Demetrious Johnson vs. Joseph Benavidez -- Flyweight Championship bout
The UFC's inaugural flyweight title was established in 2012 by a four-man tournament that saw former UFC bantamweight frontrunners Demetrious Johnson (18-2-1) and Joseph Benavidez (19-3) tussle in the grand finale, and "Mighty Mouse" emerged victorious with a split-decision win. Some thought it was as close as the ambiguous tally conveyed. Some did not.
Regardless, even though Johnson rose above to captain the flyweight fleet, it somewhat lacked finality, though by no fault of his own. The weight class was brand new, the echelon of contenders was still being crystallized and it just seemed like there was a lot of unfinished business out there. Overall, the question remained as to whether Johnson would be a flash in the pan or a mainstay atop the 125-pound totem pole.
Since then, the newly minted champ has twice defended the strap -- a hard-fought but ultimately convincing decision over John Dodson and a 5th-round armbar over the scarcely promoted John Moraga -- while Benavidez notched a decision over the feisty Ian McCall and flattened a pair of aspiring titlists in Darren Uyenoyama (2nd-round TKO) and Jussier Formiga (1st-round TKO) to re-christen himself as the top contender.
No matter how relevant or enlightening any pre-fight analysis might seem or how prescient it may prove to become, there is no better measuring stick for a rematch than to scrutinize the initial fracas. So let's capitalize on the UFC's Youtube release of the first Johnson vs. Benavidez scrap and lay out a round-by-round analysis of the interplay in order to note the pivotal aspects, advantages and turning points that will likely govern tonight's fist-fight.
From a physical standpoint, Johnson seems to be at a disadvantage against many of his flyweight counterparts but the Tale of the Tape denotes a mere inch of height disparity (5'3" vs. 5'4") which is offset by Johnson's equally minute edge in reach (66" vs. 65"). Though it's not pronounced, the battle for the oft-emphasized aspect of cage generalship, i.e. who's dictating the pace and tempo, is heavy on both competitor's minds and lurking strongly in the background. In the context of orchestrating the action, which becomes an increasingly important factor as the weight of the competitors decreases, getting off to an early and definitive start is ultra-imperative.
Benavidez makes a noticeable attempt to win this battle by engaging Johnson with a series of vicious, charging flurries and clinch entries. Many perceive Johnson to have the edge in speed and Benavidez to compensate with his superior strength and punching power, which makes Benavidez's combination of striking and clinch pursuits a sensible approach. However, about halfway through the round, it seems like Benavidez accepts that he can't merely lock horns and out-muscle Johnson in tie-ups or catch him with straight-line salvos. Having initiated separate bursts of striking and clinching, Benavidez then starts to fuse the two by committing to standing combinations and transitioning to open-space takedown attempts. Again, it's to no avail.
With one minute left, the stage-setting battle for control is pretty much a wash with neither fighter demonstratively out-striking or out-clinching the other. Johnson seems to be settling in by landing a few clean jabs and a low kick, Benavidez thunders home a partially-blocked right hand but eats one just before, then gets stuffed on a double-leg attempt and fends off a knee, punch and high kick combo with his back on the fence (the knee to the body is the only obvious connection). Benavidez might partially score with a glancing 3-punch combo and then either tries a loose head-and-arm throw or bypasses it entirely for a ballsy kneebar attempt as the bell sounds.
Summary: This round can clearly be divided into four minutes of an even stalemate whilst battling for control of the pace and one minute in which the bulk of meaningful offense arrives. Benavidez's strategy is being defined: he's looking to be the aggressor with explosive combinations and clinch attacks but, since aggression and control must be accompanied by legitimate offense or completing a legal technique, it's hard to construe his aggression/control as effective. (My philosophy: why the hell are we scoring vaguely influential intangibles if they have to be coupled with offense to score instead of just the resulting offense?) The score-worthy window is really the last minute and Johnson seems to have landed the higher volume of clean strikes. In order to offset that volume, Benavidez would have to have landed more damaging or perceivably effective strikes, and he did not. If you notch this round for Benavidez on account of control and/or aggression ... "you're doing it wrong."
Benavidez walks DJ down and lands a decent right to the body on his way into the clinch but eats two knees to the breadbasket from a slippery Johnson while escaping. One-minute in, the sense that Johnson is effectively anticipating, dodging and countering more judiciously on Benavidez's straight-line flurries is growing. It's worth noting that Johnson has been constantly switching stances throughout, which opens up a different set of escape routes and counter-strikes. It would be futile and barely readable to mention each strike that might've landed, but Johnson's volume is adding up with unremarkable but still clean connections.
Benavidez initiates another clinch and stays busy but his knee and series of short punches are all blocked. Benavidez gains some momentum in open space with a body kick and more aggressive punches that force DJ to disengage and reset. He then slices a quick lead right through but can't secure the follow-up takedown attempt and Johnson lands a knee to the head as he's regaining his footing.
Benavidez shoots again and Johnson evades it easily enough again to threaten with a rear waist-lock but can't keep it. A clean jab is answered by a Benavidez left hook, then a cracking right hand that probably stands as the most effective of the fight thus far.
