The UFC has held seven events in Brazil over the last two years. Over that span, there have been 61 bouts where a Brazilian fighter has shared the cage with a non-Brazilian opponent. From a statistical standpoint, that’s a pretty good sample size, and for the international fighters making the trek into the populous, UFC-loving nation, the accumulated data presents a daunting picture.
In the two years since the Octagon first returned to Brazil, non-Brazilian fighters have a 13-48 record competing before the ravenous, chanting fans that have packed venues in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Jaragua do Sul, Fortaleza, and Wednesday’s destination, the Mineirinho Arena in Belo Horizonte.
Beyond the Numbers
Those numbers mean nothing to Joseph Benavidez. The only number that concerns the 29-year-old title contender as he prepares to step into the cage with Nova Uniao flyweight Jussier Formiga is zero.
“The numbers – how Americans haven’t done very well compared to the Brazilians – none of those fights were me versus Jussier Formiga,” says the easygoing Team Alpha Male representative. “Those other guys had nothing to do with me or him, so I can’t really look at the stats. It’s just one of those things you can’t really think about as a negative thing. This is one fight, and we’ve never fought before. You can’t look at what everyone else has done.”
Numerous fighters have expressed hesitations about fighting in Brazil, with a few going as far as saying they have no interest in taking the long flight to South America’s largest country. Between the length of the journey, the need to adjust to a new climate and time zone, and challenges of finding fight week nourishment, the idea of going to compete where your opponent seemingly has a very pronounced advantage doesn’t appeal to many.
While he concedes that fighting in Belo Horizonte is not as appealing as fighting down the freeway from Sacramento as he and his fellow Alpha Males Chad Mendes and T.J. Dillashaw did earlier this year, Benavidez didn’t hesitate to accept the chance to return to the cage, even if it meant fighting Formiga in hostile territory.
“Obviously, I would have preferred not to travel that far if it’s not somewhere I’m staying,” says Benavidez, who spent an additional two weeks in Australia after making the trip to Sydney, where he defeated Yasuhiro Urushitani in March of 2012.
“I always try to look at positives. I’m Mr. Brightside. If it was down the road in California like it was last time, that’s great – I get to go down the road and fight in front of my California fans. If it’s in Vegas – nice – it’s close, everyone gets to go. If it’s far away – I find the positives.
“This time, I get to fight in front of the Brazilian fans that bring an outstanding energy and passion, and really understand the fight game. I think they’ll really respect my fighting style, and I’ll gain a whole new fan base; hopefully steal a few hearts.”
Turning the Tide
While non-Brazilian athletes are often booed mercilessly before, during, and after their fights, Benavidez envisions his fighting style and the performance he intends to put forth against Formiga swaying the crowd, turning them into “Jomosapiens” as his fans are known, not unlike another highly entertaining combatant that went into his opponent’s backyard and won over his countrymen.
“I’m visualizing a whole – I don’t think it will be as colossal as Rocky IV, but that’s what I’m picturing,” he says, laughs chasing his words. “That’s a great movie that I’ve watched hundreds of times, and that’s kind of how it is – I’m going into a guy’s backyard, the fans aren’t going to be on my side first, but towards the end, I’m looking for them to appreciate what I do.
“I go out there, put everything on the line, and do everything I can do to put on a good fight – an exciting fight – and I know that’s what they appreciate down there, so by the end, hopefully they love me.”
He pauses momentarily before offering up his best Rocky Balboa impression.
“If you can change, and I can change, everybody can change!” he offers, laughing before he’s able to finish delivering the final line of “Ol’ Rocco’s” passionate post-fight address to the Russian crowd.
Unlike the fictional pugilist, Benavidez hasn’t spent his training camp running through snow in the mountains and doing leg presses with Justin Buchholz, Urijah Faber, and the other Team Alpha Male members sitting in the back of a carriage. He’s been in the gym, sharpening his skills under the watchful eye and detailed instruction of the team’s new head coach, Duane “Bang” Ludwig.
The impact the former UFC competitor has had on the team has been immediate. The quintet of Benavidez, Faber, Dillashaw, Mendes, and Danny Castillo have gone unbeaten inside the Octagon, with each one putting forth some of the best performances of their career since Ludwig came on board.
