MMA: Joseph Benavidez

Despite loss, Montague pleased with debut

May, 8, 2014
May 8
6:35
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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If the UFC had asked him to, Darrell Montague just might have paid for a ticket to his own Octagon debut.

In 2012, Montague’s invitation to the UFC flyweight party must have gotten lost in the mail. He was not a member of the inaugural class of flyweights the UFC signed that year, even though he was widely considered to be a top-level talent.

Nineteen months after the first-ever UFC flyweight fight, Montague (13-3) made his Octagon debut at UFC 166. The event was incredible: six knockouts, one submission, a fight of the year candidate and a heavyweight title fight.
[+] EnlargeDodson/Montague
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesDarrell Montague's UFC tenure got off to a rocky start, but he hopes to turn things around against Kyoji Horiguchi.

Unfortunately for Montague, he was on the receiving end of one of the six knockouts. Former title contender John Dodson viciously put him down in the very first round.

Still, all things considered, Montague says, it was a pretty awesome night.

“I’ve always been a fan of this sport and to be able to be on a card that big was huge,” Montague told ESPN.com. “Diego Sanchez versus Gilbert Melendez has to be one of the top-10 fights ever in the UFC. The whole card top to bottom was just good fights.

“When I look back on it, it will be awesome to be a part of that card.”

Montague’s positive feelings toward a night in which he was unwillingly removed from consciousness aren’t surprising once you learn more about him.

The Southern California-based flyweight started watching the UFC during childhood alongside his father -- a man Montague guesses would be less proud of him today if he were a practicing surgeon instead of a professional fighter.

In middle school, Montague and his best friend would rent VHS tapes of UFC events and fight one another in the backyard. He began training Muay Thai at age 15 and started competing in “smokers” -- unsanctioned amateur fights -- at 17 years old.

He’s spent so many nights watching live UFC events on television, it actually kind of rattled him to do so on the night of his debut.

“It was weird when I was in the locker room watching the UFC,” Montague said. “Then it clicked, ‘Oh f---. I’m about to walk out there. I’m part of this.’”

Montague, 26, clearly isn’t concerned over the outcome of his first UFC fight -- but that doesn’t mean he’s content with losing.

From the moment he started training, Montague says a UFC title has been the goal. He’ll look to start moving in that direction this weekend when he makes his second UFC appearance against Kyoji Horiguchi at a UFC Fight Night event in Cincinnati.

“Pretty much the first day I walked into a gym was because I wanted to fight and be a champion,” Montague said. “The only thing holding me back mentally was I didn’t know if they would ever have my weight class. I was 100 pounds when I started.

“I always thought I might have to fight on just local shows. All of a sudden the sport started to blow up and now the UFC has my natural weight class.”
"

Pretty much the first day I walked into a gym was because I wanted to fight and be a champion. The only thing holding me back mentally was I didn't know if [the UFC] would ever have my weight class -- I was 100 pounds when I started.

"

-- Darrell Montague


Ahead of this fight, Montague signed a representation contract with MMA Inc., which opened a door to train at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento. Many members of the gym -- Urijah Faber, Joseph Benavidez, Chad Mendes -- are affiliated with MMA Inc.

In addition to the two weeks he spent in Sacramento, Montague trained at Nick and Nate Diaz’s facility in Lodi, California and expects to pursue more training opportunities at different gyms as his career progresses.

Interest was high in Montague for his UFC debut in October. He and Dodson helped kick off the pay-per-view portion of the card. For his encore performance, he says he has given one interview. You’re reading the results of it.

That suits him fine, though. He waited his turn to join the UFC's 125-pound roster and he’s not especially anxious to break into its rankings. It will take care of itself.

“It would have been nice to win that fight because it would have put me close to the top of the division,” Montague said. “But I’m pretty much in the same spot as before. I’ll have more fights to prove myself.

“I just want to take my time and I don’t care where I stand. I’ll let [the media] decide that kind of stuff. I’ll do my best and see where the rankings fall.”

Ten UFC fights we want to see this year

February, 10, 2014
Feb 10
6:13
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Anthony Pettis David Banks/USA TODAY SportsBlessing in disguise: An untimely injury might do more good than harm to Anthony Pettis' career.

The silver lining in not getting Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis in 2013: We get it in 2014, instead.

Fate apparently knew what it was doing last summer, when it scrapped a scheduled featherweight title bout between the two in August due to a Pettis injury. As good as that fight would have been then, it’s matured into a blockbuster event now.

Instead of Pettis temporarily dropping to 145 as a challenger, you have Aldo moving up to make a champion/champion fight. It gives Aldo a chance to chase history, as he would become just the third UFC fighter to win titles in multiple weight classes.

All things considered -- storyline, fighting styles, mainstream appeal -- Aldo versus Pettis is the second-best fight the UFC could promote right now, in my opinion. What’s the first? And what other fantasy matchups would I love to see? See below.

(Note: This list includes only fighters currently signed to the UFC.)

10. Junior dos Santos versus Alistair Overeem, heavyweight

From a competitive standpoint, this is probably the weakest option you’ll find on this list. They are heavyweights, anything can happen, etc., but it would be real hard to pick against dos Santos in this matchup. There is a history here, though, as you might recall. The two were supposed to fight for the title in May 2012 before Overeem failed a surprise drug test. It’s one of those fights that sells itself.

9. John Dodson versus Joseph Benavidez, flyweight

Two of, if not the best finishers in the flyweight division. Dodson’s lead pipe of a straight left versus Benavidez’s club of an overhand right -- and everything else these two do well. This fight would fly under the radar as far as casual fans are concerned, but with Demetrious Johnson proving to be so far ahead of the pack, this actually might be the most compelling matchup in the division.

8. Ronda Rousey versus Cat Zingano, female bantamweight


There is no concrete timetable for Zingano's return, but unless the UFC signs Invicta FC featherweight champion Cris Justino in her absence, the title shot should be waiting for her. Obviously, Rousey must get by former U.S. Olympic wrestler Sara McMann on Feb. 22 first. This fight was (and still is) intriguing due to Zingano's athleticism and finishing ability. Her strength and explosiveness will help in scrambles with Rousey, and she only needs a short window of opportunity to change the course of a fight.
[+] EnlargeLyoto Machida, Mark Munoz
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesLyoto Machida, right, and his karate style would likely mesh well with the fan-friendly, ultra-aggressive Vitor Belfort.
7. Nick Diaz versus Robbie Lawler, welterweight

The first encounter in 2004 was just perfect. Diaz taunting Lawler to the point referee Steve Mazzagatti tells him, “no more talking.” Lawler complaining of a groin kick and Diaz accusing him of faking right in the middle of the fight. The step back counter knockout for Diaz. Little brother Nate Diaz with the bowl-cut, running into the cage afterward. How can anyone not want to see this again?

6. Renan Barao versus Dominick Cruz, bantamweight

Sorry, but I can’t seem to let this one go. As good as Barao looks right now, is he as good as Cruz was in 2012, when he first went down due to injury? You could argue either side of that. Whenever Cruz comes back, I say make this fight. Why not? He’d almost come in with low expectations on him. Everything to gain, little to lose. A “tuneup” fight would actually probably put him under more pressure.

5. Jon Jones versus Daniel Cormier, light heavyweight

Extremely marketable fight, obviously. I have a suspicion plenty of people will pick Cormier to win this matchup, but realistically, if they had to bet the farm on it, they’d change the pick to Jones. When the chips are down for reals, at 205 pounds, you don’t bet against Jones -- even though it would be real tempting to do it with Cormier.

