In the year and a half since their first fight, Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson have both been very busy. Despite hurting Johnson and coming very close with a guillotine in the fourth round, Benavidez was just not slick enough, and Mighty Mouse won two of the judges' scorecards to become the first UFC flyweight champ. Johnson then went on to defend the belt twice, while Benavidez began carving his way through the young division once again, establishing himself as the top contender on the backs of three impressive wins.
Around the same time as that fateful fight with Johnson, Benavidez's teammate Urijah Faber lost a tough fight for the interim bantamweight title to Renan Barao, his fourth failed attempt for a belt since losing his WEC featherweight strap to Mike Brown in 2008. Shortly before that, another teammate in Chad Mendes was knocked out vying for UFC featherweight champ Jose Aldo's belt. These three losses seemed to prove, in quick succession, that Team Alpha Male was only alpha when the real top dogs weren't around. Clearly something had to change.
Enter Duane Ludwig, one of the most veteran fighters on the UFC roster. Ludwig had always been an exciting fighter - his nickname "Bang" bespeaking a sort of carefree violence that even the most neanderthal UFC fan could appreciate - but it had become clear that he would never challenge for a title. So, following in the footsteps of many mediocre fighters before him, he elected to become a spectacular trainer instead, moving to Sacramento and installing himself as Team Alpha Male's new head coach.
Having not been in the gym with the fighters, it is impossible for me to say what the true extent of his influence is. Even Ludwig himself has said, "I'm getting way more credit than I think I deserve-I don't actually do that much. I just give them ideas and these, you know, athletes are just running with it." But I think Ludwig is more inclined to modesty than honesty, since the results speak for themselves. Since his hiring, the team has become greater than ever before, doubling their overall finish rate, increasing their number of knockout finishes by two and a half times, and even becoming more effective grapplers by virtue of their improved striking.
Benavidez certainly has shown visible improvement. Always a powerful hitter, he has learned to better create opportunities to connect with his heavy hands, moving smoothly in and out of range and using feints to set up his strikes. Today we'll be looking at those new additions to his game, but to truly understand an improvement, you must place it in the context of the original flawed product. Let's examine the mistakes that kept Benavidez from beating Mighty Mouse the first time around, and then we'll get to the changes that just might spell a different story in the rematch.
THE FIRST FIGHT
Benavidez, always a quick fighter, looked nothing less than sluggish in his first match against Demetrious Johnson. Johnson has that effect on a lot of his opponents, but Benavidez was consistently unable to catch the future champ with his punches. The first flaw, and a principle reason why he couldn't lay his mitts on Johnson, was the fact that Benavidez had virtually no set-ups. Rather, he would march forward, looking as if he were slinging rocks at his elusive opponent rather than putting together tight, accurate combinations. With no small strikes to set up his power, Benavidez ended up repeatedly walking into straight counters, or rather Demetrious Johnson walked Benavidez into his counters.
1. Benavidez moves forward to attack Demetrious Johnson.
2. Johnson circles to his right, creating angles and distance.
3. Benavidez responds by circling with him, attempting to line up a left-handed strike (no, this wasn't a tag team match against a giant referee-that's just Yves Lavigne's big bald head drifting between the camera and the action)
4. Johnson responds to the telegraphed power shot with a step-off straight right, and then resumes circling in the opposite direction.
In my last article about Demetrious Johnson, I covered this technique. Johnson, much like the great Willie Pep, is excellent at using his footwork to bait and counter his opponents, and last time around Benavidez walked right into his favorite trap again and again. Above, you can see Benavidez lining up his left with his right hand, extended to find the distance. The problem with this approach is that it more or less gives Mighty Mouse his intention: with the right hand extended, the left is the only viable threat. Thus Johnson was able to move away from the danger side while throwing a counter, and then reestablish distance to try again. Benavidez couldn't prevent this, because he had no jab or similar weapon to close the distance and trap Johnson. He also utilized no feints or fakes to force reactions from his opponent. Every time that Benavidez moved, it was with a powerful strike or takedown attempt. Johnson was safe to react however he chose.
So, just as Johnson wanted, Benavidez became frustrated. Unable to intelligently get into the right positions for his strikes, he resorted to winging wild shots from the outside. This was the second flaw in his approach. Not only did he attack with telegraphed shots from well outside their effective range, but he only attacked moving straight forward.
1. Johnson's back is to the fence.
2. Sensing an opportunity to pounce, Benavidez drops his weight and lunges forward. Johnson, sensitive to the telegraph, is already on the move.
3. Benavidez moves straight forward from his starting position, and Mighty Mouse counters him with ease, stepping away from his right hook and landing a clean check hook of his own.
4. By the time Benavidez has finished the follow-through on his right and turned to face Johnson, his foe is already out of range and moving to another angle.
With an opponent as fast and resilient as Johnson, Benavidez needs to utilize a different kind of movement. By stepping straight forward, he will only hand Johnson yet more opportunities to utilize his excellent lateral movement. The key is to attack with diagonal movement. In other words, the first fight showed Benavidez either moving side to side, or moving forward and backward. This time, he needs to move forward and to the side simultaneously, trapping Johnson in a vulnerable position, while remaining defensively viable. As always, the way to beat a counterfighter is with intelligent aggression. Pressure is the name of the game.
The question is, has Benavidez made the right adjustments under Duane Ludwig's tutelage?
