- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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Joseph Benavidez pretty much has two birthdays now. There is his original birth date, just like everyone else, and the day he learned he’d get to fight at 125 pounds.
It’s always a good day when a fighter finds out he gets to compete in his ideal weight class, but the significance of this goes even further for Benavidez -- who says he feels "reborn" as a flyweight.
His career had hit a maddening spot during these past 18 months. He wasn't going to receive another title shot at 135 pounds after having lost to champion Dominick Cruz twice while in the WEC, but at the same time he was respected enough by UFC matchmakers that they refused to put him against rising prospects.
The result was Benavidez accepting undercard fights against competition that didn’t make a lot of sense. Through two fights in the UFC, he has yet to see the main card and has faced unranked opponents in Ian Loveland and Eddie Wineland.
“I call that the purgatory of the bantamweight division,” Benavidez told ESPN.com. “The UFC is trying to build that division; so, I can’t get a title shot. But they also don’t want me knocking off the up-and-coming guys.
“I felt I took some random fights. I was so excited to fight in the UFC, but I was on Facebook [portion of bouts] and the undercard, fighting a guy coming off a loss. I felt I deserved a little better than that.”
As it turns out, the UFC agreed. The promotion announced late last year Benavidez would be included in its four-man flyweight tournament, which officially begins Friday at UFC on FX 2 in Sydney.
For the first time in his career, Benavidez isn’t eating unnecessary meals or lifting weights in an attempt to put on unnatural weight. The opportunity to fight for a title is back in the picture as well -- the first 125-pound title in UFC history at that.
“It’s something I think about all the time,” Benavidez said. “Being the first flyweight champion would be history. I’d be immortal. No matter what I do, that’s always there.
“I bought a house after the Loveland fight. I wanted something grown up like an elephant or some flowers to put on the mantel. I decided I need a UFC belt. I don’t have one so I just put a picture of it. It’s something I visualize every day.”
His light schedule in 2011 -- it was the first time since 2006 he didn’t fight at least three times -- might have actually benefited Benavidez.
While he’s known as a permanent member of Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, Calif., Benavidez likes to visit other camps when he has the opportunity.
Prior to his first two fights in the UFC, he traveled to Las Vegas to train under the late Shawn Tompkins. Earlier this year, he went there again to work with Muay Thai instructor Shawn Yarborough and boxing coach Jimmy Gifford.
With no fight to prepare for in the last six months, Benavidez was able to push himself without the fear of having to pull out of a contest if he injured himself. He’s evolved as a result.
“I’m never not motivated to train,” he said. “Actually, when I don’t have a fight I’m training the hardest because I’m not worried about getting hurt.”
While trying to not look too far ahead, Benavidez admits it’s been nice to know exactly what’s next should he win this week. Past that, in addition to a UFC title, he wouldn’t mind seeing his name appear on more pound-for-pound rankings.
Considering he’s competed at a higher weight class his entire career and lost to only one man, Benavidez says there’s already a case for him to be in the rankings. Finally at 125, he’s got the opportunity to erase all doubt.
“I definitely think there is an argument,” said Benavidez, on whether he’s on the top-10 list right now. “I’m second-best in a division I wasn’t supposed to be in. But there are so many good guys in this sport it’s hard to list pound-for-pound.
“I’m looking to accomplish that -- make myself a pound-for-pound name.”