4. Lyoto Machida versus Vitor Belfort, middleweight

Belfort’s offense versus Machida’s defense is one of the most tantalizing battles we could hope to witness in the UFC this year. Chris Weidman is the undisputed king at 185 pounds -- he wears the crown -- but in terms of just a good, old-fashioned, definition of the term “fight,” nothing is better at middleweight than Belfort versus Machida.

3. BJ Penn versus Conor McGregor, featherweight

The two losses to Frankie Edgar became personal for Penn because he despised the way he performed in them. So even though we can all think of better matchups for him than a third meeting with Edgar, he deserves a chance at that redemption. Win or lose, a matchup against the loud, cocky, talented new kid would be outstanding to watch start to finish and it would generate plenty of interest.

2. Jose Aldo versus Anthony Pettis, lightweight

Already discussed this one. Probably my favorite fight here, stylistically. In addition to having the physical tools to match Aldo (which is quite rare), Pettis has the mentality. He’s not a guy who might just “survive” Aldo -- he’ll push him, even in the first round. And that’s something we all want to see.

1. Jon Jones versus Cain Velasquez, heavyweight

This is it. The No. 1 fight the UFC can promote, currently, post-Georges St-Pierre/Anderson Silva. No other matchup could generate as much pay-per-view revenue, and with good reason. Jones is the pound-for-pound best, while Velasquez is considered the “baddest man on the planet.” Both dominant champs would have to adjust for the other. For Jones, it would be a shot at his GOAT quest -- capturing the most iconic title in mixed martial arts. It’s unlikely to happen this year, with Velasquez currently sidelined and Jones focused on light heavyweight, but as long as both keep winning, people will talk and debate this matchup.

Team Alpha Male gunning for first title

January, 30, 2014
Jan 30
8:00
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Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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Urijah Faber has spent his life building. He’s been building his body, his wrestling and MMA skills and career, his Alpha Male fight team and residential houses in his hometown of Sacramento.

However, what Faber and Team Alpha Male really have built over the past year is momentum.

Consider what Team Alpha Male’s core of Faber, featherweight Chad Mendes and flyweight Joseph Benavidez accomplished in 2013:

Mendes went 3-0 in 2013, with convincing knockout/TKO wins over Darren Elkins and Clay Guida, as well as a unanimous decision over a game Nik Lentz at UFC on Fox 9 in December while battling a sinus and upper respiratory infection.

Benavidez headed into his flyweight title bout with UFC champ Demetrious Johnson at UFC on Fox 9 also 3-0 in 2013. Though he was knocked out by Johnson, he had already defeated Ian McCall in a unanimous decision and knocked out Darren Uyenoyama and Jussier Formiga earlier in the year.

Faber went 4-0 in 2013, with impressive wins against Ivan Menjivar, Scott Jorgensen, Iuri Alcantara and culminating in his submission of highly rated Michael McDonald at UFC on Fox 9.

Add in the fact that 26-year-old bantamweight Chris Holdsworth emerged the winner of Season 18 of "The Ultimate Fighter," and it’s easy to see why the Team Alpha Male gym often has many unfamiliar faces training there these days -- the team’s popularity and success is drawing fans and wanna-be training partners from all over the world.

[+] EnlargeDemetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez
Al Powers for ESPNJoseph Benavidez, right, is one of the three Team Alpha Male fighters who could win a title in 2014.
And yet, with all of the team’s success over the past year, a UFC title still eludes them. Indeed, between Benavidez, Faber and Mendes, the trio is 0-5 in UFC title bouts. However, that could change Feb. 1 at UFC 169 when Faber will battle interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao, to whom Faber lost at UFC 149 in 2012. Faber replaces former champ Dominick Cruz, who could not fight due to injury and vacated the title.

In fact, five of Faber’s six losses have been in championship bouts dating back to the WEC. One could look at that in a glass half-empty or half-full perspective. What Faber won’t stand is talk that he gets title shots because he’s marketable.

“It really irks me when I hear that,” Faber said. “What does that mean? Plenty of guys are marketable. But people forget I’ve been fighting a long time, when this sport was just getting started ... You last that long because you win.”

Now heading into 2014, Team Alpha Male’s best chances for that first UFC title rest on its leader and founder’s shoulders. But Faber and his teammates keep their feet firmly on the ground, and not just because they’re wrestlers.

“We obviously go into every fight thinking that it’s very winnable,” Benavidez said. “Sure, right now it’s our ‘best chance’ simply because we haven’t won one yet. We look at it as a brand-new opportunity every time one of us gets a shot. It says a lot about the team -- not many teams have that many guys going for titles.

“I don’t really believe in fate or anything like that,” Benavidez added. “But when you’re dealing with fighting the best in the world, it comes down to fractions of seconds and inches. And the fact of the matter is it can just be a difficult task. It’s just something we haven’t done yet. Any other given night we believe we’re the best fighters in the world, but those particular nights it just hasn’t happened for us.”

However, considering the roll Team Alpha Male is on, that time could come soon. And it all starts with a Bang.

Help wanted

[+] EnlargeJoseph Benavidez
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesCoach Duane Ludwig, right, has been a great addition to Team Alpha Male.
No doubt Team Alpha Male’s success rests with its core group of pro fighters, but they’ve largely done it on their own, without a head coach-type figure. Enter longtime UFC welterweight Duane “Bang” Ludwig.

“When I first started the team, guys weren’t making much money and I wanted to keep as much of it in the fighters’ pockets [as possible], so we didn’t hire a coach,” Faber said. “But since we brought Duane in, I think all the guys can see a big difference in the way practices are run and the progress they’re making because of Duane’s influence.”

In 2012, Faber said he knew it had come time to install some sort of head coach. His short list included Ludwig and former UFC featherweight Mark Hominick. In the end, Faber chose Ludwig because he felt the 170-pound Ludwig could also help Team Alpha Male develop fighters beyond 155 pounds. By December 2012 he was named head coach and in 2013 the results have been obvious.

“It was basically what we needed,” Mendes said. “Before it was just all of us working together and helping each other out, and sharing techniques, searching for what was right. And we didn’t have it. But having Duane come in, who’s been in the UFC for a long time has been great. He came in and grabbed the team and said this is the Bang system and we’re going to implement it. But what was cool was he knew a lot of what we were doing was working well, but just some things needed to be added or switched up. Fine-tuned. And that’s what he did.

“That head coach figure is important for me as someone I can believe in and trust to tell me what I’m doing right or wrong, what’s working or not,” Mendes added.


[+] EnlargeChad Mendes
Ross Dettman for ESPNChad Mendes went 3-0 last year and would love to avenge in 2014 the only loss of his career against Jose Aldo.
However, Faber’s leadership is the focal point of Team Alpha Male. He’s shaped the team and its philosophy often at his own expense -- even allowing fighters to live at one of the several houses he owns in Sacramento. But he’s also aware enough to recognize that when his team grumbled for more structure and a head coach, he had to go get one. And he has tried to help equip members of his team with the same tools that made him successful.

Faber provides sports psychology and life coaching sessions for Alpha Male teammates, as well as marketing and career advice. It is a tight-knit team enjoying a pinnacle of success right now.

“I had the greatest support system a person could have in my family. But some guys never had that,” Faber said. “So I’m trying to give them those same tools and that same support that I got.”

With his latest title shot approaching this week, he will rely on that support. And like everything else he does with Team Alpha Male, if he wins the title, he’ll share it with them.

