Most fighters have two goals in mind when it comes to the sport. One is to where championship gold around their waist, and since making through an entire career unbeaten is about as likely as winning the lottery, being able to avenge any losses incurred along the way comes in a close second.
Wednesday night in Las Vegas, Joseph Benavidez will have the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone as he steps into the cage with Dominick Cruz, the WEC bantamweight champion and the only man to hold a victory over the Team Alpha Male trainee.
“This is huge, man,” stated the 26-year-old 135-pound contender about the opportunity that awaits him later this week at The Pearl at The Palms. “It’s the world championship which is the goal – should be the goal of any fighter – and definitely is for me. That’s why I train. Right under that on the list is to avenge my only loss, and I get to do it both on the same night.”
Benavidez and Cruz first faced each other in August 2009. As a protégé of WEC poster boy Urijah Faber and coming off an impressive decision win over savvy veteran Jeff Curran four months earlier, the then-unbeaten Benavidez entered the fight as the favorite.
Cruz, whose lone loss to date came at the hands of Benavidez’ mentor Faber, had rattled off four-straight wins, three of which came after dropping to the 135-pound division. His experience and excellent stick-and-move strategy paid dividends, as the San Diego native handed Benavidez the first loss of his career, earning a title shot in the process.
Fast forward a year and the two are set to meet again.
While Cruz looked in control of Brian Bowles during the two rounds of their abbreviated title tilt – Bowles couldn’t continue after Round 2, giving Cruz the most uneventful title win in quite some time – it is once again Benavidez who enters the fight off the more impressive outings.
“It was an honor to go in there and fight against a guy like Miguel,” said Benavidez of his most recent fight, a meeting at WEC 47 against long-time 135-pound champion Miguel Torres. “He was the face of this weight class. I expected to go through hell in there, so to come out with a victory in the fashion I did was amazing.”
From the opening bell, Benavidez dominated Torres, eventually opening up one of the nastiest cuts in recent memory on the former champion’s forehead before sinking in a guillotine choke to secure the win.
“I was the first guy to choke him out,” continued the bantamweight contender from Las Cruces, New Mexico. “Him coming off his first loss (in six-plus years), I liked that. I think I got to go in there and fight the best Miguel Torres there was, the hungriest.
“Now that I’ve suffered my first loss, you hear it all the time – fighters say they’re most dangerous off a loss because no one wants to lose two-in-a-row at this level. He did everything he could to train and prepare and be the best for that fight, and I beat him. It was a huge win. I love rising to the occasion like that.”
Benavidez will once again have to rise to the occasion this week when he steps in against Cruz, who beat him decisively in their initial encounter. Just over a year later, what has changed to give Benavidez the advantage the second time round?
“Of course I’ve gotten hungrier; a loss is going to do that to you,” began Benavidez. “Other than that, I think that night I had an off night and Dominick Cruz had a great night. I think he was a little more prepared for me. No excuses; when I went in there, I still felt great, but the preparation part of it (wasn’t there). That was kind of how I always fought – I wouldn’t worry about what another person did. My approach was that I would be more athletic, be faster and I would react and I have great instincts and that is what had worked for me.”
Fighting on instinct was enough the first time around, as Cruz’s trademark footwork and fast hands got the better of Benavidez. Since then, he’s begun studying his opponents in greater detail, something his attributes to his impressive performances since losing to Cruz.
“I feel a hundred percent more prepared,” Benavidez offered of his new dedication to deconstructing his opponents. “I don’t remember a fight where I felt as confident and as prepared and as sure of myself as these last two fights, and they’ve been my best two fights.”
The Team Alpha Male member was also quick to give his teammates praise for their willingness to sacrifice their time to help him prepare for this and every bout. Having both Chad Mendes and Danny Castillo also competing on the WEC 50 card has upped the intensity of the training taking place in Sacramento even more.
Until a few weeks ago, the leader of the team based out of Ultimate Fitness was going to up the Alpha Male involvement to four, but despite his place on the poster, Urijah Faber was forced to withdraw from his fight due to an injury.
While he could have used his place in the foreground as an opportunity to mess with Faber, who appears in the background opposite scheduled opponent Takeya Mizugaki, Benavidez instead offered up nothing but praise for his friend and mentor.
“I didn’t mess with him or anything,” laughed Benavidez when asked about his placement on the poster in front of Faber. “Of course we were laughing about it, you know, like who would have thought? Four years ago I walked into that gym and tried to talk to him and tell him I wanted to fight too.
“He’s been my mentor – not just in the fight game, but in life too. Just being around him, watching how he handles himself around the business. I think that my being in the main event is just a reflection of how much he’d done for me.”
His placement in the main event is also a testament to the performances the humble Benavidez has delivered as of late and the overall skill set his brings to the cage, and the experience is one that he isn’t taking lightly.
“This is the most important thing in my life right now – it consumes my life – and it’s really going to be a huge step for me. I’ve never headlined a card. There are great fighters in (the WEC), and to headline a card and be considered the best fighter in the world after the fights over?
“I imagine the feeling,” continued Benavidez, “and envision myself winning the belt, and chills and almost tears come over me, man. It’s going to be crazy.”
When Joseph Benavidez takes to the cage Wednesday night, he will do so surrounded by teammates and focused on achieving two major career milestones at the same time. He will be more prepared and hungrier than ever.
So too will Dominick Cruz, and when you put those two things together, they will most certainly make the main event WEC 50 exactly what Benavidez expects it to be – crazy.