After absorbing the WEC and foraying into the little guy business successfully with the addition of featherweight (145 pounds) and bantamweight (135 pounds), the UFC expanded their portfolio further this year by unveiling the flyweight class (125 pounds). Another deviation from standard operating procedure came with the announcement that a 4-man tournament would appoint the promotion's inaugural flyweight champion.
As a staunch proponent of the tournaments, I was giddy. However, the opening round at UFC on FX 2 in March reminded us of the pitfalls associated with the bracketed format -- even though the root cause was a glaring anomaly; a clerical blunder involving rocket-science level addition of the complex numbers 1 through 10. Regardless of the embarrassing mishap, a good old fashioned do-over was instituted for righteousness: AMC Pankration rep Demetrious Johnson (15-2) finally put Ian McCall in the rearview mirror and earned his spot in the finals against Team Alpha Male's Joseph Benavidez (16-2), who curb-stomped Yasuhiro Urushitani to advance.
Saturday's UFC 152 pay-per-view from Toronto, Canada, will house the Benavidez vs. Johnson showdown for the flyweight strap. The anticipated bout plays second fiddle to the featured title match, which is light-heavyweight champion Jon Jones defending his belt against the explosive but inconsistent Vitor Belfort.
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At bantamweight, Benavidez has been widely considered second to only champion Dominick Cruz, who accounts for the pair of defeats on his record (unanimous decision, split decision). Despite being under-sized for 135, Benavidez pretty much tore through everyone besides Cruz -- he was rarely, if ever, put in a considerably precarious position or situation and triumphed either dominantly or convincingly.
The inimitable Cruz is also one of the select few to repel the dizzying onslaught of Johnson, which was a bantamweight title scrap at UFC Live 6. He splits the accolade with banger Brad Pickett, who beat "Mighty Mouse" in what seems like a bizarrely uncharacteristic decision loss, especially in retrospect. Johnson and Benavidez share another common opponent in former alpha-bantamweight Miguel Torres: Johnson unrolled takedown brilliance and tangled with him en route to a hotly contested decision win whereas Benavidez used his elbow to conjure up a supergalactic space portal and unleashed it on Torres' head for a 2nd round finish.
Continued in the full entry.
In their 125-pound debuts, there's no question that Benavidez out-shined Johnson with his cold-blooded beat-down of Urushitani, though I think most would agree that McCall, the former #1 flyweight, presented more formidable opposition. When scrutinizing this match up, past competition will be emphasized because Benavidez and Johnson are starkly unique and unorthodox competitors, leaving no sensible or similarly styled comparisons.
The duo are also polar opposites: Benavidez is a power-based, brick shithouse with wide, clubbing punches and bullish takedown skills, Johnson oozes finesse and technical brilliance while relying on unparalleled speed and a gradual accumulation of cerebral offense.
Let's start with "Joe-B Wan Kenobi" -- Benavidez wrestled varsity all 4 years on won the state title as a sophomore at Las Cruces High School. Believe it or not, Las Cruces, his hometown in New Mexico, has designated August 27 as "Joseph Benavidez Day." Benavidez went on to compete for a year at the NAIA level at William Penn University; while the details of his college wrestling stint are unavailable, all that matters is that his MMA wrestling has proven to be quite functional and effective.
Early in his MMA career, his striking was not pretty and he seemed uncomfortable adjusting his stance and footwork to the foreign environment. Rather than adopt traditional practice, Benavidez stuck with his unconventional style of winging short-range loopers with his hands and managed to make it work. Probably on account of his natural fighting instincts, athleticism and timing, Benavidez has whittled what should be a sloppy and dangerous arsenal of wide-sailing hooks into a formidable striking repertoire with a few rapidly uncorked kicks mixed in.