No doubt: Johnson the best flyweight

December, 15, 2013
12/15/13
7:33
AM ET
Huang By Michael Huang
ESPN.com
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If any questions still lingered about whether Demetrious Johnson is the best flyweight fighter in the world, his right fist answered every one of them unequivocally Saturday night in his first-round demolition of Joseph Benavidez at UFC on Fox 9 in Sacramento, Calif.

Johnson planted a solid right on Benavidez’s jaw, dropping Benavidez cold to the canvas. The knockout marked the second consecutive finish for Johnson, who submitted John Moraga at UFC on Fox 8 with an arm bar.

Johnson’s two finishes stonewall the run of seven straight decisions he posted en route to winning the UFC’s flyweight belt and in defense of it. Not only has Johnson perhaps proved himself a champion to his critics, but also champions a weight class that has perhaps thirsted for respect.

“Those people who said they hate the flyweight division don’t know [expletive] about fighting,” said UFC President Dana White shortly after Johnson’s first title defense, at UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago. “It’s not a deep division, they’re fighting the same guys. ... These guys know how to fight.”

Johnson has cleaned out the division, with wins over all the top challengers, including Benavidez twice, Moraga, John Dodson and Ian McCall. And with the impressive knockout win over Benavidez, it should leave little doubt about who’s the clear-cut best flyweight in the world.

However, Johnson’s rise through the pound-for-pound rankings has been slow, perhaps for the very reasons White detailed, as well as Johnson’s inability to finish fights until recently. Dare we say overlooked? And why shouldn’t Johnson be in the discussion for the top pound-for-pound fighter in MMA?

Against Benevidez, Johnson’s technique was exquisite, as it was against Moraga and Dodson. If Johnson seemed hesitant early against Dodson, he was dominant against Moraga and precise against Benavidez. His boxing was crisp and flawless, earning him "Knockout of the night" honors. Against Moraga, Johnson relied on his grappling, earning "Submission of the night" honors. Under trainer Matt Hume at AMC Pankration in Kirkland, Wash., Johnson has become a dangerously efficient fighter.

The scary thing that is Johnson, 27, continues to get better. He also seems to be settling into his position as a UFC champion. In a year in which the UFC has seem a seismic shift in titleholders -- Anderson Silva and Benson Henderson both losing titles, Georges St-Pierre vacating after a controversial win, and Jon Jones looking absolutely human against Alexander Gustafsson -- Johnson and perhaps heavyweight champ Cain Velasquez offer the most stability atop their respective divisions.

The flyweight might be the lightest class in the UFC, but it doesn’t mean its members should be taken lightly. After Johnson’s latest win, his inclusion in the pound-for-pound discussion was all but assured, and the legitimacy of the flyweight division cemented. Johnson is already ranked eighth in ESPN's pound-for-pound rankings.

“You know, if people want to see me as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, that’s totally fine,” Johnson said during the postfight new conference. “My job is to go back to the gym and keep on improving, keep on showcasing my skill set with finishes and knockouts.”

Johnson’s climb into those rankings might have been slow, but considering his dominance over the flyweight division, his ousting from it might take equally as long. The only question that remains is whether Johnson, with a 3-0 record including two title defenses and two finishes in 2013, will win "Fighter of the year" honors?

“There’s no doubt he should be in the running for that,” White said.

And with all those wins coming in front of non-pay-per-view national audiences, rest assured Johnson will no longer be overlooked.

Stars aligning for Benavidez, Alpha Male

December, 13, 2013
12/13/13
11:36
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Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
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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.

[+] EnlargeJoseph Benavidez, Jussier Formiga
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesJoseph Benavidez's title shot against UFC flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson will close out a standout year for multiple members of Team Alpha Male.
"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."

Look before you boo the flyweights

December, 10, 2013
12/10/13
6:23
AM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Let me tell you a few things about a UFC crowd.

Guaranteed, if you attend a UFC event, you will, at some point, hear someone yell, “Sweep the leg, Johnny.”

It’s inevitable. Now that I actually think about it, it’s downright stunning how automatic that phrase is at a live UFC show. Every. Single. Time.

If a fighter gets accidentally kicked in the groin, the arena will boo. I’ve never fully understood if they’re booing the guy who threw the kick, the guy who got kicked or just the situation in general. When the replay is shown, they collectively go, “Ohhhhh.”

And for the most part, UFC crowds boo flyweight fights. It’s a trend that might, hopefully, be dying. A Las Vegas crowd surprised me last month by not booing a flyweight chess match between Ali Bagautinov and Timothy Elliott at UFC 167.

It still exists, though. I can distinctly remember the Houston crowd booing John Dodson, one of the most electric fighters in the division, at UFC 166 -- and he scored a first-round knockout in that fight. A crowd in Minneapolis booed him last year in a second-round TKO win over Jussier Formiga.

And I will never forget the aftermath of the first flyweight title fight in UFC history, which involved the promotion’s president, Dana White, standing at the podium during a news conference in Toronto, literally telling potential pay-per-view customers to never purchase his product again if they didn’t enjoy it.
[+] EnlargeJohnson-Benavidez
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comDemetrious Johnson, top, is unapologetic when it comes to his fighting style.

“Let me tell you what,” White said, following Demetrious Johnson’s decision victory over Joseph Benavidez in September 2012. “If you didn’t like that flyweight fight, please, I’m begging you, don’t ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again.”

White, of course, then called the flyweight haters “morons” who “don’t like fighting.”

Johnson and Benavidez, who meet for a second time this weekend at a UFC on Fox event in Sacramento, Calif., have been asked about a billion times if the boos bother them. Their answer is basically, “not really.”

The champion, Johnson, took a defiant stance similar to White’s when asked a while back what he would say to persuade a fan to get on board with the division.

“I’m not going to try and sell it. I’m not a mouthpiece,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to sell a girl either, like, ‘Baby, I’m going to take care of you.’ That’s not the type of person I am. You don’t watch flyweights? Maybe you should watch something else.”

Like last weekend’s heavyweight fight between Mark Hunt and Antonio Silva. According to Fightmetric, the two combined to land exactly 200 total strikes in the five-round bout -- 200 heavyweight strikes.

It won Fight of the Night honors in Brisbane, Australia, and has already been slotted in as a surefire fight of the year candidate.

While Johnson (18-2-1) might admire the heart of Silva and Hunt, truth be told, the 27-year-old champion would probably tell you that, ultimately, that fight was awful.

“When I see fighters whose style is just to brawl, fans will say, ‘Man, did you see that fight?’ I say, ‘Yeah, those guys are idiots,’” Johnson said.

Johnson says he “brawled” one time, against Brad Pickett at a World Extreme Cagefighting pay-per-view event in April 2010. The reason he did it was because the WEC was offering UFC-like bonus money -- $65,000 for Fight of the Night.

When I see fighters whose style is just to brawl, fans will say, Man, did you see that fight? I say, Yeah, those guys are idiots

-- Demetrious Johnson, on his style of fighting compared to brawlers

He ended up suffering a unanimous decision loss and went immediately to the hospital. A barnburner lightweight bout between Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung took Fight of the Night. Johnson made a disclosed amount of $3,000.

“I went to the hospital and heard Chan Sung Jung and Leonard Garcia got Fight of the Night and was like, ‘Wow, really?’” Johnson said.

“[Trainer] Matt Hume tells me too, let’s say I would stand in the pocket with somebody and get hit and think it looks super cool. He’d tell me, ‘Actually, that was pretty stupid.’”

Appreciating flyweights probably comes down to knowing what to look for. The transitions are lightning fast. Recognizing a leg kick, throwing a counter right hand, then closing on an ensuing takedown all takes about one second at 125 pounds.

