Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. That has been the story of Joseph Benavidez’s career, despite his status as arguably the second-greatest flyweight of all time and a world-class bantamweight before he made the move down to 125 pounds at the division’s UFC inception. That could all change this weekend when the man known on social media as “JoeJitsu” takes on Brazilian finisher Deiveson Figueiredo for the belt recently vacated by the “King of Cringe” Henry Cejudo. The fight headlines UFC on ESPN+ 27.
Benavidez has had a shot at the bantamweight strap in the WEC and two cracks at the UFC flyweight title. In his first title fight appearance, he came up short in a split decision against Dominick Cruz, just as he did in the inaugural title fight in the UFC’s flyweight division against Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. The rematch with Johnson was much more definitive, with Benavidez suffering the only stoppage loss of his career when he was knocked out just two minutes into the first round.
Figueiredo is coming off back-to-back wins after suffering his first professional loss less than a year ago when he dropped a unanimous decision to Jussier “Formiga” da Silva. The Brazilian sports a 17-1 overall record, with 14 wins coming before the final bell. Figueiredo has eight wins by knockout and six by submission, proving that he is a threat to Benavidez in all aspects of the fight game. For roughly two years now, Figueiredo has been training at Team Alpha Male, the gym Benavidez called home for the majority of his career before leaving under much more amicable circumstances than T.J. Dillashaw.
The evening’s co-headliner is a match-up in the fledgling women’s featherweight division between Felicia Spencer and Zarah Fairn. Spencer went into her last bout as an undefeated rising star facing stiff odds against perennial juggernaut Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. Despite coming out on the wrong side of a clear unanimous decision, Spencer showed she had the technical prowess to evolve into a standout talent even among the best in the world. She also showed the kind of intangible toughness that it takes to not only be a champion but a fan-favorite for years to come. Fairn is coming off a loss in her UFC debut that snapped a three-fight winning streak. A win over Spencer in a high-profile bout would do wonders to bolster Fairn’s position in a division desperate for quality fighters to validate its continued existence inside the world’s largest MMA promotion.
Further down the main card is a light-heavyweight tilt between Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev. Cutelaba got off to a rocky start in the UFC, going 1-2 over his first three bouts before turning it around. He now sports a 3-1 mark over his last four contests. His most recent fight ended in a first-round TKO win over Khalil Rountree Jr. in Denmark in September. Ankalaev has won three straight fights since dropping his UFC debut, where he was submitted by Paul Craig in the final second of their St. Patrick’s Day 2018 fight.
The main card also features a women’s featherweight contest between Megan Anderson and Norma Dumont. A good performance by either or both of those women could parlay nicely with the co-main event to show both fans and UFC executives that the division is here to stay as the talent level rises and new contenders emerge.
UFC on ESPN+ 27 goes down inside Chartway Arena in Norfolk, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 29. The preliminary fights get underway at 5 p.m. ET, followed by the five-fight main card at 8 p.m. ET. The action can be seen in its entirety on the ESPN+ streaming platform. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action this week as they go Toe-to-Toe.
The vacant flyweight title is on the line in the evening’s main event. Will Joseph Benavidez finally claim the championship after playing second fiddle to Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, or does Deiveson Figueiredo spoil the longtime contender’s best chance at gold?
Kuhl: Honestly, I know what to expect from this weekend’s main event, but it seems like a trap bet.
If you purely compare records, it would be a serious upset if Benavidez didn’t walk away with the strap. Other than a split-decision loss to Sergio Pettis a year and a half ago, the only setbacks on Benavidez’s 33-fight pro record are the two in the WEC to former bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz and the two in title challenges against former UFC flyweight champ Mighty Mouse. That’s it. Take those away, and “Joey Two Times” has managed to clean out the entire WEC bantamweight division and the entire UFC flyweight division. He has knockout power, submission skills, and a very deep gas tank.
