Walking onto enemy territory with the UFC Flyweight title Saturday night, Demetrious Johnson is a slight favorite to beat the hometown hero Joseph Benavidez. That doesn’t mean 10,000-plus fans at Sacramento’s Arco Arena on Saturday night will be rooting for him. The only thing they’ll be rooting for is his demise. And it will air on Fox broadcast network affiliates across the United States. No biggie.
So far, no one has been able to figure out how to solve the puzzle. DJ’s the best point-fighter who doesn’t finish anyone… until he submitted John Moraga. He’s a guy who can be tagged with powerful punches but never stops coming forward. His gas tank never seems to go on empty. And he trains with one of the smartest coaches in MMA, Matt Hume.
“This has been the longest training camp I’ve ever had for a fight,” Johnson recently told Frank Trigg in an interview. How long? Try three-plus months long. DJ trained with two excellent sparring partners in Bibiano Fernandes & Tim Boetsch. Talk about mixing up the styles. He even had to take a pass on getting drunk at Oktoberfest in order to help train Fernandes for his fight.
The sacrifices fighters make.
Johnson not faces a hostile crowd in Sacramento, he faces a fight in Joe Benavidez who is pissed about losing a split decision in the inaugural Flyweight title match at UFC’s Toronto event 15 months ago. Depending on which interviewer he talks to, Benavidez has gone from claiming he didn’t obsess watching tape of the first bouts and plans on treating this fight as just another encounter… to claiming that he’s obsessed about getting his revenge. It’s go time.
DJ, who is as intelligent of a speaker as you will find in the UFC, has largely kept his head down and focused on the task at hand while not letting the moment get too big.
“For me, mentally, I never think about the fights. I tell people all the time, like if you walk in my house, you won’t see one thing about fighting. You won’t see posters, not my belt, no gloves, nothing. All you’ll see is family pictures.”
Hume doesn’t want the champion to be obsessed with holding the belt.
“Being a UFC champion is a small token of being a great Mixed Martial Artist.”
In fighting Benavidez, Johnson is facing a great wrestler who has power and technique. He has speed, too, although nobody is as fast as Johnson at Flyweight.
“[Bernavidez] has an unorthodox style. He throws punches at weird angles that catches people in the back of the head. … John Moraga & John Dodson, they throw straighter punches. They all have good wrestling. He also has that ability to mix it up and switch from southpaw to orthodox at will like I can and Joseph’s a great fighter.
“He has a guillotine choke. He has been knocking people out, which is very good. But I still think that guillotine choke from Team Alpha Male is his [most] dangerous submission.”
The big difference maker being touted from their first encounter to Saturday’s bout is the presence of Duane Ludwig as Benavidez’s new coach at Team Alpha Male. Johnson took a mild shot at Benavidez for sticking around Alpha Male when they didn’t have a coach as a leader and now finding out the benefits of what a mind like Ludwig can do in setting up a game plan.
“Just being able to connect everything together [is the difference now]. They didn’t have a coach or anything in the past. Sometimes you got to look at it, you know, it’s not their fault they didn’t have a coach. It’s his fault that he stayed there when there wasn’t a coach. Not that it’s a bad thing, you know, like I’ve trained at a gym where we wouldn’t have any coaches. … I needed to be with Matt full-time and I drive 45 minutes every day to be with Matt, so… That’s the difference I see.”
If Benavidez is going to win on Saturday night, he’s going to have to get a finish if he wants to avoid losing again on the score cards – even if the judges selected are on home turf. DJ has had two decision losses in his entire career: one to Dominick Cruz and one to Brad Pickett. Will Johnson be able to take advantage of a likely adrenaline dump for Benavidez, who will be feeling the pressure of not only fighting for the belt but also fighting to become a legend in his hometown?
Hostile environments can either make or break you as a champion. This is a defining moment for the UFC Flyweight division. If Joseph Benavidez wins the Flyweight title, we will almost surely get a trilogy match. Demetrious Johnson has a chance on Saturday night to permanently put a stamp on the Flyweight division as his division and his alone. Betting against him has proven to be a fool’s errand.