The constant movement with few heavy strikes landed can be tiresome and look repetitive to a UFC crowd, but the way Johnson controlled range against Benavidez in their first fight can be as much, if not more, fun to watch as two guys standing flat-footed in the center of the cage throwing haymakers.

A paying fan at a live sports event can pretty much boo or cheer anything he or she wants to. I agree with that, even if what you want to do is loudly recite lines from "The Karate Kid."

But to those who will overlook the flyweight rematch between Johnson and Benavidez (19-3) due to what they remember as a “boring” first fight, I would only encourage you to look closer at it this time and see if you’re missing something.

“Any big guy would love to fight like a small guy,” Benavidez says. “They would love to move as fast as we do and throw as much output. You get a big guy who fights like a small guy, and they just whoop everyone’s butt.”

Benavidez in no rush for second title shot

January, 28, 2013
1/28/13
3:00
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
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Joseph Benavidez and Demetrius JohnsonAl Bello/Getty ImagesJoseph Benavidez never managed to find his footing while fighting for the UFC flyweight title.

LAS VEGAS -- Prior to the inaugural flyweight championship bout at UFC 152 in Toronto in September 2012, Joseph Benavidez obviously envisioned himself winning -- but his imagination didn’t stop there.

In his hotel room the night before, he showed off the suit and tie he would wear, as champion, to the postfight news conference. He had arranged to meet his family at the Sacramento airport the day after the fight where he would deplane, of course, with the belt on his waist. Local camera crews were expected.

It’s not that he lacked respect for his opponent in that fight, Demetrious Johnson. He had just dreamed of those scenes for so long -- they felt like they were already real.

For years he’d waited to compete not only in the UFC, but also at his ideal weight of 125 pounds. He’d hung a photo of the belt on his mantel to save a spot for the real thing. Everything had finally come together in September. It was his time.

Those were Benavidez’s expectations. Reality did not accommodate. Benavidez and his camp admit he fought, perhaps due to the pressure he put on himself, a little stiff. He dropped a split decision to Johnson in a performance he’s watched only once since and won’t watch again any time soon.

“It was really hard coming to the realization of that fight and that opportunity I had waited so long for was gone and it didn’t happen like I wanted it to,” Benavidez told ESPN.com.

“Even coming back from Canada, I had my two brothers who I haven’t seen in five years and my mom meeting me at the airport. We had the worst luck on my flight back. We got stuck in San Francisco where we had to rent a car and drive back. We didn’t have any of our bags. So, we’re sitting in a rental car, in traffic; I’m heartbroken. It was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I pictured it.’ ”

Johnson and Benavidez are two different fighters in the cage. The week of UFC 152, it was clear they were operating in very different ways outside of it as well.

Even coming back from Canada, I had my two brothers who I haven't seen in five years and my mom meeting me at the airport. We had the worst luck on my flight back. We got stuck in San Francisco where we had to rent a car and drive back [to Sacramento]. We didn't have any of our bags. So, we're sitting in a rental car, in traffic; I'm heartbroken. It was like, 'Wow, this isn't how I pictured it.

-- Joseph Benavidez, on the long trip back from Toronto after an unsuccessful title bid

The eventual champ, Johnson, appeared calm during the week -- loose. Benavidez cracked a joke here and there, but he and his camp admit he was different leading up to the fight.

Basically, it seemed like one guy was enjoying himself. The other couldn’t.

“He was tense,” said Jimmy Gifford, Benavidez’s boxing coach. “He had been tweeting ‘flyweight champion, 2012,’ all year; it meant everything to him.

“I wasn’t worried about him before the fight, but I knew he was a little different. Fight week, he wasn’t himself. He was just a mean kid, rather than the fun, outgoing Joe. He had a scowl on his face.”

The story is a bit of a downer, and gets downright depressing when you read the poem Benavidez penned in the days following the loss. In it, he wrote phrases described himself as "dead inside," and added, “To feel self worth, that’s all you crave.”

There is room for a happy ending, though. When the rental car finally got him to the Sacramento airport, it turned out his family, girlfriend and teammates still loved him despite the loss. It’s given him a new outlook on any future title fight and his upcoming bout against Ian McCall at UFC 156 this weekend in Las Vegas. Never again will he treat a contest as though it’s life and death.

“Once I saw my family, it made me realize that I’m still lucky,” Benavidez said. “That was a big learning experience. Not just [Demetrious] hit me with this punch -- that basic stuff. I learned things in general.

“I’m one of two people in the world who fought for the inaugural title. I’m in a small percentage of people that get to do what they love to do for a living. I’m lucky.”

Benavidez says he’s in no rush to get back to the title, although a win over McCall might solidify his spot as the No. 1 contender, despite his loss to Johnson was just four months ago.

Actually, if given the option, he might even prefer getting at least two fights in before taking another shot at the belt, but he’ll leave that decision to the UFC. Right now, he’s focused on improving and reminding himself to enjoy it. If he does that, there’s still hope everything he had imagined would happen in September isn’t dead yet.

“Talent-wise, he’s right there at the top,” Gifford said. “All the everyday things I see him do -- I know he’s the best. I said to him in the gym the other day after his workout, ‘You were only off by one year, bro. You said 2012, you’ll get the belt in 2013.' ”

Notes and nuggets from Chicago

January, 25, 2013
1/25/13
7:44
AM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
Archive

CHICAGO -- Winning a UFC title is every fighter’s goal. For the few who are able to accomplish this feat, the celebration doesn’t truly begin until they make their first successful title defense.

UFC bantamweight titleholder Demetrious Johnson will attempt to solidify his position as a true champion Saturday night when he meets top contender John Dodson. The two will battle at United Center in Chicago.

In addition to defending his title, Johnson wants to put on an entertaining fight. Putting on a fan-friendly performance is something Johnson also relishes. And it’s something Johnson thought was being accomplished in September when he held off Joseph Benavidez to claim the 125-pound belt.

Johnson put on a stand-up fighting display. He demonstrated textbook footwork, head movement and striking en route to a split decision. But throughout the five-round title bout many fans in attendance at UFC 152 booed.

The booing continued when Johnson was declared the winner, and Johnson learned that being liked by fans is something he has no control over.

“You can never predict how fans will see you because there are some fans out there who just love my style: How I’m just a humble guy, but I have great technique, I have great footwork, the cardio, I have great confidence and I love video games,” Johnson told ESPN.com.

“On the other side of the board, there are guys who hate everything about me. They don’t care what I do, they hope I lose; they hate my ears, the way I look. So my job is to just go out there and perform the best I can.”

Teixeira seeks KO against Jackson



Not many fighters have entered the UFC with as much hype as Glover Teixeira. And in his first two Octagon appearances, Teixeira has not disappointed. On Saturday, he faces the stiffest test of his pro career, and fans will find out if the hype is warranted when Teixeira faces former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson.

Teixeira believes he will defeat Jackson, who fights in the UFC for the last time Saturday. But he also believes victory won’t be enough to prevent his stock from tumbling if he struggles. So Teixeira is determined to end Jackson’s UFC career early.

“My motivation is to be a champion, just like he was. I’m hungry,” Teixeira told ESPN.com. “I want this. This is a big fight for me, the biggest of my career.

“Rampage is a tough guy, he’s hard to put away. But that is the key. You go into a fight, that’s why people love fights, because of the knockouts and the submissions. I’m going in there to finish the fight. And it does matter to me how I win.”

Cerrone to clash with sharper, more mature Pettis



It has been nearly one year since lightweight contender Anthony Pettis has fought inside the Octagon. That’s a long layoff for any fighter, except Pettis.

