- Brett Okamoto, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Prior to the inaugural flyweight championship bout at UFC 152 in Toronto in September 2012, Joseph Benavidez obviously envisioned himself winning -- but his imagination didn’t stop there.
In his hotel room the night before, he showed off the suit and tie he would wear, as champion, to the postfight news conference. He had arranged to meet his family at the Sacramento airport the day after the fight where he would deplane, of course, with the belt on his waist. Local camera crews were expected.
It’s not that he lacked respect for his opponent in that fight, Demetrious Johnson. He had just dreamed of those scenes for so long -- they felt like they were already real.
For years he’d waited to compete not only in the UFC, but also at his ideal weight of 125 pounds. He’d hung a photo of the belt on his mantel to save a spot for the real thing. Everything had finally come together in September. It was his time.
Those were Benavidez’s expectations. Reality did not accommodate. Benavidez and his camp admit he fought, perhaps due to the pressure he put on himself, a little stiff. He dropped a split decision to Johnson in a performance he’s watched only once since and won’t watch again any time soon.
“It was really hard coming to the realization of that fight and that opportunity I had waited so long for was gone and it didn’t happen like I wanted it to,” Benavidez told ESPN.com.
“Even coming back from Canada, I had my two brothers who I haven’t seen in five years and my mom meeting me at the airport. We had the worst luck on my flight back. We got stuck in San Francisco where we had to rent a car and drive back. We didn’t have any of our bags. So, we’re sitting in a rental car, in traffic; I’m heartbroken. It was like, ‘Wow, this isn’t how I pictured it.’ ”
Johnson and Benavidez are two different fighters in the cage. The week of UFC 152, it was clear they were operating in very different ways outside of it as well.
The eventual champ, Johnson, appeared calm during the week -- loose. Benavidez cracked a joke here and there, but he and his camp admit he was different leading up to the fight.
Basically, it seemed like one guy was enjoying himself. The other couldn’t.
“He was tense,” said Jimmy Gifford, Benavidez’s boxing coach. “He had been tweeting ‘flyweight champion, 2012,’ all year; it meant everything to him.
“I wasn’t worried about him before the fight, but I knew he was a little different. Fight week, he wasn’t himself. He was just a mean kid, rather than the fun, outgoing Joe. He had a scowl on his face.”
The story is a bit of a downer, and gets downright depressing when you read the poem Benavidez penned in the days following the loss. In it, he wrote phrases described himself as "dead inside," and added, “To feel self worth, that’s all you crave.”
There is room for a happy ending, though. When the rental car finally got him to the Sacramento airport, it turned out his family, girlfriend and teammates still loved him despite the loss. It’s given him a new outlook on any future title fight and his upcoming bout against Ian McCall at UFC 156 this weekend in Las Vegas. Never again will he treat a contest as though it’s life and death.
“Once I saw my family, it made me realize that I’m still lucky,” Benavidez said. “That was a big learning experience. Not just [Demetrious] hit me with this punch -- that basic stuff. I learned things in general.
“I’m one of two people in the world who fought for the inaugural title. I’m in a small percentage of people that get to do what they love to do for a living. I’m lucky.”
Benavidez says he’s in no rush to get back to the title, although a win over McCall might solidify his spot as the No. 1 contender, despite his loss to Johnson was just four months ago.
Actually, if given the option, he might even prefer getting at least two fights in before taking another shot at the belt, but he’ll leave that decision to the UFC. Right now, he’s focused on improving and reminding himself to enjoy it. If he does that, there’s still hope everything he had imagined would happen in September isn’t dead yet.
“Talent-wise, he’s right there at the top,” Gifford said. “All the everyday things I see him do -- I know he’s the best. I said to him in the gym the other day after his workout, ‘You were only off by one year, bro. You said 2012, you’ll get the belt in 2013.' ”
9hAndrew R. Davis for ESPN Stats & Information
23dAndrew R. Davis