Summary: This substantiates how one meaningful and memorable action (in this case, a single strike) can outweigh everything else. It's also clear at this point that Johnson is the faster fighter with better movement but his volume-based attack of low- to mid-power strikes can quickly take a backseat if Benavidez's power shots find the mark.
Benavidez sticks with his strategy but the extreme level of aggression and pace seems to be wearing on him a tad - his charging flurries are more measured and less explosive, as if he's starting to accept the consistent trend of Johnson shutting down every single takedown attempt, circling out of danger, landing more strikes and emerging unscathed for the most part. I realize that observation is subjective, but how could Benavidez not let off the gas a little? Rather than establish himself as the effective aggressor and the fighter dictating the action with discernible offense, he's mostly been in chase mode, expending massive amounts of energy and doesn't have a ton to show for it.
However, backing off on committed takedown attempts and settling in to a more methodical striking match in open space undoubtedly favors Johnson.
Benavidez has a right kick caught and absorbs a body kick while fending off DJ's counter-wrestling attempt.
That difficult-to-define sensation that Johnson is easily side-stepping the torrent of aggressive entries and consistently landing a higher volume of non-threatening strikes continues to permeate the fight's vibe.
Now, Benavidez finally puts Johnson on his butt by anticipating a low kick but the champ literally bounces off the canvas and gets right back to his feet; meaning, in my opinion, that it's nowhere close to score-worthy, especially considering it's his first in a string of failed attempts. (Random observation: FightMetric lists Benavidez as being 0 for 7 in takedowns throughout the entire fight when it seems like Joe has attempted around the the same total in every round thus far. Regardless of FightMetric's definition of what constitutes a takedown attempt, that stat is a laughable portrayal.)
Johnson counters a telegraphed switch kick from Benavidez with a hard overhand right and then lands another before the bell.
Summary: Once again, it seems that Benavidez is forced to overcome Johnson's unending tally of volume with something powerfully momentous, but can't.
The frenetic but somehow almost monotonous pace is snapped when Benavidez blasts Johnson with a lead right hook as he's throwing a low kick. Benavidez swarms and cinches on a top-side guillotine while passing half-guard to full mount. Johnson stays patient and hand-fights the choke to create breathing room and then explodes into a leg lock attempt. Benavidez defends and jumps back on top in a high half guard, then passes to side control. DJ spins out and uses a brief front headlock to regain his footing, then squirms his way out of the clinch.
In a surprising turn of events, Johnson slips out of the deep underhook Benavidez is using for clinch control and lands two knees to the body, then lands on top after Benavidez attempts another wild throw that might've been some sort of highly inadvisable arm drag or head-and-arm throw. I'm no wrestling expert but still feel comfortable saying that the position and likelihood of such an attempt was inevitably poor; it was additionally unhelpful to Benavidez's early surge and even more so when Johnson evened the scales more with a late-round takedown.
Summary: Regardless of who you think won this round, it again reinforces Benavidez's dire need to disrupt Johnson's unending volume with memorable and momentous offense.
If there's been a typical pace and interplay to the fight, it continues for the first half of the last round: there's not much doing but Johnson is landing more often and judiciously while stuffing takedowns and circling out effectively. Johnson neutralizes another double leg and lands a kick. Benavidez's exuberance is now dwindling though he's still chasing Johnson down regardless of efficacy.
Summary: I've been calling for the creation of some term to describe a match-up in which one fighter is steady and consistent throughout and his opponent is burdened with demonstrating some memorable display of significant offense to overpower it. Round 5 embodies this scenario with Johnson simply doing his thing and winning by a close margin through speed, volume, motion and the negation of his opponent's offense.
The Round 5 summary is basically the overall summary for tonight's rematch: Benavidez must shatter Johnson's hypnotic but stifling pace and movement with power, either in the form of takedowns and effective control and aggression or a looper that floors the champ.
Is there any conceivable evidence or reasoning to suggest otherwise?
When all things are equal, Johnson inches ahead on the score cards and the great (only?) equalizer is something substantially defining from Benavidez. Shades of that were accomplished throughout but not regularly enough to outweigh Johnson's steady Eddie assault. The 4th round was clearly Benavidez's best round but some questionable tactical decisions resulted in leaving the door open for Johnson to regain ground.
This exercise might have been useless or annoying ... but I was inevitably set on that conclusion and there's much more guess-work than analytical wizardry associated with it. Benavidez' successful spurts were dictated by timing, instincts and the ability to anticipate and react in milliseconds. I have no idea if Benavidez can do that again nor how consistently or often. I'm unsure how anyone could be privy to that. As anti-climactic as this might be, tonight's flyweight championship hinges on live-time fight instincts and, unless he unveils something unexpected or unforeseen, I just don't see enough evidence to predict a drastically different outcome. The only sensible candidate is Duane Ludwig's immediate and unparalleled influence as the Team Alpha Male coach, which is absolutely possible but not enough to sway me.
My Prediction: Demetrious Johnson by decision.