The former WEC champion says when he steps in the cage Saturday night to face Donald Cerrone, he will be as sharp as ever. Cage rust is never an issue for Pettis.

“I don’t think there is ring rust when it comes to fighting,” Pettis said. “A fight’s a fight. If I have to fight somebody tomorrow, I’ve got to be ready to fight.

“This is my job. This is what I’ve been training for; this is what I’ve been doing for a long time. I’ve kind of grown up with fighting, so I don’t think ring rust is going to be a problem.”

Pettis is also better prepared to deal with any unexpected situations -- inside or outside the cage. He takes all his responsibilities much more seriously these days.

“I’ve matured a lot,” Pettis said. “I’ve got a daughter [1-year-old Aria] now; I’ve matured a lot with decisions outside of my training -- what time I go to bed, what I’m eating, what I’m putting in my body.

“I’ve really matured in every aspect of my life. I’ve just matured as a man.”

Quick hits



• Former lightweight contender Clay Guida makes his featherweight debut with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. Despite what he says, the outcome of his June bout with Gray Maynard and the criticism that followed still sting. “My striking was pinpoint; I out-struck Gray. I out-grappled Gray,” Guida said. “Go down the list, I beat him everywhere, except in the judges’ eyes. But I’m beyond that now. And Hatsu Hioki is going to pay for it Saturday night.”

• Jackson talks often about no longer being happy in UFC and looks forward to leaving the promotion after Saturday night’s bout against Teixeira. But Jackson won’t be all smiles when it’s over. “I will miss a lot of things. I will miss Burt Watson backstage. He’s funny; he’s cool to hang around,” Jackson told ESPN.com. “Honestly, if you are on Dana’s good side, he’s one of the coolest guys. Lorenzo Fertitta’s always been cool with me; and Frank [Fertitta]. I will miss the good fans. When you’re walking back to the locker room, when you win, the fans are cheering you on. There are a lot of things about the UFC that I will miss.”

• Dana White would love to have Eddie Alvarez on the UFC roster. And he is willing to pay handsomely for Alvarez’s services. Now White is challenging Bellator to do the same. “This kid isn’t their world champion and his contract is up,” White told ESPN.com. “Everybody talks about Bellator like they’re some poor little company. Viacom owns Bellator! Bellator like you used to know it is over. Viacom sits on $5 billion in cash. Pay the kid! Pay the kid the exact monetary offer we made to him, and you will deserve the right to have him.”

Little dudes bring it, the casual fan leaves it

September, 25, 2012
9/25/12
2:28
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
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Joseph Benavidez and Demetrius JohnsonAl Bello/Getty ImagesDemetrius Johnson and Joseph Benavidez showed the flyweight division can give UFC a lift.

The flyweights are either the most exhilarating electrons to ever blur our field of vision, or something of a fight game hoax. Which is it?

For those of you who think 125-pound grown men fighting is boring or anticlimactic, Dana White thinks you’re a “moron.” He invites you to save your disposable income going forward. Can’t get down with those swift moving twerp weights? Your money’s no good to the UFC. The UFC will not suffer your ignorance.

However...for those who like breakneck speed, flitting athleticism and ping-pong action, the flyweights are definitely onto something. Connoisseurs of frenzy, unite! Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez put on the prototypical flyweight fight -- a distilled version of a million little wars gone into one. What’s not to love? This was the anti-Shawn Jordan/Cheick Kongo sludgefest. These guys were bouncing off of the cage, the floor and each other like lotto balls. Like amphetamines. Like dueling banjos.

If they seemed small, it’s because Michael Bisping and Brian Stann -- who went directly before them -- looked massive.

But all of this is just window dressing.

The problem is that people tend to like bigger. In boxing, the heavyweight glory of the 1970s was a golden era that was almost out-budgeted by the players. There were so many names (Joe Frazier), so many big punchers (George Foreman) so many outsized attitudes (Muhammad Ali), and so much closing in periphery (Larry Holmes, Chuck Wepner, Earnie Shavers...et al.), that all the romance went into the biggest division.

We still hover around this mindset in 2012.

In MMA, the descending scale of weight classes is telling. From heavyweight down to welterweight, people are paying attention. Brock Lesnar, on sheer comic book size, is PPV gold. By the time we’re talking lightweight, we’re at the threshold. It’s the cutoff point for a lot of fight fans in terms of interest.

Featherweight, we are starting to play at fetishes. Bantamweight, be prepared for the judge’s scorecards. Flyweight? We had better catch up to the nuances of the game in a hurry. We had better understand why we watch the fight game. We’d better understand what it is we want to get out of the fight game.

The question is -- do we want chess, or Russian roulette?

The one-punch power can’t be underestimated in MMA. That one punch can close the curtains of Junior dos Santos will make Alistair Overeem a compelling opponent. It makes anybody vulnerable and dangerous at the same time. That’s what we like. Two brutal forces coming together, only one standing after. Two flyweights can’t equal one Brock Lesnar. This is true in our imaginations as well as on the scale. Bigger is better.

But why is bigger so much better? Maybe it’s because casual fans like the idea of two colliding colossus’s. It’s a bike rack mentality. The two biggest bullies in the schoolyard meet at the bike rack after school to fight, and everybody shows up. The winner is the baddest kid in school. Size dictates our perception of what and what isn’t imposing. The big kid who sits on top, sits on top over everyone. The smaller kid who fought in the Golden Gloves? He’d get squashed by the bigger kid. The big kid is king.

And the problem is that the littlest guys are tactical. The problem is that they are smaller than us. We imagine flicking paper footballs at each other in the exchanges. The comparison all over Twitter was that children were fighting during Benavidez/Johnson. That we were voyeurs to something comical. People don’t want nickel and diming; they want big bucks. Jackpots. Guys in need of smelling salts.

People want to watch guys smash each other, guys that are physical specimens that we can barely conceive of in terms of power and force. We marvel at Shane Carwin’s 4x glove size because we imagine it punching holes into Brock Lesnar’s sworded thorax. If Carwin lands that anvil, whoever’s standing in front of him drops. That’s a wow factor. If Demetrious Johnson lands a big overhand, the needle (probably) doesn’t skip a beat. It’s all part of a mean 25-minute waltz set to “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

The flyweights may never catch on with everybody. The bottom line is a good portion of MMA fans -- and this could be the majority -- want to see competitors that are truly imposing. Guys we wouldn’t want to cross. There are a lot of people who won’t care to watch two smaller guys outpointing each other, even if they appear to be in fast-forward to the naked eye.

Either you watch MMA because you are a fan of the possibility of all those disciplines coming together in the cage, an appreciation that encompasses all weight classes. Or you watch to be astonished by sweet, raw violence.

Flyweights are the first extreme. And if you don’t get that, then Dana White says save your money.

Not that you’re likely to see the flyweights headline a PPV in the near future.

Benavidez: Skill-wise, it's not even close

September, 20, 2012
9/20/12
5:32
AM ET
McNeil By Franklin McNeil
ESPN.com
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TORONTO -- If confidence should determine the outcome of Saturday night’s UFC flyweight title bout, then Joseph Benavidez has already won. The former top bantamweight contender didn’t skip a beat Wednesday when revealing the reason he'll defeat Demetrious Johnson at UFC 152.

“I hold all the advantages,” said Benavidez, who is ranked No. 1 among 125-pound fighters by ESPN.com. “The only advantage he has is speed. His main thing is to run around and bounce around. Other than that you are going to see me dominating the fight.