Figueiredo, on the other hand, came into the UFC a little less than three years ago with an 11-0 record, but only one of those wins was over a seemingly notable opponent. However, since joining the UFC, the Brazilian has picked up some nice wins over longtime veterans and also ended the undefeated streaks of Jarred Brooks and Joseph Morales. He did suffer a loss last March to Jussier “Formiga” da Silva, who Benavidez finished handily a few months later.
Benavidez has the skills, the experience, and the fire to finish Figueiredo and become the third UFC flyweight champ in history. I have him taking this one before the championship rounds. However…
Figueiredo is only three years younger than the 35-year-old Benavidez. He has a slight height and reach advantage, and, as a relative latecomer to the big show, he is playing a lot of catch-up. He’s heavy-handed with a solid wrestling game, and he has finished four of his seven UFC opponents in a very short time. Despite my pick, I wouldn’t be surprised if Figueiredo came out and pulled an Alex Volkanovski, upsetting the expectant champ.
Petela: Not only is this Benavidez’s best chance at winning a UFC championship, but it is most likely his last chance. Should he stumble against Figueiredo, he may not have enough time left in his career to work his way back to another title shot. Luckily for Benavidez, he will finally see his hand raised in a title fight, and he will do it emphatically.
Benavidez has long been one of the most well-rounded fighters in all of MMA. There isn’t a glaring hole in his game. He is at an elite level on his feet, on the mat, and in transitions. The best part of his game might be his ability to scramble and end up in an advantageous position, whether that means he winds up on top in half guard, back up to his feet in a clinch, or separating entirely and resetting back to his preferred striking range. It will be this ability to avoid the worst-case scenario and escape danger that is ultimately the difference for Benavidez. As a result, he will wear down Figueiredo before finishing the fight in the championship rounds with a late TKO.
This fight with Figueiredo will be no picnic for Benavidez, though. He certainly has heavy enough hands to close the show with one punch. However, the only person to finish Benavidez was Mighty Mouse in 2013. Figueiredo will have moments of success, but an ever-evolving Benavidez will be able to avoid getting hit with anything devastating long enough to implement his own game plan.
With a victory and the belt finally wrapped around his waist, Benavidez will erase his name from the list of the best fighters never to win a UFC championship and cement his legacy as an all-time great flyweight and the second-greatest fighter in the history of the division without question.
Two women’s featherweight battles loom large on this card. Which one of the competitors makes the most noise this weekend?
Petela: Felicia Spencer.
She’s 1-1 in the UFC with a win over Megan Anderson and a loss to Cyborg in the co-main event at UFC 240. Even in her loss, Spencer’s stock rose after she largely stood toe-to-toe with Cyborg for 15 minutes. Now, Spencer takes on Zarah “Infinite” Fairn in another co-main event and will capitalize on the opportunity by picking up a submission win.
Once she has her hand raised, Spencer needs to use her time on the microphone wisely and call out “champ-champ” Amanda Nunes. The last two fights for Nunes have been defenses of her bantamweight title, so she is due for a featherweight-title defense. The UFC currently does not have rankings for the women’s 145-pound division, but with the exit of Cyborg, who is now the featherweight champ in Bellator, a win makes Spencer the de facto top contender. Whether or not Spencer is ready for a fight with the champion is a question for another time, but a dominant win over Zairn and the right call-out should certainly earn Spencer the opportunity to take on the GOAT.
A win for Anderson against Norma Dumont, who only has four pro fights and is making her Octagon debut, is not exactly a career-defining moment. Even if she does win, Anderson still has the loss to Spencer to avenge.
Spencer has run through many high-level opponents already. She is one of only three ladies to go the distance with Cyborg. That is not an easy task. Fairn most recently lost to Anderson by submission in October, and Spencer submitted Anderson last May. That was Spencer’s fourth submission victory in seven pro wins.
Fairn will be facing her toughest opponent yet in Spencer, which sets the Canadian up to make big waves this weekend. Hopefully, a win for Spencer sets up that title fight against Nunes.
Kyler Phillips, Spike Carlyle, Aalon Cruz, T.J. Brown and Darrick Minner — do we need to know these names?
