Elusive title within Joseph Benavidez's grasp on Fight Island after career-long quest

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

Imagine for a second you are Joseph Benavidez. You have been among the elite of the elite in mixed martial arts for a little more than the last decade. No matter whether you were at bantamweight or at flyweight, you were always one of the sport’s greats.

For various reasons, a championship eluded you.

Now, with your 36th birthday closing in, there is one more shot, most likely a final shot, at the title that has managed to elude you for so long. If you think of the best fighters never to win a UFC title, it wouldn’t be much longer than a snap of the fingers before Benavidez’s name came up.

When he was booked to rematch with Deiveson Figueiredo for the vacant flyweight title on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the main event from Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, he took the bout knowing that it would not only be difficult in the cage, but that there was no guarantee that Figueiredo would make it to the cage.

Figueiredo missed weight when they fought the first time on Feb. 29 in Norfolk, Virginia, a bout that ended in a second-round finish after the referee missed a head butt. So as he prepared for the rematch, Benavidez had to do so knowing there was a chance Figueiredo, who is a large flyweight, could miss again.

Then, Figueiredo tested positive in Brazil for COVID-19. When he was finally cleared to fight, he immediately flew to Abu Dhabi and went into quarantine. He wasn’t released from quarantine until Friday, the day of the weigh-in.

Just preparing for a championship fight requires all of one’s attention. On top of this, Benavidez had to prepare knowing things could change in an instant. The UFC was concerned about whether Figueiredo would make it to the post, as well, and so brought in a replacement fighter, Alexandre Pantoja, who would step in for Figueiredo if anything happened.

That made it worse, because Benavidez would have to at least consider the possibility of taking on Pantoja while he geared up for Figueiredo.

Benavidez, though, shrugged. One of the sport’s true good guys, he dealt with the uncertainty with the grace and poise that he’s shown throughout a career that has been filled with highlights.

“I’m not going to lie, I’m glad they found a replacement fighter in case we need him,” Benavidez said. “I knew when I was coming here that I was going to get into a fight. But we’re professionals and we can’t let that stuff bother us. I had to do my job and I knew what I needed to do.”

Joseph Benavidez poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on Friday in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Joseph Benavidez poses on the scale during the UFC Fight Night weigh-in inside Flash Forum on UFC Fight Island on Friday in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Both fighters made weight Friday, so the bout is officially on, and they’ll get an opportunity to prove which of them was correct about the first fight.

Benavidez has repeatedly said that the head butt played a major factor as well as Figueiredo missing weight. Figueiredo, of course, felt the opposite.

“Tell Benavidez not to go [forward] with his head and he’ll be fine,” Figueiredo said.

Tactically, Figueiredo said he learned a few things from the first fight that he believes will aid him on Saturday. He said he plans to play a pressure game and try to back Benavidez up.

“There wasn’t anything that new that I got from the fight, but we were able to confirm that he doesn’t deal well with pressure,” Figueiredo said. “He doesn’t really deal well with having to [fight going] backwards. For sure, I’m going to have to use that to my advantage for this fight again.”

Benavidez won the first round on all three cards and points to that as his response to Figueiredo’s claims of pressure. It wasn’t, he said, until the head butt that made him woozy and that the referee didn’t see that the course of the fight changed and Figueiredo got the finish.

He’s gone about as far as he can go and after chasing the belt for so long, so it’s hard for him to express how much this career-long chase means.

“I’ve won a lot of big fights that have felt great and meant a lot, but the belt is what is going to separate this one from all the others,” he said. “There won’t be a crowd, and that will be different, but I’ll have a lot of people here with me. My corner is here, obviously, and my wife will be here, and they’re the people who have been with me on this journey. They’re the ones I want to share it most with.

“I really wish I could have done it in Norfolk because the crowd was so awesome and was behind me so much. I could really feel the love that night. But in this game, you have to take things as they come. I would love for there to be fans there, but it’s not going to mean any less [because there aren’t], believe me.”

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