With little fanfare and few watching, one of the world's best fighters competed on Sunday night. Facing a game opponent, he showed an advancing striking game that saw him decisively out-land one of the division's biggest and best punchers. He bloodied and bruised his foe's face, overcoming the reach disadvantage that is common in all his fights, and won a clear-cut unanimous decision.
And then he walked away in near-anonymity, the win his only consolation.
The fighter in question is Joseph Benavidez, the consensus No. 2 bantamweight fighter in the world. Despite his high ranking, for the second straight time, Benavidez was relegated to the undercard of a major event.
The reason for it isn't any contractual problems or politics. Benavidez is simply stuck in a numbers game.
The most important number in this is "2," the number of losses in his career. Though he's won 15 times, the two defeats loom as the far more important detail, because both of those losses came to the same man, Dominick Cruz, who happens to be the division champion, and the only man ahead of him in the rankings.
Of course, Benavidez would like a third shot at Cruz, but in the promotional landscape, it's a hard sell, if not downright impossible. Even if you accept Benavidez as the No. 2 fighter in the division -- most do -- you can't erase the fact that he's already had two chances to beat Cruz, and failed both times. What, the critics ask, would a third time change?
From the UFC’s point of view, they have to emphasize the promotional side, even if sometimes comes at a cost of burying one of the best. If they can't sell a fight, they won't make a fight, and they can’t sell Benavidez-Cruz III. Not right now, anyway, not even if the last bout between them was a close split-decision.
The second number is "125."
Benavidez is just 5-foot-4, and believe it or not, he is considered small even in the UFC’s smallest weight class. But given the financial dynamics of MMA, it is the only option for him right now. The UFC has explored the addition of a 125-pound flyweight division for nearly two years now, and earlier this summer, UFC president Dana White said he expected it to be officially added by the start of 2012.
When that day comes, Benavidez is a lock to move down a division and immediately earn title consideration. Until then, he’s just a little guy who’s managed to beat up some bigger ones, just not the biggest.
Most fighters will tell you that they don't necessarily care where their fight takes place on a card, just that it does. But there is a certain level of prestige that comes with fighting on a main card and being one of the night's featured bouts. It's a designation that Benavidez has earned. He essentially said as much prior to the event, when he told NBC Sports that “it’s hard not being there on the main card, especially when I think I deserve that.”
It also can’t be easy to look up and see other bantamweights on main cards when he thinks he should be there.
But as long as the UFC’s existed, there’s only been one sure way to ensure yourself as a lock on the main card, and that’s by holding a championship. Benavidez had two chances at the current No. 1 guy, and now he’s going to have to wait for the numbers to roll his way. He may be No. 2 in the world in his weight class, but it’s a long way to the top. Until then, he will probably continue to work his craft in near-secret, the best fighter that’s rarely heard and seldom seen.
UFC President Dana White (above) embarrassed after Gray Maynard beat Clay Guida by split decision to win a lightweight bout and the main event of the UFC card in Atlantic City.
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