While most point to the technical expertise the vaunted striker can impart on his new charges as the main reason for the recent run of success, Benavidez says Ludwig has brought organization and order to a place where a laissez-faire approach once reigned supreme, creating a greater sense of comfort and confidence within the already dominant fight team.
“We were already a great team,” begins the Las Cruces, New Mexico native, who counts wins over Jeff Curran, Miguel Torres, Eddie Wineland, and Ian McCall amongst the 18 victories he’s earned to date. “A lot of people say, `Oh, they lost fighting for the title three times.’ Well, we fought for titles three times, and that is pretty amazing of itself – to have three guys from a team all contending for titles, and some of our other guys are right there too.
“Duane has brought structure to the team, and that structure has (made us) more confident in ourselves. You see everyone winning, you start to gain this belief in what you’re doing, and we really needed that. It was really unorganized before. We knew we were going to go out there and fight, but now we 100-percent believe in the system. We always knew we were good, but he’s brought another level of confidence and comfort in what we’re doing.”
That confidence is translating into impressive performances, like Benavidez’ most recent outing against grappling standout Darren Uyenoyama.
Always an explosive striker for his size, the man with a thousand different nicknames (Joe B. Wan Kenobi, The Beefcake, etc.) showed more polish and precision, picking Uyenoyama apart with clean, snapping strikes, then dropping him with a kick to the body before finishing him with punches in the closing seconds of the second round.
It was arguably the best performance of his 21-fight career, and one Benavidez believes can provide a blueprint for his bout with Formiga on Wednesday night in Belo Horizonte.
“That was my first full camp with Duane, and I think that was the best Joseph Benavidez people have seen. I definitely felt the best as far being comfortable in there, and a lot of people said that was the best I’ve ever looked. I always felt like I could strike with people, but the comfort I felt out there – things were tighter, there were better combos – was awesome.
“I can feel it every day in practice that I’m getting better, which is crazy because I was already at a championship level. I’m reborn and I’m just getting even better.
“(Formiga is) almost like Version 2.0 of the last guy I fought.,” he continues. “He’s a little faster and is going to want the takedown a little more, but they have the same styles – structured, good standup, but their game is when they get on top when they get you down. I think he’s going to be a little more aggressive with the takedown, a little faster with his hands.”
In addition to being bolstered by his performance against the similarly skilled Uyenoyama, Benavidez has a history of success competing against Brazilian jiu-jitsu standouts. At one point during his days as a bantamweight in the WEC, the former high school wrestler earned victories over four consecutive black belts, submitting both Miguel Torres and Wagnney Fabiano.
“I think I have the advantage anywhere the fight goes,” assesses Benavidez. “If we go to the ground and I’m on top, I’m going to be the superior grappler; I’m going to be in control. The only place he’s going to have an edge is if he’s on top of me, and that’s a hard position to maintain. That’s his only chance. I think he’s going to be able to hang on the feet, and hang if I’m on top of him, but there is only a small percentage chance that he can get to where he has an advantage in this fight.
“I know he’s going to come in very prepared, with the Brazilian crowd behind him. I’ve heard him say this is a big fight for him, and that he thinks he could go for the title after this, which, if you beat the #1 guy and I was in his shoes, it makes sense. I’m expecting a handful. He was the #1 guy in the world before. He’s a tough guy, and he’s only lost to the top guys.”
But with his confidence at an all-time high and visions of converting the Brazilian fans into supporters, Benavidez anticipates putting on a show for everyone watching, and walking away with another win added to his resume.
“I think my fighting speaks for itself, and the Brazilian fans understand and appreciate a good fighter, an exciting fighter – somebody that goes out there and tries to finish – and that’s who I am. Hopefully they’ll appreciate it for what it is because I’m always going to go out there and try to put on an exciting fight.
“I like beating guys at their own game, so if I can submit Jussier Formiga, that would be ideal for me, but just getting a win over a great fighter like him is awesome.”
Joseph Benavidez: On the Road
"I think my fighting speaks for itself, and the Brazilian fans understand and appreciate a good fighter, an exciting fighter." - Joseph Benavidez