First of all, Benavidez has improved miraculously in the realm of set-ups. His power strikes have always been vicious, and now he is no longer handicapped by his willingness to throw them. One of the best additions to his game is his increased reliance on kicks. Benavidez's past three opponents have all eaten some hellacious kicks to the body and legs (and, for Ian McCall, the cup). Benavidez is a naturally gifted kicker, and by establishing those powerful kicks he has found a new way to walk the opponent into his head strikes.
1. Benavidez, having backed Ian McCall up near the cage, throws a light inside low kick.
2. After eating a dozen hard kicks in the previous rounds, McCall makes sure to hop back away from the strike. He avoids it, but now ends up even nearer the fence.
3. Benavidez follows up with a right hand from orthodox.
4. McCall stumbles under the brunt of the blow, and Benavidez lands a hard uppercut as McCall covers up and ducks his head in desperation.
The sequence above shows a much more intelligent method of closing the range than Benavidez utilized in the first bout with Mighty Mouse. Benavidez's inside low kick here serves the same purpose as a jab, forcing McCall to react and allowing him to close the distance. In frame 2, Benavidez has widened his stance far too much, but he has at least gotten his lead foot in a strong position. From here, McCall cannot easily move to his right, away from Benavidez's impending right hand, because he is corralled by Benavidez's left foot. He could attempt to pivot to his left, but that way lies Benavidez's fist. In essence, McCall is contained within Benavidez's stance, trapped in the crosshairs. He has no choice but to cover up, and Benavidez lands several hard shots as a result.
Hip feints are another new aspect of Benavidez's game. While Mighty Mouse was able to read his attacks and react perfectly in the first match, Benavidez brings a much more intelligent approach to his offense this time around.
1. Benavidez loads his right hip, testing Darren Uyenoyama's reactions.
2. Uyenoyama throws a left hook, and Benavidez defends by blocking and pulling his head back over his left foot.
3. Now Benavidez loads his left hip, and sees that Uyenoyama does not react.
4. He goes to the right hip again, but this time his head movement is accompanied by a straight left hand that catches Uyenoyama before he can even attempt his counter hook again.
5. Now too nervous about the left hand to throw, Uyenoyama does nothing as Benavidez goes back over his right hip.
6. So Benavidez uncorks a right uppercut.
7. After a brief scuffle, Benavidez goes back to his probing. Once again he threatens with lead the uppercut from the right hip.
8. Instead of throwing the strike, he pulls back to his left...
9. ...and then throws the right uppercut without any chambering, catching Uyenoyama completely off-guard.
This kind of hip movement is the key to the success of all the best pressure fighters in any striking sport. Benavidez confuses Uyenoyama by constantly threatening with different attacks. Uyenoyama must react at first, because Benavidez's threats are very real - he doesn't just suggest a right uppercut or left hand, he throws them. When Uyenoyama does react, Benavidez switches things up, throwing softer strikes just to keep his opponent guessing. By the end of this sequence, Uyenoyama was so flustered and lacking in confidence that he basically stopped attempting offense altogether. He couldn't read Benavidez's movements, and so he fell prey to his pressure. No surprise, then, that Benavidez finished Uyenoyama a mere minute later.
Though still liable to overextending, Benavidez has become far more aware of the openings in his own defense. Just four months after his loss to Johnson, he showed some very crafty defense against Ian McCall, who had himself given Mighty Mouse a pair of very tough fights the previous year.
1. Benavidez backs up as McCall, sensing that he is behind, is forced to come forward.
2. He steps back to his left, creating an inside angle for his left hand - McCall's left foot is outside Benavidez's right foot, but Benavidez is facing McCall's center line.
3. He steps into a long, straight left hand, but McCall slips.
4. McCall lands a right hand to the body, but Benavidez senses his follow-up, and rolls under a left hook before backing out of range.
I'll say this: if you'd told me a year ago that I would soon be writing the phrase "Benavidez steps back to his left, creating an inside for his left hand," I would have laughed, and asked you why Lyoto Machida decided to change his name to Benavidez. That sort of counter-striking just isn't something I'd have expected from the wrestler-brawlers of Team Alpha Male. But that's just the type of technique that Joseph Benavidez is capable of now, all thanks to his newfound understanding of balance and positioning.
Every fighter misses punches and overextends in the act, but an intelligent fighter has a plan for just such an instance. Instead of walking forward into punches and getting caught out of position after missing them as he did against Johnson before, now Benavidez reacts well. When his strike misses, he maintains his stance, and defends. If the defense creates an opportunity to counter, he will take it. If not, he will move out of range to try again. Hell, in the fourth frame above, he even pivots as he rolls under McCall's left hook, looking to move back on a different angle from the one on which he had attacked.
What Benavidez's new training has afforded him is the best thing any fighter can ask for: flexibility. Once a one-dimensional power puncher on the feet, Benavidez is now a well-rounded kickboxing machine. He can counter-strike fairly well, and he can fight aggressively better than ever before.
This fight is one of those intriguing matchs that seems almost like a chess match between trainers. Two of my favorite coaches in MMA - Matt Hume and Duane Ludwig - stand to face off tonight, using the two best flyweights in the world as their weapons. No matter who comes out the victor, it is the fans who really win in this kind of match. Chess matches like these are the reason I study martial arts, and this is one contest I simply can't wait to see.