It’s a common sentiment that of all the forms of sports entertainment that we consume, MMA cares the least about fairy tales.
In Saturday’s UFC Fight Island 2 main event, there was certainly only room for one as Joseph Benavidez, ever the championship bridesmaid, saw a compelling 14-year career arc crash headfirst into the Brazilian bulldozer that is Deiveson Figueiredo. “Deus da Guerra” left no doubt that he is the top dog in the UFC at 125 pounds as he dropped Benavidez multiple times before choking him into unconsciousness.
Were this a boxing match, the third knockdown would have ended things for the outclassed Benavidez. But in the world of MMA, his dream of finally becoming a UFC champion continued to cruelly crumble before our very eyes, long after it became abundantly clear that Figueiredo was the superior fighter.
The image of Benavidez’s eyes rolling back as he refused to tap out will likely be the lasting one from this fight, even more so than an emotional Figueiredo having a belt wrapped around his waist. That’s fair given Benavidez’s history, but on the other side of the narrative is a new champion with an inspirational tale of his own.
Figueiredo’s championship run was anything but fait accompli. Like many athletes, Figueiredo grew up in poverty, spending more time taming buffaloes alongside his three brothers on their farm on Marajo Island than training to be a future sports star. He did prove to have an aptitude when fighting found him, running through his first 11 opponents to earn a UFC contract. On the big stage, he shined even brighter, going 4-0 to start his UFC career including a TKO of one-time title challenger John Moraga.
Even putting aside his humble beginnings, the last stretch of Figueiredo’s ascent was rife with drama, some of his own making. He missed weight for his first fight with Benavidez in February, rendering him ineligible to win the title regardless of what happened in the cage, then saw his stunning finish of Benavidez come into question due to a clash of heads that occurred right before he put Benavidez away.
Fortunately, Dana White and the matchmakers did the only reasonable thing, booking an immediate rematch and finding a home for it amid the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, there was more trouble headed Figueiredo’s way.
This past weekend, it was reported that Figueiredo tested positive for COVID-19, news that appeared to doom his chances of meeting Benavidez on Fight Island. But the bout was never officially called off, and Figueiredo’s team insisted that he would undergo further testing to keep him in the fight. Sure enough, it was later discovered that Figueiredo tested positive for antibodies and not the active virus, having contracted it two months ago, which meant he was cleared to fly to Abu Dhabi.
After arriving, there was still the matter of passing more tests and making 125 pounds on the dot during a fight week that has become anything but normal for the UFC’s athletes. Figueiredo did it. Then, facing one of the greatest fighters to never win a title, he ran through Benavidez to ensure that the veteran would keep that status.
Figueiredo was in tears afterward, and against almost anyone else, it’s his journey that would leave the most lasting impression. Bull tamer. Sushi chef. Hairdresser. UFC champion.
Instead, it’s impossible to look at his triumph without also mentioning Benavidez’s professional tragedy. Four times, Benavidez was granted an opportunity at UFC gold. His first shot, against Demetrious Johnson, ended in a close split call, with Johnson getting the nod and propelling himself towards a historic championship reign. When Benavidez later challenged Johnson for the title, it ended in a way no one could have predicted when Johnson flattened Benavidez with a KO punch barely two minutes into the fight. It was the first knockout loss of Benavidez’s career and only one of five that Johnson currently has on his 34-fight resume.
Keep in mind that Benavidez was a star at 135 pounds in WEC, too, his bid for a title was foiled by Dominick Cruz. Another split nod didn’t go Benavidez’s way. He has been entrenched at the top of the flyweight and bantamweight rankings for over a decade.
It took Benavidez six years to earn another UFC title shot after his second clash with “Mighty Mouse,” and it only happened after Johnson and Henry Cejudo were out of the picture. Even with those rivals gone, Benavidez found Figueiredo waiting for him at the top of the mountain, ready to push the proverbial rock all the way back to the bottom.
That’s what happens fairy tales collide. There aren’t enough happy endings to go around, though Benavidez has seen plenty of glory. Should he retire with a win as he plans to do, he’ll have only lost to the elite of the elite (and, oddly, Sergio Pettis). If you want to label him as a gatekeeper, he’s a gatekeeper who shut the door for a number of notable peers, and let’s not forget that he was the last man to beat Cejudo. There’s still time for him to write a satisfying epilogue.
For now, he’s the most significant chapter in Figueiredo’s growing legend, one that could hold its own special place in the annals of MMA when it’s all said and done.
One dream thrives. Another dies. And eventually another hungry, gifted fighter will rise to the top to continue the cycle.