With his win over Jussier Formiga on Saturday in Minneapolis, Minn., Joseph Benavidez joins Tony Ferguson on the list of UFC stars who are way overdue for a championship match.
But with Henry Cejudo being out of action after shoulder surgery, and being a two-division champion, that title shot isn’t coming any time soon.
Benavidez (28-5) has a 15-3 record in UFC competition. That record is a lot more impressive when you consider most of those opponents were considered top ten in the world when Benavidez faced them. When it comes to the greatest fighter in UFC history who has never been a champion, Benavidez longevity at the top has to put him near the top of the short list that would include Ferguson, Donald Cerrone and Urijah Faber.
Cerrone is the company’s all-time winningest fighter, but he’s had enough losses sprinkled throughout his career and has had his fair share of opportunities. He’s made himself into a major star, but his never being champion is based on when he lost at key times. Faber, Benavidez’s longtime teammate, also had countless opportunities at the title, even though he was constantly ranked as the top contender for years and had the unique record for so long of never having lost a non-championship match, while never winning a championship bout. Ferguson hasn’t been at the top of the rankings as long as Benavidez, but he’s had a ridiculously long winning streak to have never had a shot at the real championship.
For Benavidez, he’s probably been the No. 2 or No. 3 flyweight in the world constantly since the UFC opened up the division in 2012. That’s an amazing longevity record and given flyweight is a speed division and Benavidez is coming up on his 35th birthday, time is of the essence.
Really, the story of Benavidez’s career drought can be traced to one person and one fight, his December 14, 2013, loss to Demetrious Johnson via knockout in the first round in a flyweight title bout. Benavidez had previously lost a split decision to Johnson in the finals of the tournament to create the first champion.
With two losses to Johnson, Benavidez was in a worst-case scenario as long as Johnson was champion. Then Johnson went out and set a record for most title defenses and had one of the longest title reigns in UFC history Benavidez was the legitimate top contender for most of the Johnson title run, but from 2013 on, never got a championship fight. Benavidez kept turning back top ranked challengers, including a win over Henry Cejudo on December 3, 2016, in a bout that seemed to clearly establish him as the No. 1 contender. But UFC still wouldn’t make the fight.
Then Cejudo beat Demetrious Johnson, and Johnson left the UFC. Benavidez also stumbled, losing a split decision in a close fight with Sergio Pettis. But Pettis then lost to Formiga and moved up to bantamweight.
So Saturday’s fight was a clear No. 1 contenders bout in a division depleted by UFC first deciding to drop the division and cutting much of the roster, and then reversing the field and deciding to go on with a depleted 125 roster.
Now that Johnson’s gone, two more obstacles are getting in Benavidez’s way. The first is that Cejudo moved up to 135 and beat Marlon Moraes to capture that championship that T.J. Dillashaw had vacated after a positive drug test. So Cejudo has two belts to defend, and no time to defend either since he underwent shoulder surgery and won’t be fighting until early 2020 most likely.
When Cejudo comes back, there will be bantamweight contenders waiting for their shot along with Benavidez. Bantamweight is clearly more of a priority in UFC’s eyes then flyweight, where the company has cut so many of the top fighters when the idea was to drop the division that they don’t even have enough fighters to make up a top 15.
And who knows how the bantamweight landscape will look in early 2020 and what title UFC will want Cejudo defending first.
Let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five stars of Saturday’s show.
FRANCIS NGANNOU – Ngannou (13-3) finished former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos (21-6) in just 71 seconds to firmly put him as the top contender for the championship.
Daniel Cormier (22-1) defends on Aug. 17 in Anaheim, Calif. against Stipe Miocic (18-3). Miocic handed Ngannou a one-sided decision loss on January 20, 2018. But consecutive wins over Cain Velasquez and Dos Santos makes him clearly the next person in line.
But it’s not that simple. If Miocic wins, Miocic vs. Ngannou should be the first defense by the new champion. If Cormier wins and decides to continue, Ngannou should get that fight as well. But Cormier also could win and retire. Then things become more complicated.
In that scenario, Miocic would have two consecutive losses. Dos Santos would be coming off a quick knockout loss to Ngannou. Alistair Overeem has two straight wins, but Ngannou also knocked him out. So if Cormier wins and then retires, Miocic, just because Ngannou has never beaten him, would seem to be Ngannou’s most logical opponent to fill the title vacancy.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS – For Dos Santos (21-6), the loss came at an inopportune time because he would be getting the next title shot. In a heavyweight division where most of the fighters have battled each other, a new opponent for Dos Santos would be Alexander Volkov (30-7).
JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ – Obviously Benavidez should face Cejudo next. But he may have to sit out a long time waiting for it. People complain about interim titles and they are often a joke that even UFC doesn’t take seriously, hence interim champions being forgotten if they see a more attractive title fight not involving the titleholder. Ferguson and Colby Covington won interim titles and still haven’t seen a shot at the real title.
Once Cejudo was hurt, Benavidez vs. Formiga should have been made an interim title fight. But it came late in the game and there was already a main event for Minneapolis with Ngannou vs. Dos Santos. Cejudo and Formiga were training for a three-round fight. Given Cejudo won the flyweight title in August and his only title defense was not against someone even in the division, we’re talking early 2020, if not mid-2020 where a true flyweight will get a title crack. Any time a wait is going to surpass one year, creating an interim title makes sense.
If that’s the case, Benavidez shouild face the winner of the July 27 fight with Alexandre Pantoja (21-3) and Deiveson Fugueiredo (15-1).
DEMIAN MAIA – Maia, the grappler extraordinaire (26-9) with amazing longevity, is now the second winningest fighter in UFC history. His win over Anthony Rocco Martin (16-5) was his 21st, two behind Cerrone. The win moves him ahead of retired Georges St-Pierre and Michael Bisping at 20. Given their respective ages, people like Jon Jones (18 wins at 31), Rafael dos Anjos (18 wins at 34), Dustin Poirier (17 wins at 30) and Max Holloway (16 wins at 27) are the heir apparent for such records.
Maia could next face the winner of the July 20 fight with dos Anjos (29-11) vs Leon Edwards (16-3).
ALONZO MENIFIELD – Menifield has to be taken seriously at this point. He’s got a 9-0 record, with every fight ending via stoppage, seven in the first round, and none going past the 32 second mark of round two. He looked like the real deal against Paul Craig (11-3) with aggressive punches ending the fight at 3:19 of round one.
A good next test would be another impressive winner on Saturday’s show, Eryk Anders (11-4). Another opponent you could look at for him would be Johnny Walker (17-3), but it looks too early to make that fight. But if Menifield continues to put down opponents the way he has, and Walker does the same, that could eventually be a major light heavyweight fight.