The biggest key to his stand-up success is the threat of his wrestling. Benavidez has mastered the subtle ploy of faking level drops which, with a quick and simple bending of the knees to lower his head and upper body a few inches, wreaks havoc on opponents, who are forced to react with urgency. Adjusting from offensive striking to defending a takedown requires a serious shift in balance and focus, and the mere presence of the takedown threat lingers and generally results in hesitation and indecision. All of the previously listed effects are defensive, meaning that Benavidez' wrestling is imposing enough to put his adversaries into defensive mode with a simple feint.
This tactic is one of the most effective ways to disrupt a striker, as planting the feet to throw leaves them vulnerable for takedowns. Additionally, it augments Benavidez' offense doubly: a common reaction for the defender is to drop his hands and his own level in anticipation of his legs or hips being attacked, which makes them a ripe target for surprise striking attacks; once the wrestler capitalizes on that scenario a few times, the defender starts to expect the decoy move and gets swept off his feet when the takedown actually comes.
Striking-wise, this clever mind game serves as the gist of Benavidez' intentions, and his punching power and wrestling are frightening enough that each avenue has to be wholly respected. Once he does claim top control, the burly juggernaut is ferocious with ground and pound and basic submission attempts (especially rear-naked and guillotine chokes), both of which transpire at a frenetic pace. His submission defense has also been sound, as reputable BJJ black belts Rani Yahya, Wagnney Fabiano, Jeff Curran and Torres were unable to mount a shred of threatening offense from guard.
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Johnson has utterly bedazzling speed and footwork; amongst the most brilliant in the game. Think Frankie Edgar in fast-forward with even more angles, pivots, feints and unpredictable striking combinations. As with all elite motion-defined kickboxers, Johnson's extraordinary and unfailing balance is the heart of the system. His unwavering balance and composure allows for on the fly micro-adjustments rather than planned or rehearsed sequences. Johnson has an uncanny ability to explode into range with fists whirring, read his opponents counters and continue to chain his blinding onslaughts together.
His selection is fantastic: he'll alternate from low kicks, to high kicks, to deftly dropping levels for a picture-perfect double leg with excellent penetration, to faking the takedown and coming high with rapid-fire boxing. His following advances will have some of the same elements but they're always executed in different order and set up with dexterous mastery of ever-changing angles. Johnson is also one of the best Phase Shifters in the sport, as the only time he stays in the same mode is when it's working great and there's no reason to change. He'll alternate between his in-and-out striking patterns, darting swiftly into the clinch (where he continues to mix things up with the dual threat of striking and takedown attempts) or swooping low to the floor for deeply secured double legs.
This acrobatic trapeze act contrasts sharply with the fairly stationary and patient Benavidez, who tends to hold his ground with a predatory "come at me bro" mentality. In recent outings, Benavidez has eased into the role of hanging back and countering, as the stifling power of his stubby-armed hooks and paralyzing takedowns are always viable options.
Benavidez will be deadliest when Johnson is right in front of him. Anytime he can tie Johnson up or cut off his escape routes by cornering him against the cage, takedowns or damaging punches are sure to follow. Conversely, Johnson's speed and motion are imperative -- he can't survive in a straight wrestling match with Benavidez, whose base is so ungodly strong that he contained the crafty Torres on the mat like no one else has. Johnson is an excellent wrestler because of his speed and fundamentals, not his physical strength, and his eventual downfall against Cruz was tangling up, which nullified his speed and allowed him to be taken down.
Johnson will also want to steer clear of trading leather in prolonged exchanges and frustrate Benavidez by faking, popping into range unpredictably, cracking off a crisp flurry and bailing immediately. Benavidez is a high-paced and crushing dirty boxer; his chin has been phenomenal and Johnson doesn't have the power to crack it.
I see this as much closer than the slanted betting lines for Benavidez would indicate. I'm fine with him being the favorite but consider Johnson a puzzling whirlwind to deal with, and will lend him my per-card vote to pull off the upset by way of speed, diversity and technical artistry.
My Prediction: Demetrious Johnson by decision.