“I get better at everything, and he has a tiny speed advantage ... but he’s not going to have a huge speed advantage. So if I’m better at everything else, like I have been getting -- boxing, wrestling and have more power -- and he’s barely faster than me, his small advantage isn’t going to hold up to the bigger advantages that I have.”

Benavidez believes as the five-round fight wears on, Johnson will eventually slow down. At that point, Benavidez expects to put the finishing touches on claiming the promotion’s inaugural flyweight title.

But in the event that Johnson doesn’t gas, Benavidez is more than prepared to win by unanimous decision.

“When I visualize [how the bout will go], I see myself finishing him,” Benavidez said. “That’s what I work for; I work as hard as I can for 25 minutes.

“I look at it as this guy just has to survive for 25 minutes; he’s in there trying to stop me for 25 minutes. I obviously see a finish, but I’m also prepared to go the hardest 25 minutes of my life. And I know I can do that.”

Benavidez, Johnson poised to make history

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
2:41
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
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.

Flyweight primer: Who's who at 125 pounds

September, 19, 2012
9/19/12
1:05
PM ET
Okamoto By Brett Okamoto
ESPN.com
Archive
Joseph BenavidezJosh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesStrong and fearless, Joseph Benavidez takes aim at becoming the UFC's first flyweight champion.
The UFC will crown its first flyweight champion this week at UFC 152, making now the perfect time to rank who's who at 125.

Top-ranked Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson likely need no introduction by now, as they're set for the UFC 152 co-main event on Saturday in Toronto, but the rest of the names on this list might.

The flyweight division doesn't carry the most recognizable names in the UFC yet, but let us assure you that its Top 10 features loads of talent.

Here's a closer look at how ESPN.com staff members, including Chad Dundas, Josh Gross, Franklin McNeil and Chuck Mindenhall, see the division.

[+] EnlargeBenavidez
Dave Mandel for Sherdog.comOne of the most complete fighters in mixed martial arts, Joseph Benavidez gets an opportunity to compete in his natural weight class.
No. 1 Joseph Benavidez (16-2)
There's only been one mountain Benavidez hasn't been able to climb, and that's UFC bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz. Benavidez has two losses in six years, both to Cruz, and both very close. Now he's at his natural weight class and is the near-consensus pick to reign over the division. Wondering what he does well? Everything. He's one of the most composed fighters in the UFC, and his game has no holes. In fact, he's the only flyweight you'll find in the pound-for-pound rankings at ESPN.com.
McNeil: The flyweight division's most fearless fighter also happens to be its most aggressive.
Mindenhall: The division was created for him to dominate. With his diversity and strength, he will do just that.

No. 2 Demetrious Johnson (15-2-1)
Meet the fastest fighter in the UFC. Johnson's speed is one of the most talked-about advantages in the sport. Add in the fact he's also extremely technical, and it's almost not fair. Maybe the only way to slow him down is to keep him on the ground, which no one seems capable of doing. Even when Johnson gets put on his back, he's usually to his feet before judges even notice. And by the way, at 26, he probably hasn't hit his peak yet.
Dundas: I'll consider it an upset if Johnson beats Benavidez, but not much of one.
Mindenhall: The second McCall fight showed that Matt Hume's guy isn't all flash and thunder, but that he's a smart fighter who can execute tactically under pressure.

[+] EnlargeIan McCall, Jussier da Silva
Jeff Sherwood for Sherdog.comIf there is such a thing as enjoying being hit, Ian McCall, left, proudly fits the description.
No. 3 Ian McCall (11-3-1)
McCall won't match the speed of his fellow flyweights, but he makes up for it with size and wrestling ability. He's a fighter's fighter -- the guy in the division (always seems like there's at least one) who seems to genuinely enjoy getting hit. McCall can be a bit of a slow starter, but he turns into a monster as a fight goes on. No one on this list is more influenced by the crowd, and his outright crazy side has a visible effect on some opponents over 15 minutes. He's had a bumpy road outside the cage, which could very well end up being the one thing that holds him back. In the cage, his ground-striking, takedown defense and boxing make him tough to deal with.
Dundas: McCall spent 17 days in jail in August after his arrest for driving with a suspended license. If he can keep it between the lines, he's a potential champion.
Gross: McCall may be his own worst enemy, and with competiveness brewing at 125, he won't do well in the long run fighting himself and the competition.

No. 4 Jussier da Silva (14-1)
The perception is da Silva poses no threat on his feet, but that's inaccurate. No, "Formiga" is no knockout threat, but watch him transition to an opponent's back without even needing a full takedown and you'll see what we're talking about. Ultimately, da Silva does need to improve his hands if he wants to topple the best, but his submission skills alone warrant this spot on the rankings. If the well-rounded UFC opposition can keep him on the outside, he's in trouble. But give Da Silva an opening to get where he wants and the Brazilian will be super-glued to your back. His only loss came at the hands of the man ranked right above him on this list.
McNeil: That high-profile loss to McCall last year still haunts Formiga.
Mindenhall: We know he can finish, but the question is, how does he handle the step up in competition?

[+] EnlargeChris Cariaso
Susumu Nagao for ESPN.comWith the title path more open, striker Chris Cariaso looks to make an immediate impact at 125 pounds.
No. 5 Chris Cariaso (14-3)
Cariaso represents one of those situations where he really didn't need to drop a weight class, but the title path is more open at 125. He'll throw kicks to the leg and body like they're jabs, and he has good defensive instincts on his feet. He likes to counter with the right hand, which won't cause much damage on its own, but he lands it often and it's a rhythm disrupter to opponents. Only two submission wins in his career, so he's not known for his grappling, but this guy can be sneaky-good off his back. If you fall asleep in his guard, he'll take advantage of it.
Dundas: Losses to Michael MacDonald and Renan Barao are nothing for Cariaso to hang his head about.
Gross: Fighting at flyweight provides new life for Cariaso, who will never go down without a fight.

No. 6 John Dodson (13-5)
The hyperactive Dodson has said he'd like to win titles at 125, 135 and 145 at some point. Those aspirations might seem a little high, but 125 is certainly within his reach. He sets a pace that can wear out an in-shape flyweight (not easy to do), and he packs more power in his standup than you'd think by looking at him. His takedowns are actually incredibly explosive, but they often go overlooked because he rarely does much with them. Mostly, it feels like Dodson looks at them as a way to score a few points before getting back to business on his feet. He's fun to watch and has so much experience fighting talented, bigger opposition.
Gross: The potential is there, no doubt about that, but it takes more than that to assert yourself in a weight class.
Mindenhall: He was the smiling fink of the TUF 14 house. His height is a liability, but the dude's a rare combination of acrobatics and mean.

[+] EnlargeDarrell Montague
Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.comDarrell Montague is not with UFC ... for now. But don't be surprised if you see him fighting very soon.
No. 7 Darrell Montague (11-2)
The only name on this list not currently contracted by the UFC, but it's likely only a matter of time before the 24-year-old hits the Octagon. He's been a menace in the flyweight proving grounds that is Tachi Palace Fights, with one signature loss you know he'd like back against McCall in 2011. A southpaw, Montague likes to take the center of the cage and stalk his prey. He trusts his hands and that makes him fun to watch. Good counterpunches and a high comfort level in stringing together combinations as opposed to single power shots. You will see Montague knockout highlights inevitably pop up in years to come.
Dundas: He figured to be among the first crop of flyweights snapped up by the UFC until the loss to McCall. Back on track with two wins, it likely won't be long until he's bound for the Octagon.
Gross: This confident kid will get his shot at the big time someday soon.

