both suggest they are primed to perform this weekend.

For the first time in his career, Johnson went through a full 10-week camp. To hear Benavidez discuss the belt, he's essentially put himself through a six-year training regimen. Each day when he returns home from the gym, Benavidez looks to his mantle where a 4x6 Polaroid of a UFC belt reminds him of what exactly he's doing in this sport.

This may be one of the few areas where Benavidez, 28, and Johnson, 26, actually look at things differently.

"When I first jumped in this sport it was a hobby for me and I was working full-time," Johnson said. "Joseph's situation was totally different. He had ambitions to be champion. Don't get me wrong, do I want to be champion? Absolutely. That's why I'm in this sport."

Cruz said Johnson surprised him more than Benavidez. Johnson's speed is "something you have to respect." His ability to switch stances in the middle of combinations is unlike anything Cruz had seen before. Yet the current bantamweight champion, like many others, is leaning towards Benavidez on fight night.

"I do see it a very even fight that can go either way, but if I do have to pick a winner I'd go with Benavidez in the sense that I think he has more experience," he said.

Not by much, though.

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