Joseph Benavidez earned the key to the city in his home town of Las Cruces, N.M., after beating former champion Miguel Angel Torres last time out.
Now the 135-pounder looks to add the WEC bantamweight title to his trophy case when he takes on current champion Dominick Cruz (15-1) on Wednesday in Las Vegas (The Score, 9 p.m. ET).
Just five foot four, Benavidez (12-1) is a small but prickly package. While some already had no doubt of his skills, the win over Torres in March helped convince a lot of others. Benavidez spoiled Torres’ comeback after an upset loss to Brian Bowles ended the then-champ’s 17-fight win streak.
“Everyone wants respect from your peers and from fans,” said Benavidez. “No better way to do it than beat Miguel Torres.
“That was kind of a motivating factor. Miguel Torres has it all. I felt like a lot of people were thinking ’Oh Miguel Torres’ comeback’ and I was just kind of the guy that he was doing it against. … Just to know all the stuff that that guy has. You beat him and all that respect becomes yours. So that definitely helped me train more.
“So that was a turning point in my career. After that, I never got a better reception from fans and fighters.”
The five-foot-eight Cruz is the only man to have beaten Benavidez, earning a unanimous decision in an August 2009 bout that earned fight of the night honours.
“He beat me so I kind of know where I have to go in there and improve in,” reasoned Benavidez. “Where he’s kind of thinking he’s going to fight the same fighter. So I think I have an advantage in that.”
Still, Benavidez rates Cruz as “the best fighter in the world.”
“He’s the only guy I’ve lost to and he’s been on a tear in the bantamweight division. He’s No. 1 in the world for a reason … But I also believe I’m the best guy in the world. And it’s going to be a clash, it’s going to be an amazing fight.”
Cruz used takedowns to control Benavidez, who believes he has upgraded his game since.
“You’re going to see an improved and determined and hungry Joseph Benavidez.”
Cruz, predictably, see its differently.
“To be honest, I did everything right the first time that I could,” the champion said. “I’ve improved since then. He’s improved since then. But I was better than him at that point, and I believe I’m better than him at this point still.”
Cruz injured his hand in March in taking the title from Bowles, who could not answer the bell for the third round because of a hand injury of his own. Cruz, however, says his hand is now 100 per cent.
After beating Torres, Benavidez was honoured in his New Mexico home town, which proclaimed April 27 as Joseph Benavidez Day in Las Cruces. He also got the key to the city.
“Cruces is like my town, where I grew up, where my heart is … All the teachers and coaches and people who have really influenced my life are from there,” said Benavidez. “So to go there and get that honour in front of all these people and my family, it was unbelievable.”
Benavidez, 26, wasted little time after the Torres win. He was back in the gym in his adopted home town of Sacramento, helping former featherweight champion Urijah (The California Kid) Faber prepare for his bout with Jose Aldo.
The lopsided Torres victory turned heads. Even Benavidez says it took a few days to sink in, although he went into the fight convinced he could win.
“I felt like I matched up with him well,” he said. “I never felt more confident and prepared.”
Benavidez, who was giving up five inches in height and 11 inches in reach, put Torres down with a right to the head and then took him down later in the first round. The smaller, quicker man took Torres down again in the second, cutting him open with an elbow and then locking in a guillotine choke.
The swagger may be more pronounced in the wake of that win but Benavidez retains his class.
“It’s such an honour to fight him,” he said of the Torres bout. “He’s basically a legend and he’s done so much for the sport and the weight class.”
Cruz says he was impressed by Benavidez’s hunger and drive in the Torres fight, although he believes Torres “was still a little bit shook” from the Bowles loss.
Wednesday is Benavidez’s dream fight, offering a chance to avenge the lone blemish on his record and win the world title.
It’s what drives him on when he has trouble getting out of bed or maintaining a hard practice session.
It’s also what prompted him to leave Las Cruces and drive 20 hours to learn from Faber. He started training and working at Faber’s gym “basically as a janitor and doing front desk stuff.”
The lone loss on Cruz’s record is Faber, a 2007 featherweight defeat that prompted him to drop down to bantamweight. He has since won five straight in the WEC.
Cruz, 25, used his speed and counter-punching to befuddle Bowles in March.
“That’s what Dominick Cruz does. He wins decisions and he has that down to a science. He’s great at it,” said Benavidez, who calls the champion a “jigsaw puzzle.”
“He hits and he runs. He’s hard to hit, also. And he times his wrestling perfectly. He has really good takedowns. But once again it’s to score points, he doesn’t go for a submission or too much damage on the ground. He does it at the end of the round to score points.”
“Even though it’s the same thing, it’s really hard to figure out still,” he added. “No one in MMA fights like he does. Nobody. It’s an awkward style.”
Benavidez, a whirling dervish in the cage, acknowledges that last time against Cruz, he just went in ready to wing it.
“The last time I was there, I didn’t prepare for his style at all,” he said.
Said Cruz: “I think last time he kind of underestimated a lot of things about me.”
It’s not a mistake Benavidez was willing to make twice.
“That fight was huge for me. I’m a totally different fighter since I fought then.”
Benavidez says he knew going into the Cruz fight that he perhaps needed to be more cerebral in how he approached opponents. But he had never lost, so why change?
“My philosophy back then was just I was going to be more athletic and have better instincts than the guy across from me,” he said. “Be faster.
“When I ran into Cruz, I went against a guy who was a little bigger in size. And just as athletic. And he also had a plan.”
Benavidez may be better known after the Torres win but he says he has not changed outside the cage. He still shops at Goodwill — “and I’ve been doing that since high school.”
“I might just buy more stuff than I usually would,” he said.