No. 8 John Moraga (11-1)
A lot to like about this dark horse in the flyweight division. Moraga isn't going to bounce around the cage like a Demetious Johnson, but he's got speed where you want it -- in his hands. This guy can unleash punches opponents never see coming and his power is undeniable. No glaring holes to speak of, and keep an eye out for a strong guillotine, much like the one we've come to learn his teammate Ben Henderson possesses.
McNeil: Despite showing off his striking prowess against Ulysses Gomez in August, UFC fans will soon learn that Moraga has solid submission skills.
Mindenhall: Great submissions, and he has been packing a better punch since losing to Dodson back in 2010. Verdict's still out on how he stacks up with the top guys.

[+] EnlargeYasuhiro Urushitani
Taro Irei/Sherdog.comExpectations are high in the UFC for Yasuhiro Urushitani, right, despite a tough Octagon debut.
No. 9 Yasuhiro Urushitani (19-5-6)
Urushitani didn't exactly sparkle in his UFC debut, but he gets a semi-free pass for that loss, considering it was against Benavidez. That said, expectations are high for the Japanese fighter early, so a strong sophomore performance in the UFC is key. Urushitani is known for his counter striking, but he's actually capable of moving forward when his confidence is high. He's got a nice straight left he'll throw down the pipe, but watch that left hand when it's not being used. Urushitani tends to keep his hands around his waist and rely on elusiveness to avoid strikes. Sometimes it works and sets him up beautifully for counterstrikes. Other times, well, he wakes up to the sounds of a fired-up Benavidez running around him.
Gross: A veteran of the division, he failed to do much against Benavidez, further cementing the weak reputation of Japanese fighters in the Octagon.
McNeil: He's a much better fighter than the guy who appeared lost in his Octagon debut against Benavidez.

No. 10 Louis Gaudinot (6-2)
What a difference 10 pounds can make. Any fighter on this list likely knows that feeling from competing at 135, but Gaudinot might know it best. His particular style just doesn't bode well against bigger guys -- but it should be darned effective on smaller ones. Gaudinot is not fleet of foot. He's got a flat stance, and he's unafraid to sit in the pocket. At 135, walking down bigger guys just wasn't going to get him to the top. At 125, the green-haired Gaudinot is going to be an imposing figure. He'll take one to land one, and if he can catch up with the speed of the other flyweights and work a takedown here and there, his tenacity and bullish attitude will win fights. A Gaudinot-McCall fight would produce fireworks.
Dundas: Had the heart but not the size to be UFC bantamweight champion. His high-octane style likely makes him a matchmaker's favorite.
Gross: If you can get past the green hair, you'll see a hard-nosed powerhouse benefiting from fighting at his natural weight.

Rich Franklin returns to his rightful home

March, 20, 2012
3/20/12
5:01
AM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
Dan Henderson and Rich FranklinMartin McNeil for ESPN.com Rich Franklin, left, can learn a thing or two about career resurgence from old foe Dan Henderson.
Before guys like Joseph Benavidez and Jon Fitch knew limbo, Rich Franklin was the original purgatory in the UFC. He was the middleweight champion for 16 months in the mid-aughts, beginning with a declarative victory over Evan Tanner and ending three fights later where things for all men come to an end ... with Anderson Silva.

Back in the day when immediate rematches were hard to come by, Franklin had to beat Jason MacDonald and Yushin Okami to get a chance at reclaiming his belt. “Ace” finally stepped in with Anderson Silva again at UFC 77, in a conflict that was dubiously dubbed “Hostile Territory.” That is, at least for Silva. Franklin was in the friendly confines of his native Cincinnati, eschewing his trademark Neapolitan trunks for those sporting Bengals colors. It was a homecoming full of furnace warmth.

Until he was being fetched back into consciousness with smelling salts.

For the second time, Silva made quick work of Franklin -- near mirror annihilations, primarily from the clinch -- and the former champion found himself in career limbo. The aftermath was unsettling, just as it has been throughout history with boxing’s newly obsolete. The cold question of “what now?”
[+] EnlargeRich Franklin
Ed Mulholland/US PresswireRich Franklin found himself without a division to call home after losing twice to Anderson Silva at 185.

Half a century ago, boxing heavyweight champ Floyd Patterson lost his belt and subsequent rematch to Sonny Liston via decisive first-round knockouts. Franklin had to come to a similar realization that Patterson did back in the day, which was this: Nobody wants to see a third match of a one-sided series. That’s a hell of a thing to come to grips with for a one-time champion. In Patterson’s day, you just fought on. In the rapidly changing, modern day UFC, Franklin at least had some options.

That’s why after he beat Travis Lutter in his last 185-pound bout, Franklin decided to move up to light heavyweight and make a run there. It was with reluctance that he did so -- remember how precise he was with weighing out his food? -- but the gatekeeper gig wasn’t for him.

Problem is, he’s been a sort of passing tourist ever since.

Over the past few years, Franklin has gone 3-3 outside the middleweight division (2-2 at 205 pounds, and 1-1 as a 195-pound catchweight). His latest, a loss to Forrest Griffin at UFC 126, left a lot to the imagination. But what was concrete was that Franklin was no longer a threat to anybody’s title. To frustrate matters, he underwent shoulder surgery and has been on the sidelines for more than a year. A lot of thinking goes on when a year passes off the calendar like that.
[+] EnlargeLe
Icon SMIA bout with Cung Le won't launch Franklin into the title picture, but it should be a fan-friendly affair.

Now, to the consternation of dudes like Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Franklin is turning back up as a middleweight again at 37 and a half years old. He’ll face a state-of-the-art action kicker in Cung Le, who only fights one way (thrillingly). If you liked Franklin/Wanderlei Silva or Le/Wanderlei Silva, then you’ll love Franklin/Le. Noses will almost certainly be smashed and further reconfigured into sharp right angles that only a math teacher can appreciate.

It’s the kind of fight that is only a fight. No context needed.

And that’s where Franklin should be for his divisional homecoming. Forget a title run at this point, he wants fun (wholesale violent) shows in the twilight of his career. He doesn’t want to be smothered by Forrest Griffin for large segments of an event; he wants to be in fights like his one with Chuck Liddell at UFC 115, where a broken arm means you throw your good one and hope for the best. He wants to stand and bang. He’s old school. In fact, he’s one of the last of the surviving old guard. Stand and trade in each other’s wheelhouse? Now you’re talking. Surely there’s another Nate Quarry out there to add to his highlight reel.

Le provides this chance. And you never know -- Dan Henderson began bouncing around weight classes at 37 after losing to Anderson Silva, too. His emphasis has always been to put on fights that fans want to see and let title shots fall where they may. Now at age 41, Henderson is accomplishing both with no signs of slowing down. Mark Hunt will be 38 next week and yet is looking 25. Randy Couture didn’t get rolling until he was in his late 30s.

Maybe Franklin finds a similar resurgence. And, if not, bring on Le or guys just like him, and that’s good enough.

UFC title album missing some pictures

March, 6, 2012
3/06/12
12:10
PM ET
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
ESPN.com
Archive
The UFC’s flyweight division was exactly one fight old when things went haywire at the top.

That’s so 2012 in the UFC. When title belts are in play, all paths look more like construction zones with detours.

This time, Ian McCall appeared as if he’d won a back-and-forth fight to advance in the shudder-speed flyweight tournament. Then the scorecards were read and it was actually Demetrious Johnson who won a majority decision, turning "Uncle Creepy’s" maestro swagger off as fast as it came on.

His depression didn’t last long.

