Stars aligning for Benavidez, Alpha Male

Joseph Benavidez saw his first live UFC card inside what was then the ARCO Arena in Sacramento, Calif.

Two fights into his pro career, Benavidez was happy enough sitting in the nosebleeds at UFC 65, eating hotdogs and watching Georges St-Pierre take the welterweight title from Matt Hughes.

"If someone tapped me in the shoulder and said seven years later you'll be down there doing the same thing I would have been like 'Get out of here, you're nuts,'" Benavidez said this week.

He would also owe that person an apology, because that's exactly what will happen Saturday when Benavidez gets a second chance at winning the UFC flyweight title against Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 9.

"Never in in my wildest dreams," Benavidez said, despite being a dreamer.

Sacramento is the flyweight's home, and has been since 2007, when he sought out Urijah Faber before making the move from New Mexico.

Faber's camp, Team Alpha Male, was in its early days. Training out of Ultimate Fitness in the heart of California's capital, the operation was designed to provide Faber the best training he could get.

Faber, a former WEC 145-pound champion, had proved himself to be one of the best fighters below the lightweight limit. "The California Kid" turned out to be a pioneer, as well as a brand that has mattered for the past 10 years.

It's no surprise that the mixed martial artists who found a home at Faber's gym fight mostly between 125 to 155 pounds. Leading up to a card that features a four-pack of Alpha Male teammates looking to finish 2013 with a combined 14-0 record, the storyline seems like something you'd respond to by telling a person they're nuts.

But that's right. Benavidez, Faber, Chad Mendes and Danny Castillo will step into the Octagon inside the newly dubbed Sleep Train Arena before family and friends this weekend, aiming to complete an astounding year for themselves and their gym.

Faber would probably add the city he lives in to that list. The 34-year-old bantamweight, who meets young Michael McDonald in the co-feature, said he feels like he has come to understand how important it is to represent Sacramento as a community. This town and his gym share an identity, and it's important enough to embrace.

"I see this as me and my guys doing our part," explained Faber.

The great run of 2013 has largely been credited to the arrival of the team's new head coach, retired Muay Thai fighter and mixed martial artist Duane "Bang" Ludwig.

Ludwig is a technician. He loves detail and structure. And though he didn't accomplish as much as Faber has as a pro, and he's just a year older than the head of the gym, Ludwig's presence has been portrayed as a big boost.

"We've had great coaches throughout time, guys that were really strong in some places but not others," Faber said. "But having Duane in there with his system, the confidence of having someone in there orchestrating everything, helps a lot. You can definitely see improvement."

Ludwig had a vision when he was a kid that one day he would train great a fighter. Faber and Alpha Male gave him his chance, and thus far they're better off for it. A co-op atmosphere has emerged in the gym, which suits Faber and his hippy-parent roots just fine.

Fighters bow when they step on and off the mat. They wear color shirts that signify ranking, like a belt around a gi. A martial arts feel has taken over the crew, and that's all from Ludwig, who said his life was changed many years ago and he has grown as a person because of the experience.

"When I have the guys step on the mat I ask four things of the guys," said Ludwig, who moved his family from Colorado to Sacramento for the job. "I ask them to show up on time. Get better. Get tired. And take care of their partners.

"Don't waste my time or your money."

Ludwig's influence. Stars aligning. Whatever the case may be, 2013 has been tremendous for the group.

"As far as the team, it's been an amazing year," Benavidez concluded. "I've gone out and gotten three wins. Faber has three wins. Chad is on streak to get his fifth knockout in a row, which would actually be a UFC record. I think he'd beat Shane Carwin.

"It seems somehow when we all fight on the same card our games get elevated, and just the fact that it's in Sacramento is crazy. You can't really count on everything being meant to be, but everything is in place to really make the year put that exclamation point on it."