Kuhl: There are two guys on this list that hardcore MMA fans should have already at least heard of: Minner and Brown.
Minner is a 34-fight veteran who has been fighting a minimum of three to four times per year since 2012. Almost all of his fights have ended in a finish. He is one of the most exciting fighters to watch. His closest shot at the Octagon came when he faced Gilbert Burns’ little brother Herbert on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series last summer. He has fought veterans, newcomers, somebodies, nobodies, and everything in between. Minner has been chomping at the bit to get into the UFC for years, but he has had issues with losing the fights that mattered the most. Now, on a week’s notice, he faces fellow Midwesterner Grant Dawson. He finally has a chance to shine, and, win or lose, he will definitely put on an exciting fight.
Brown is in a similar position. He has fought all over the regional circuit, and he has finished his opponents in almost all of his wins. However, in his first few fights for the Resurrection Fighting Alliance and the Legacy Fighting Alliance, he too came up short when it mattered the most. In May 2019, he scored a first-round head-kick knockout over Ken Beverly at LFA 67 and followed it up with a Contender Series submission win over Dylan Lockard a few months later. He meets Jordan Griffin, who is coming in with back-to-back losses. It will be a great test for the UFC newcomer.
The other fighter I will be keeping a close eye on is Carlyle. “The Alpha Ginger” is only 26 years old and has finished almost all of his opponents in his short 8-1 career. His only loss was a split decision two years ago. He is a Treigning Lab prospect with a ton of skill. Carlyle enters the weekend as an injury replacement against fellow newcomer Cruz while riding a four-fight winning streak.
Petela: This is a large class of promotional newcomers. While the prevailing question with debuting fighters is whether or not they are ready to transition onto the biggest stage of MMA, there is something else that sticks out here: Why on earth would you allow yourself to have a nickname if your first name is Spike? “The Alpha Ginger” is a decent nickname, but it’s not even in the same class as “Spike.” But I digress.
When it comes to the actual fighting abilities of this crop of freshmen, Minner and Brown may well be the most recognizable names, but Phillips is the fighter with the best shot at becoming a UFC mainstay. He was originally slated to make his debut last March as a short-notice replacement for Pingyuan Liu against Ray Borg, but he too was forced out of the bout.
Phillips’ first UFC fight is no picnic. He squares off against Gabriel Silva, the younger brother of former UFC and current Bellator fighter Erick Silva. Gabriel actually made his debut against Borg, and though he came up short, he gained valuable experience. If Phillips can get the job done, then it will prove that the 24-year-old is part of the new crop of bantamweights that could make a big splash over the next several years.
Meanwhile, the late-notice replacement of Carlye in place of Steven Peterson actually ends up being a bad thing for Cruz. Cruz will have a tough time coming out on top in this match-up, and his first run in the UFC could be a short one. He is 30 years old, though, so it’s not terribly unlikely that he will get another shot at the big show before his career is over.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Petela: Marcin Tybura.
The Polish heavyweight has lost four out of his last five fights and sports a 4-5 overall record since joining the UFC. The heavyweight division is notoriously top heavy, and the lack of depth has helped Tybura stick around longer than he probably would have in the lighter weight classes. Tybura clashes with Sergey Spivac, who, despite coming off a technical-submission victory over Tai Tuivasa, is clearly a step down in competition. Tybura’s most recent loss came to streaking prospect Augusto Sakai, and he has notable other losses to Derrick Lewis and former champion Fabricio Werdum.
Fortunately for Tybura, he will pick up a win this weekend and be granted a proverbial stay of execution. Spivac’s success against Tuivasa came almost entirely from his ability to take the fight to the canvas and keep “Bam Bam” on his back, where he posed almost no threat whatsoever. That won’t be the case with Tybura, who is a black belt in jiu-jitsu and has six submission wins on his record. Not only will “The Polar Bear” struggle to take Tybura down, but a grappling-heavy contest won’t be a walk in the park for Spivac.