To the chagrin of flyweight matchmaker Sean Shelby, who was in Columbus for Strikeforce some 10,000 miles away, the Australian athletic commission miscalculated the scorecards on McCall/Johnson. The result should have been a majority draw, and somewhere in the bowels of Allphones Arena in Sydney they informed Dana White, whose only response could be the obligatory tirade of profanity. They weren’t. And the disheartening thing for the UFC was that this was an eventuality it had prepared for by introducing a sudden victory round -- la "The Ultimate Fighter" format -- to resolve any draws at the end.

But there’s no accounting for human error, and nothing much can be done in that situation except adopt the common shoulder-shrugger’s refrain: it is what it is.

Now Joseph Benavidez -- who TKO’d Yasuhiro Urushitani -- will wait for a rematch that most will be stoked to see and yet shouldn’t have to see. Flies in the Vaseline, they are. Sadly, the UFC’s newest division adds to the already algebraic complications going on with the UFC’s title pictures.

Go back a week and start there. Benson Henderson defeated Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in a close fight to take home the lightweight strap. Seeing that it was a close fight, one that could be interpreted either way, Edgar asked for an immediate rematch. Problem is that Anthony Pettis, who knocked out Joe Lauzon the same night, wants his shot at the belt, too. He was the last man to defeat Henderson, and was at one point the solid No. 1 contender (a position he fancies himself in again). Jim Miller and Nate Diaz are operating with the understanding (delusion?) that their May 5 fight in New Jersey is a title eliminator.

It’s complicated.

Of everyone, Edgar is the unignorable here. The UFC wants him to challenge Jose Aldo for the featherweight belt, but Edgar doesn’t want to. He rematched B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard without quibbling, and he wants some return love. It’s hard to argue. Before his fight with Henderson, the UFC romanticized Edgar as a Rocky-esque figure in the hype process. Yet not even Rocky was Rocky coming off of wins. He was Rocky because of how he responded to losses. First with Apollo Creed, then with Clubber Lang. And later, after losing the vainglorious Creed to a killing machine from Russia, against Ivan Drago.
[+] EnlargeGeorges St. Pierre
AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Graham HughesHold it right there: No one is going anywhere so long as Georges St. Pierre remains on the shelf.

How can the UFC draw upon a man’s heart and not give him the chance to show its full dimensions? Having lost to the bigger, stronger Henderson sets the table for a truer representation of his nonfictional Rocky story.

As an extension of the uncertainty at 155 pounds and Edgar, the featherweight division is in limbo. What next for Aldo? Then you glance at the welterweight title picture, and that's way out of focus. Georges St. Pierre is recovering from ACL surgery, and is either way ahead of schedule or possibly right on schedule or something else. He is tentatively looking at a November return. Interim titleholder Carlos Condit is waiting to see something definitive in that timetable before deciding what to do next. Jake Ellenberger is waiting to see what Condit does, and now so is Martin Kampmann (the last man to defeat Condit). It’s possible we don’t see an “actual” title defense at 170 pounds this year.

By slotting Dominick Cruz against Urijah Faber as the coaches on "The Ultimate Fighter" Season 15, that means Cruz won’t defend his bantamweight belt until the summer. And that means any challengers beyond Faber -- guys like super-sensation Renan Barao -- are out of luck until winter.

As for middleweights, Anderson Silva is finally going to fight again in June after recovering from bursitis in his shoulder. There’s a chance we see just one middleweight title fight in 2012.

With eight weight divisions, and a conservative average of two fights per year, there should be in the neighborhood of 16 title fights. That won’t be the case in 2012. There might be 10, if we're lucky.

Can you imagine if Jon Jones had made good on his request to take a few months off? Light heavyweight is the closest the UFC has to a normally functioning division right now. And it looks like Junior dos Santos is ready to go, if Alistair Overeem can avoid injuries and conflicts beforehand.

Otherwise, title fights are scarce to come by this year. Which means we’ll be watching a lot more PFC (Penultimate Fighting Championship) than UFC (the Ultimate variety).

First chapter of flies in UFC full of surprises

March, 3, 2012
3/03/12
10:20
PM ET
Gross By Josh Gross
ESPN.com
Archive
Borrowing from Demetrious Johnson's clear analysis, "it sucks" that the first flyweight card in UFC history went from epic to tragic to comic because a local bureaucrat wrote down the wrong score.

Listen to Joseph Benavidez, though, and you could get the impression that a draw marking one of the worst regulatory failings in MMA history isn't such a bad thing. That was his upbeat take after news broke that Johnson's majority decision over Ian McCall was really a majority draw. So went half of the UFC flyweight championship tournament Friday in Sydney.

With a one-way ticket to the final literally punched during an opening round drubbing of Yasuhiro Urushitani, Benavidez was free to sum up his outlook on the unexpected one-bout, undetermined-length extension. This is a paraphrase. He earned his way into the final, and so should his next opponent. McCall and Johnson have unfinished business that needs resolving as soon as possible. And then it's time to name the No. 1 flyweight in MMA.

When Johnson and McCall tangle again, they’ll walk to the cage hardened by a 15-minute battle. As anticipated, action was furious, highly competitive, with hints of danger the entire way. Then this whole process took on its own against-the-grain story when a score of "8" was mistaken for a "9."
[+] EnlargeIan McCall
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAnother round or three between Ian McCall, facing, and Demetrious Johnson isn't such a bad thing for fight fans.

While everyone commiserated with UFC president Dana White in wanting that extra round guaranteed under the rules of the tournament in event of a draw, the mistake wasn’t found until far too late. Both fighters cooled down and digested the result before they were told what really happened.

"Human error," White put it.

Five minutes of "sudden victory" sounds too good to be true. If you dare to dwell on how it goes down, the best moments of McCall-Johnson play like a highlight reel. At least, that’s the case for me.

In that respect watching Rounds 4 through 6 doesn’t seem so bad, either. The important thing, Benavidez again reminds us, is the notion that two worthwhile fighters meet in the final. The UFC has one locked in place. We’re a couple months and 15 (maybe 20) minutes from knowing the second. Probably. Do yourself a favor and scribble this episode down as a highlight of the opening chapter for flyweights and the UFC.

Think of it this way -- if surprise proves to be a hallmark of UFC's 125-pound division, we'll know how far to trace that back to.

Before last night's wrong was righted, I was almost ready to suggest that, in spite of the apparent result and all it seemed to cost him, McCall should leave Australia feeling like winner. Why? (For starters, he didn't lose.) But apropos to my point, he made a name for himself. Results are in; fans dig Uncle Creepy.

Shortly after Benavidez smoked Urushitani, I tweeted a simple poll question: "Benavidez or Johnson?" McCall finished a strong second. His heart was broken in Sydney and people saw that happen. Dreams of becoming the first 125-pound UFC champion were dashed. McCall's hurried exit from the cage indicated everything you needed to know about what he was feeling.

An hour spent absorbing difficult facts meant nothing after the regulatory commission admitted to screwing up the decision. From tragedy to comedy to who knows what's next. Surprisingly, McCall's protagonist role in front of the media afterward was decidedly less dramatic than what it probably called for.

"Things happen," he said. "Shoot, we get to fight again. You guys had a good time, right? So we'll put on another show. Whatever. I'm happy because I got a little vindicated, but we get to do it again and that's awesome."

At least White didn't allow McCall to get away with playing it too cool, chiming in about a less subdued reaction backstage. Hey, McCall has no reason to hide his excitement. An immediate rematch represents the best-case scenario for the 27-year-old Californian. He'll enjoy another payday as soon the pair are ready. And, most important, he remains in the running to be the first UFC flyweight champion.

For the division itself, a storybook start gave way to reality. From time to time, those things aren’t so far apart.

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