On Friday morning, on the eve of the biggest fight of his career, Deiveson Figueiredo came in two and a half pounds overweight for his would-be UFC flyweight title fight against Joseph Benavidez. As a result, come Saturday night in Norfolk, only Benavidez will be eligible to win the vacant 125-pound title. And on top of that, he will receive 30 percent of the Brazilian’s purse. On the surface, it seems like a moderate enrichment for Benavidez and his wallet. But in truth, Figueiredo botching weight only serves to further cheapen an already star-crossed strait.
In the broad stokes, the narrative around Benavidez-Figueiredo is simple: after two stabs at winning the UFC flyweight championship against Demetrious Johnson – and a failed bid for the WEC bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz back in 2010 – the 35-year-old Benavidez finally has another chance, perhaps a final chance, to become a champion. Nearly a 14-year veteran, Benavidez has long been an elite fixture at both 125 and 135 pounds—one of the most calculably exciting, dynamic fighters in that weight range and a generally genial, swell guy who is well-regarded by fans, media and fellow fighters. Benavidez cementing his place in the MMA history books by shedding his reputation as a perennial bridesmaid, on the surface, seems like a sweet and just outcome, right?
The truth is not so simple, however. In fact, it’s a bit uglier, certainly nastier than Benavidez – with all his myriad accomplishments in the cage – deserves. This would have been the case even if Figueiredo had successfully made 125 pounds, but his failure to do so is just added sour seasoning to an already bittersweet situation.
A late-career title run can drastically re-sculpt the public and historic perception of a prizefighter. If Michael Bisping decided his retina issues were a dangerous encumbrance and hung up the gloves before 2016, he’d simply be remembered as a charismatic, trash talking almost-was who failed in every major fight he was a part of. Instead, while he’ll never be mentioned among the very greatest 185-pounders ever, the ‘Count’ will always be remembered as a UFC middleweight champion—defeating the greatest fighter in divisional history, Anderson Silva, even if it was a shopworn version. He’ll be remembered for avenging his previous humiliations against Luke Rockhold and Dan Henderson. Bisping didn’t go out on top, but at 37 years old, Bisping rewrote the entire book on his career in a single calendar year.
Unfortunately, this is not an opportunity that Joseph Benavidez will enjoy.
I’m sure I sound like a broken record, repeating “context matters” ad nauseum, but not only do I think it’s an incredibly important consideration for just about anything in life, I think it is especially crucial in examining professional prizefighting. And even more so, given the subjective, nettlesome nature of how we assess the achievements and ‘greatness’ of athletes. Cruelly, fighters’ legacies are often contingent on factors beyond their control, such as the weight range they physiologically fall into and the successes of their contemporaries. Dominance and sustained success is certainly a constituent of assessing a fighter’s greatness, but other things being equal, we have to consider ‘Who did you beat, and how did you beat him?’ Even if Benavidez finally earns the gold and closes out a brilliant career as flyweight king, it’s hard for me to believe that the MMA world won’t belittle those achievements.
First of all, fans will likely critique who he actually beat to win the title. While Figueiredo is a great fighter and has only lost once in 18 fights, that defeat came against the only truly elite fighter he’s ever faced in Jussier ‘Formiga’ da Silva. A man whom Benavidez easily pummeled in his last outing. And, Figueiredo obviously struggled with his weight cut and missed the 125-pound mark, the effects of which could also potentially benefit Benavidez in a 25-minute fight.
Secondly, unlike the aforementioned Bisping, Benavidez is unlikely to have the chance to exorcise his past demons in the cage. The greatest flyweight ever, Demetrious Johnson, thwarted him twice in title fights. And then, owing to poor decision making on multiple levels (more on that shortly), was ‘traded’ away to One Championship for Ben Askren—who is now retired. Benavidez actually owns a razor-thin split decision win over current bantamweight king Henry Cejudo from back in December 2016, but many view the victory with contempt, due to the questionable point deduction Cejudo sustained for low blows. If Cejudo continues to chug along at 135 pounds, Benavidez would be forced to chase ‘Triple C’ up another division to prove he is definitely the better fighter. He doesn’t even have the ability to defend his hypothetical title in a rematch against the last man to beat him, Sergio Pettis. Now that Pettis has signed with Bellator MMA, after the UFC cut him loose, along with a wide swath of its flyweight talent.
As many might have anticipated, that mass exodus of flyweight talent represents the grimmest piece of Benavidez’s potential future as flyweight champion. Two years ago, the whispers started that the UFC was looking to shutter the 125-pound division. This was nothing new per se; the promotion previously kibosh-ed its lightweight division in late 2004 – in an effort to provide its growing roster in other divisions with more card space and opportunities – before reinstating it with the first Spencer Fisher-Sam Stout clash at UFC 58 in March 2006. In that case, however, the UFC took swift and direct action. They let their contracted lightweights all walk to other promotions, then only brought the division back when they had a crop of lightweight prospects and talented welterweights best suited to make the drop to 155 pounds. In this case, the UFC chose an awkward half measure by jettisoning so much of its notable talent and prospects and co-signing on Cejudo’s desire to vacate the 125-pound title in December. Ostensibly they geared up to drop the division, only to reverse course. Leaving them now with a relatively barren weight class, despite flyweight needing all the spark it can get.
As a result of this poorly conceived, wishy-washy decision making, the UFC is now left with less than 20 male flyweights on roster. While Russia and the Caucasus region is replete with quality flyweight prospect, even with the UFC looking to make a dent in the region – note its recent announcement of a card in Kazakhstan – it’s unlikely they’re going to start snapping up all the top talent from Absolute Championship Akhmat and Fight Nights Global. Should Benavidez win, who is clamoring to watch him rinse Jussier da Silva or Tim Elliott again? Is anyone in a lather to see Ray Borg get another title shot? Are Alex Perez or Askar Askarov suddenly going to morph into elite fighters overnight? All talented fighters, but not on the level of even an aged and injured Benavidez—and certainly not fighters that are going to radically alter the historical perception of his accomplishments.
I fully anticipate Benavidez to leave Virginia with the strap around his waist, finally. I was actually shocked to see him as a mere -140 favorite headed into the weekend. Such a win will put him in the history books in indelible fashion; no one will ever be able to say “Well, he was never champion.” But lamentably, what kind of champion Benavidez may become is profoundly out of his control, cursed by the moment in time and poor decision making around him. Unlike so many lucky fighters and champions before him, Benavidez might be able to make the best of his future, but he’s already been robbed of the chance to make us reconsider his history.
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