Rarely does mixed martial arts organize itself well enough to ever be able to feature the top two contenders of any division in the same bout. More often than not, any given title eliminator in such a constantly chaotic sport pits the No 1-ranked contender with the division’s No. 4 or 5 fighter.
No. 1 and No. 2 typically fight parallel of each other, but rarely cross paths in time to bring the world the undisputed top-ranked fighter to face the champion. Not quite as satisfying or logical as the rankings would have you believe, sometimes the weight class’ No. 3-ranked fighter is, in fact, the No. 1 contender.
Joseph Benavidez and Henry Cejudo are bringing some reason to the sport, though. Ranked first and second, Benavidez and Cejudo, respectively, take a share of the spotlight in Saturday’s co-main event at The Ultimate Fighter 24 Finale to likely determine the next challenger for the throne at 125 pounds.
Undoubtedly the best fighter not wearing gold at flyweight, Benavidez finds himself in the midst of a five-fight winning streak in 2016. The 32-year-old San Antonio native has successfully seen his hand raised after contests opposite the division’s Nos. 10, 9, 8 and 7 fighters since November 2014. While not part of the quintet of victories during that run, Benavidez also has wins over the No. 4 and 5 fighters in the division. A victory Saturday gives him a W over 70 percent of the fighters in the top 10, with only Kyoji Horiguchi and Wilson Reis left in Benavidez’s dominant conquest at 125 pounds.
While Cejudo hasn’t accomplished quite as much as his opponent, he’s still done enough to warrant high placement in this division. A former Olympic gold medalist in freestyle wrestling with quality boxing skills to boot, “The Messenger” has a win over the division’s No. 4-ranked contender.
Problem for both fighters, however, is who they’ve lost to at 125 pounds. A combined 13-3 at flyweight, all three of those losses have come against champion Demetrious Johnson.
An unstoppable force in a 125-pound frame, “Mighty Mouse” may very be the most dominant champion the UFC has today. Perhaps the most dominant champion the UFC’s ever had at any point in time. Undisputed as the No. 1 active pound-for-pound fighter in the world today, Johnson has yet to taste defeat in 11 tries as a flyweight. Save for a majority draw against Ian McCall in his first trip to flyweight, not a single one of “Mighty Mouse’s” contests have been remotely close since.
Especially so, that includes his two most recent victories over Cejudo and Benavidez.
It took him less than three minutes to become the first man to defeat Cejudo, landing a vicious knee to the body that sent the former Olympian down like a lawn chair. Expected to dominate in the clinch positions thanks to his wrestling pedigree, Cejudo was crushed at his own game.
It took him just over two minutes to cement his dominance over Benavidez for a second time, landing a right hook square on the challenger’s face. With his legs no longer underneath him, Benavidez was knocked out for the first time in his professional career. Ironically enough, this was the position Benavidez and his coaches were most comfortable with, too. With only two KO victories to his name prior to their rematch, Johnson’s knockout ability was largely in question, leaving Benavidez confident on the feet.
Two vicious losses to the champ and yet here both men are, fighting for another shot at the crown.
It’s as troubled a division as the UFC has to offer, all thanks to champion who seems capable of doing it all. He’s given the UFC no choice but to try to revarnish old challengers in hopes of providing, at the very least, a more competitive contest than the last. But even if Johnson’s challengers show strides in between rematches, he shows strides plus one. Far ahead of his time a masterful striker, wrestler, grappler and everything else in between, Johnson has relegated Saturday night’s co-main event as a title eliminator with empty hopes.