When MMA fighters put it all on the line inside the cage, the experience is not just physically grueling, but mentally taxing as well. Finding a way to engage opponents in battle and not make it personal often seems easier said than done.
When reigning Flyweight Champion Demetrious Johnson and challenger Joseph Benavidez collide at The Ultimate Fighter season 18 finale in Las Vegas, the two will again test their skills and as well as their friendship.
Both Johnson and Benavidez spoke with Las Vegas MMA media at a gathering to promote their upcoming war scheduled for the Mandalay Bay Events Center on November 30.
Back at UFC 152 in September 2012, when Benavidez first battled Johnson for the strap, he had his eyes, heart and mind set on becoming the UFC Flyweight Champion. With complete focus on achieving his lifetime goal of wearing the belt, Benavidez admitted that perhaps he went into the title fight overly invested in the end result.
“That wasn’t that fun for me,” said Benavidez. “I was just like ‘Oh my God, hurry up. I wanna just do this.’ And I’ve never felt like that. It’s always fun for me, like I can’t wait to get in there and have a good time.
“So it’s just something I don’t want to do again. I realize you can’t control the result of like being the champion. You could put a f***** picture on your mantle. You can say ‘I’m meant to do this’, but that doesn’t mean s*** at the end of the day. Like oh ‘that’s my destiny’. Destiny doesn’t mean s***, you gotta go out and get it.”
The 29-year-old Team Alpha Male standout has persevered since losing to Johnson, notching three straight wins to earn a rematch with him. His recent wins include stoppages of Darren Uyenoyama at UFC on FOX 7 and Jussier Formiga at UFC Fight Night 27. He finished both men with strikes.
Meanwhile, “Mighty Mouse” has defended the title twice since defeating Benavidez. The 27-year-old champion first saw a unanimous decision in his favor over John Dodson. He followed up that performance with the first finish of his UFC career when he submitted John Moraga with an armbar in the fifth round.
While Benavidez clearly had more riding on their last fight emotionally, Demetrious views the much anticipated rematch as merely another day at the office.
“For me, just because I’m fighting Joseph Benavidez, I could be fighting John Dodson. John Dodson could be sitting right here and I would absolutely be motivated because for me it’s just about staying focused, and being better, and seeing what I can do,” Johnson said. “Just because I beat Joseph Benavidez, that doesn’t mean anything. That was in the past. That was a fight and you know, whether the belt’s on the line, whether this was a three round fight, I’d still be motivated, even if it’s 3 rounds. It doesn’t matter to me. This is my career. This is what I do to provide for my family and when I perform, I see benefits for my family.”
In fact, Benavidez was taken aback at how calm, cool and collected Johnson was leading up to their last bout. All Benavidez could concentrate on was getting his hand raised, while Demetrious appeared more nonchalant about the scrap.
“It was like so big, I was like obsessing over it. So that was something I didn’t want to do again and just trying to think of it as just another fight, whether it’s a title or not,” said Benavidez of the rematch. “I felt that’s how he was thinking of it, even in the first title fight and I couldn’t believe it. I was like ‘it doesn’t even mean anything to this guy? Like this is everything to me!’”
Though both men are beyond cordial with each other as they once attended a Coldplay concert together prior to their first fight and were seen joking and laughing with each other during the media gathering, the friendship will be put aside when they square off in the main event at the TUF 18 Finale.
Ultimately, both men believe they have made large strides in their skill sets since they last met inside the Octagon. For Benavidez, having Duane “Bang” Ludwig mapping out the gameplans for his past three fights has made all the difference.
“I feel like a whole new fighter, a whole new person,” Benavidez stated. “I feel like I was giving a second life at flyweight. You know, after I had so many expectations there and that didn’t happen, Duane coming in was like a whole new life for us at Team Alpha Male, for me especially. I was so starving just to get better and to get a new coach and to get some instruction. Anything would have been better, but the fact that it was Duane and what he brings in, his energy and how hard he works and how much he cares has just been awesome.”
Under the tutelage of Matt Hume at American Martial Arts Center in Kirkland, Washington, Johnson also feels that he made tremendous progress from fight to fight with his abilities. Securing his first submission win in the UFC in his last fight was a result of what he’s put into his training. More often than not, Hume analyzes Johnson’s past fights, finds the mistakes he made and works him over to perfect his craft.
“I still feel as I get more into my career as a fighter, I still like to think of myself as a puppy in fighting in the big show,” Demetrious said of wanting to learn as much as he can ahead of each opponent.
The flyweight championship rematch will headline The Ultimate Fighter season 18 finale at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas on November 30.
Tickets for The Ultimate Fighter® Finale are on sale now and are priced at $175, $125, $75 and $50. To purchase tickets or for more information, visit the Mandalay Bay Events Center box office, all Ticketmaster locations, www.ticketmaster.com, or charge-by-phone at 800.745.3000.