Kuhl: Win or lose, I’m not really sure where Megan Anderson goes from here. The UFC featherweight division is practically non-existent — to the point that the promotion doesn’t even have rankings for the weight class. For all intents and purposes, it seems like the company only had Amanda Nunes fight Cyborg to have a reason to bounce the former champ. There is no depth to the division, at all, and, not that it’s likely to happen, but what would a loss to Norma Dumont do for Anderson’s future in the promotion?
Anderson is a super-talented fighter who’s also fun to watch, but physically, she’s not built for the bantamweight division. There are less women featherweights than there are male flyweights in the pool of athletes. Furthermore, Anderson is only 2-2 in the Octagon. A win might set up either a featherweight title fight with Nunes or a number-one-contender rematch against Felicia Spencer, which would make more sense (assuming Spencer wins her own fight). Meanwhile, a loss would push Anderson further into UFC limbo. She needs to win this fight and win it decisively.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Kuhl: I’m tempted to go with Brendan Allen and Tom Breese. I’m also tempted to go completely against the odds, literally, and say Grant Dawson and Darrick Minner have more potential to combine for a great fight than the numbers might show. That being said, I’m going with Ion Cutelaba and Magomed Ankalaev.
Both fighters are relatively young, and they have stopping abilities. Ankalaev is an amazing striker. Cutelaba is a superior wrestler. Frankly, both men need this win to push themselves into relevance. Unless they are both asleep at the wheel, they should understand that they need a head-turning performance on Saturday night. That scenario usually makes for a fun fight.
Petela: T.J. Brown and Jordan Griffin.
Brown is a 20-fight veteran making his organizational debut. He has only gone the distance in one of his 14 career wins. Griffin has finished 13 of his 17 victories and is in need of a good performance after dropping his first two UFC appearances.
Both men have a handful of knockouts and submissions on their resumes, so there’s really no telling where the majority of this fight will take place. One thing’s for certain, though: the likelihood that the judges’ scorecards come into play is low. Buckle up and get ready for a fun one between these two entertaining scrappers.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Jagermeister. If you’re anything like me, when the Jager comes out you know it’s almost time to call it a night and head home. Well, that is the position that Joseph Benavidez finds himself in this weekend. At 35 years old and with a career not free from injury, the end is likely near for arguably the second-greatest flyweight in UFC history. He is going to pick up the win and finally get the title that has eluded him for several years, but this fight will mark the beginning of the end. Hopefully, he will be able to string together a couple of title defenses before last call.
Kuhl: In what seems like one of the worst weeks ever for a UFC fight card, I’m just going to belly up to the counter and take whatever the chef serves me. There have been a whopping five match-ups canceled, with Mike Davis, Chas Skelly and Alex Munoz all pulling out with injuries less than two weeks before fight day. This turn of events has left Luis Pena and Giga Chikadze currently without opponents as of the publication of this preview, and Grant Dawson set to face Darrick Minner instead of Skelly, which, frankly, has a lot more upside for Minner than it does Dawson. By Saturday morning, I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw Benavidez taking on Megan Anderson just to make the card happen.
At this point, it’s the dealer’s choice. Whatever I get served, I’m taking with open arms.
Main Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
FlyW Championship: Joseph Benavidez vs. Deiveson Figueiredo
Women’s FW: Felicia Spencer vs. Zarah Fairn
LHW: Ion Cutelaba vs. Magomed Ankalaev
Women’s FW: Megan Anderson vs. Norma Dumont
FW: Grant Dawson vs. Darrick Minner
BW: Gabriel Silva vs. Kyler Phillips
Preliminary Card (ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
MW: Brendan Allen vs. Tom Breese
HW: Marcin Tybura vs. Sergey Spivac
FW: T.J. Brown vs. Jordan Griffin
FW: Aalon Cruz vs. Spike Carlyle
WW: Ismail Naurdiev vs. Sean Brady
[Ed. Note: As of the time of this preview’s publication, Luis Pena and Giga Chikadze were both without opponents following late withdrawals by Alex Munoz and Mike Davis. For this reason, they are not listed in the “Fight Picks” section of our preview.]
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