Benavidez back at site of UFC inspiration with flyweight belt in mind

When the Ultimate Fighting Championship first put on an event in Sacramento, Calif., a 22-year-old Joseph Benavidez was watching with friends from the cheap seats.

He had fought two professional mixed martial arts fights, but had no grand delusions of success in the sport.

“I was sitting in the nosebleeds eating hot dogs and watching Georges St. Pierre win the world title from Matt Hughes,” Benavidez said of attending UFC 65 in 2006. “Like never in my wildest dreams if someone would have tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, seven years from now you’re going to be down there doing the same thing’ would I have believed them. I would have been like, ‘Get out of here. You’re nuts.’ ”

Yet that’s exactly where Benavidez finds himself tonight, with a chance to win the UFC flyweight belt from champion Demetrious Johnson in the same Sacramento Arena where he watched St. Pierre do the trick seven years ago.

It was on that night Benavidez’s career path would be set in motion. While attending that event, Benavidez met Urijah Faber and decided to join his Team Alpha Male fight team in Sacramento.

From there, Benavidez’s career would quickly take off.

It could culminate with a UFC title with a win over Johnson tonight, though Benavidez has come up short in this position before. He lost a bantamweight title bout to Dominick Cruz by split decision in 2010 before the UFC created the 125-pound flyweight division where the 5-foot-4-inch Benavidez was more suited to compete.

He moved to the finals of the four-man flyweight tournament that was to determine the first-ever champion of the weight class where he faced Johnson.

Benavidez again came up just short as he dropped another split decision in a title bout. He thinks he knows why he was unable to ultimately reach his goal in those first two tries.

They were the two most important fights of his career and he had treated them that way.

“I like to keep it laid back and happy, but for some reason, I kind of obsessed over (the title fights) and took in a little more emotion and everything than I needed to. It’s already a fight. It’s pretty intense already and you don’t really need to add any extra stress and emotion and energy to it,” Benavidez said. “I pretty much did a total 180 in trying to go back to pretty much how I fight every time.”

He had a bit of an epiphany after losing to Johnson and still seeing the sun rise the next day.

“It was a big wake-up call. Just realizing that I went in thinking it was life or death and then I lost and realized that it’s not,” said Benavidez, who has won three straight fights since that loss. “I’m still alive. My life is pretty cool and I get to do what I like for a living. My family and my girlfriend and my team and everyone still loved me and I got to eat good food and have people supporting me. It was like nothing really changed. I can go easy without the fear.”

It may also help Benavidez feel more comfortable to be fighting in Sacramento, where he and his teammates at Team Alpha Male are synonymous with mixed martial arts in the city. Benavidez spends some time now training in Las Vegas, but is still very much a part of the team.

He was supposed to fight in Las Vegas. This bout had been scheduled to headline The Ultimate Fighter Finale card at Mandalay Bay earlier this month until tonight’s original main event bout between Josh Thomson and Anthony Pettis was canceled.

The move was fine with Benavidez.

“It’s a rare case where you have your fight moved back and you’re happy about it, but I think this was it. This was a card I wanted to fight on since the beginning. I’ve never fought in Sacramento and I’ve wanted to fight here,” said Benavidez, who will be one of four Team Alpha Male members fighting in their backyard on the card tonight. “Just being able to fight at home with all your buddies, it’s like all four of us are waking up and, ‘Oh, some dudes want to fight us. Let’s go over like you used to back in the day.’ It’s just pretty awesome.”

Benavidez’s teammates Urijah Faber and Chad Mendes also will be in action on the main card that airs live on Fox (Cable 5) at 5 p.m. Faber will fight Michael McDonald in a matchup of top bantamweight contenders. Mendes seeks a potential featherweight title shot when he fights Nik Lentz.

Another Team Alpha Male member, Danny Castillo, will look for his sixth win in seven fights when he takes on Edson Barboza in a lightweight bout as part of the preliminary card that will air live on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329) at 2 p.m.

Contact reporter Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.