Joseph Benavidez EXCLUSIVE: That’s probably the last opportunity, but …

Feb 29, 2020; Norfolk, Virginia, USA; Joseph Benavidez (red gloves) fights Deiveson Figueiredo (blue gloves) during UFC Fight Night at Chartway Arena. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

Joseph Benavidez is well aware that getting a fifth Ultimate Fighting Championship flyweight title opportunity is a long shot. His July submission loss to Deiveson Figueiredo—his fourth challenge for gold since 2012—has placed him outside of title contention for the first time in years. Yet, despite no obvious path to a championship fight, the 36-year-old veteran still thirsts to compete with the elites of his division. It’s something he will get to do at UFC 259 against third-ranked Russian talent Askar Askarov, as he looks to bounce back from a difficult setback, with a redefined purpose for his career.

“Probably the last…” opportunity for “The Beefcake”

After 33 fights, and a decade competing at the highest level of the sport, Benavidez is well equipped to mentally bounce back from a tough defeat. However, while not an emotionally debilitating setback, he admits his second straight loss to Figueiredo was still profound, but in a different way.

“I would say the first title loss of my career [to Demetrious Johnson at UFC 152] was still my hardest. I put so much on that. I counted on being the first [UFC flyweight] champion ever. And it didn’t happen,” Benavidez told MixedMartialArts.com. “Then [I realized] people still love me. I still have my friends, my wife, my family. When I lost, I didn’t know how to cope with it at all. A loss is never easy, but after that one, I could never put that much on a fight again. Therefore, I could never hurt that much with another loss. This last loss with Figueiredo did hurt. Probably close to that in a way. [As a] professional, it was one of the hardest things in my career, because I know that’s probably the last time I’m ever going to get this opportunity that I’ve chased so long.”

Joseph Benavidez

“Give me someone at the top”

Throughout his career, Benavidez has maintained two goals – to be a UFC champion, and to consistently test himself against the best his division had to offer. Being a champion seems like wishful thinking right now, but defending his place as one of the top flyweights in the world is still a strong motivator for him. That is why he’ll return to the Octagon on March 6, to face the fast-rising competitor Askarov. However, his mission statement to keep fighting the best is also the reason for his eight-month hiatus, despite receiving offers in the winter to make his return sooner.

“Since the beginning of my career, I’ve just wanted to fight the best, and be the best. That’s kind of what this fight is about. I didn’t want to fight anyone that wasn’t at the top. I was getting offers at the end of last year, not far after my [last] fight. But I asked myself why? I don’t need money at the end of the career. I’m not super excited, and in love to fight, and the matchups weren’t right,” says Benavidez. “I want to fight the best guys. When I can’t compete with the best, what’s the point? And that’s what motivates me. It wouldn’t mean a ton for me to go and beat a No.15 guy or something. I was getting fight offers for October, November, but I was like, you know what, that motivation’s not there yet. Give me someone at the top, and let me just fall in love with the process of training again. Without having a gold belt on the horizon.”

Joseph Benavidez

What makes this matchup stylistically refreshing for Benavidez, is “Bullet’s” penchant to lean heavily on his wrestling. While the four-time title contender has faced some talented grapplers in recent years, it has been a long time since he had to go toe-to-toe with another talented wrestler. It’s a challenge he relishes and feels very confident about.

“I think his wrestling’s good. I think I have an advantage on the stand-up, and being a better striker,” Benavidez said. “Probably [being] just as good a wrestler is going to help me in that regard. I’m not worried about anyone’s ground game. And I think I can take him down just as easily as he can take me down. I welcome him trying to wrestle me, and I’m excited for those exchanges, to have someone who will try that.”

Joseph Benavidez

Being revered without gold

The UG: Joseph Benavidez interview with Jason Burgos

Benavidez is not the first great fighter who didn’t achieve the goal of being UFC champion. Future and current hall-of-famers like Alistair Overeem, Urijah Faber, and Donald Cerrone share that same misfortune. It’s no surprise then that Benavidez’s name often comes up in the debate over who is the best fighter not to capture UFC gold. The Xtreme Couture talent isn’t flattered by inclusion in this particular discourse, however, he does understand it’s not meant as a slight on the career he has had.

“Legacy, and how people talk about you, that’s not something I can control. When I look at something like that, I’m like, all those guys are good,” says Benavidez. “There’s thousands and thousands of fighters that never even [fought] for the UFC title. Yea, it’s a reminder that you didn’t do this, but it’s also a reminder that you did do this, and a lot of people haven’t.”

Check out the full interview (above) to hear why Benavidez would not be interested in a flyweight fight with former Team Alpha Male teammate Cody Garbrandt, as well as the latest on his new podcast, “At Home with Benalivi,” with wife, and ESPN reporter, Megan Olivi. In addition, he talks about his favorite films and television shows from the last year.

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