For top high school athletes, this time of year is when reality usually sets in. With graduation just around the corner, life after removing the cap and gown will involve a college athletics career for some, but for most, it’s the end of their days on the court, field, or mat.
That’s a rough realization for those who have heard the cheers for four years, celebrated their time as the big men (or women) on campus, and now have to come to grips with the fact that their best competitive days are likely over.
When Joseph Benavidez graduated from Las Cruces High School, he was in a similar situation. He knew that at five-foot-four, his days on the football gridiron were over, and even though he had won a State championship in wrestling, being a State wrestling champ in New Mexico at the time was akin to being the best water polo player in Brooklyn. It’s impressive, but it’s not going to get you anywhere compared to coming from a hotbed of the sport.
“I definitely thought I was done,” recalled Benavidez. “I played football but I knew from the start that I wasn’t gonna make it anywhere in football. And in wrestling, that was my sport and I was successful, but it was like, okay, I was a New Mexico state champ one time, I don’t think I’m ever gonna get to a high level.”
Benavidez did wrestle in college for one year until dropping out, and then it was off to the work world. He didn’t think that was his final destination though.
“When I did drop out of college, I got a regular job and I did think I was gonna make a living somehow with my body or my creativity,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be something standard. I wanted to be a Hollywood stuntman for the longest time, I thought that would be cool, and I just wanted to do something physical.”
He soon got his wish from an unlikely source.
“MMA wasn’t really around as a career option, but when that did come along and I did start, I was back. I missed the competition and said that this is something I can be really good at, so I thought about making a career out of it. And here we are.”
Here we are indeed. Nearly seven years removed from his first pro bout, Benavidez is one of the top flyweights in the world, a UFC mainstay who has an impressive fan following and world championship potential. It’s not only a testament to his talent and work ethic, but a beacon of hope to those former high school stars who still have that sporting dream.
“A lot of people peak in high school and it’s tough,” said Benavidez. “There’s so many guys playing and it’s such a small percentage that goes on and makes a living out of that. I’m fortunate and I feel blessed every day. I’ve worked hard and I’ve made lifestyle changes that were necessary to do this, and I’m just thankful that I found this and it happened to me.”
He’s also thankful for running into Urijah Faber, who met Benavidez through a friend, rolled with him in his Sacramento gym and suggested that he move to Northern California to pursue his career in MMA more seriously. For Benavidez, it was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I was training in New Mexico and I realized I was good and on a higher level than the guys around me,” he said. “But I was like ‘how do I do this? How do I make it to the next level?’ I thought that going to Greg Jackson’s would be an easy fix and I had family in Albuquerque, but I met Faber and I think it was just meant to happen. So I went back to New Mexico, saved up some money, drove my car down here, and never looked back. I said this is what dreams are made out of. This is movie kind of stuff and I’m doing it. I’m living it. I had that belief in myself that there was no way I wasn’t gonna make it.”
That faith was rewarded. Now 17-3 as a pro, Benavidez has fought and beaten the best for years, with his only losses coming to bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz (twice) and current flyweight boss Demetrious Johnson. And even though his UFC 152 loss to Johnson last September was via split decision in one of the best fights of 2012, after defeating fellow contender Ian McCall in February, he didn’t call for a rematch with “Mighty Mouse.”
“I think people were surprised that I didn’t ask for a title shot or say that I deserve it,” said Benavidez. “I was almost more leaning on the other side of the fence where I was like ‘hey, I just fought Demetrious; I don’t need to fight him again so soon.’ With the division being so small and almost unknown, I think it needs some time to grow, and putting another guy in there only helps the division and guarantees that fans know that there are other fighters out there that are just as good, and a fighter like (John) Moraga (who is next in line for Johnson) was the perfect pick. So for me, it was too soon and I made that mistake before at bantamweight. I lost twice to Dominick Cruz twice in a year, and then no matter what, I could stay up there and thrash people and be number two in the world, but it would be hard for me to get another title shot. So I learned from that and didn’t want to rush things. The way I look at it, I’m only getting better through time and through fights, and if I don’t beat the guys in front of me, I don’t deserve to go for the title anyway. So I’m not trying to take any shortcuts.”
Next up for the 28-year-old southpaw is a Saturday matchup with ground ace Darren Uyenoyama. For most, a clash with the San Francisco product (who has won three straight), would be a cause for serious concern. Yet while Benavidez respects his foe and what he brings to the Octagon, he’s also feasted on jiu-jitsu black belts in the past, counting among his victims Jeff Curran, Rani Yahya, Miguel Angel Torres, and Wagnney Fabiano.
“Darren does have good standup and he brings the fight, but one thing that separates him from a few jiu-jitsu guys is that he is more of a top guy and has good wrestling,” said Benavidez. “Yahya and Fabiano were both like that as well, where Jeff Curran and Miguel Torres were more bottom guys. So I’ve had great wins against Yahya and Fabiano, and I still think I hold an advantage. I think I can grapple with anyone in the world, and that’s his game; that’s where he has to beat me. So if I fight my fight and fight to my skills, I win. He has to really do something special to win the fight, which could be holding me down all 15 minutes, which just isn’t gonna happen.”
Does that mean Joe-Jitsu is making a return?
“That’s how Joe-Jitsu was invented,” he laughs. “I beat four black belts in a row, so it’s another way for me to test my Joe-Jitsu against the best of the Jiu-Jitsu world.”
Benavidez on Faith, Hard Work, and Joe-Jitsu
"This is movie kind of stuff and I’m doing it. I’m living it. I had that belief in myself that there was no way I wasn’t gonna make it." - Joseph Benavidez