One of the main components of any MMA fight these days is the game plan or strategy. Long gone are the days in which fighters would just be able to train without much thought of what they would need to do inside the Octagon to get the win.

Head coaches are often given the task of devising a structure to their fighters’ training camps to ensure that by the time the fight comes around it won’t feel like they are implementing a predefined game plan, but it will feel like second nature.

In this feature, we will look to identify the underdog in an upcoming bout and examine what is required of that underdog in order to overcome the odds and predictions and get the all-important “W” in the win column. The point, then, is to step into the shoes of a head coach to break down the fight and provide a game plan for the underdog.

This week’s subject is Joseph Benavidez, who squares off with his old foe, Demetrious Johnson, once again at UFC on Fox 9 in Sacramento, Calif., on Dec. 14.

These two met previously to contest the inaugural UFC flyweight title fight in which “Mighty Mouse” came away with the split decision victory and became the first-ever champion at 125 pounds.

That fight was the epitome of what the lighter weight classes offer to MMA fans in that it was fast-paced, consistent action in some form or another and both fighters were pinpoint precise with their techniques.

It was only a number of small variables that made the overall difference for Johnson, and Benavidez will undoubtedly have been looking to make sure that the same differences are not apparent when they step into the famed Octagon once again.

Benavidez will no doubt have taken confidence from a particularly strong fourth round in which he dropped Johnson and also had him in what appeared to be a tight guillotine from the mount. But Johnson showed his composure and worked out of these tight spots and instantly went back on the attack to outpoint Benavidez for the win.

Johnson showed during the 25 minutes against Benavidez that he has many strings to his bow, the most eye-catching of which is clearly his footwork, which can perhaps only be rivaled by Dominick Cruz at this point. Not only was his footwork impeccable, but his pacing and endurance to keep that standard going was also a clear factor. Particularly when, in the fifth round, Benavidez looked to be fading slightly, whereas Johnson seemed to step it up even further with a clear round to seal the victory.

Over a year has passed since they first fought, and both men have continued to look impressive inside the Octagon. Johnson has been involved in a “Fight of the Night” effort against John Dodson, whilst also picking up a “Submission of the Night” bonus against John Moraga. Those are two bonuses which are sure to make Johnson’s recent transition into fatherhood that much more comfortable.

Meanwhile, Benavidez, like the rest of Team Alpha Male, has been reaping the rewards of having taken on Duane “Bang” Ludwig as head coach. Benavidez has finished his last two opponents in style, including a win over fellow top contender Ian McCall by unanimous decision.

The Breakdown

Benavidez has shown significant improvements in his stand-up in the relatively short time that Ludwig has been working at Team Alpha Male and will need to showcase these improvements fully in order to stop Johnson, whose footwork is always precise and makes him an elusive fighter.

Johnson has perhaps the best timing of any fighter in the UFC at any weight class. His ability to slip in and out of range or off to the side is an ability that has played a large part in his rise to the top of the 125-pound division and helped him stay there ever since.

This timing helped Johnson transition to a takedown with relative ease in their first fight, most prominently in that fifth round. Benavidez will need to show significant improvement in this area, given the tendency of MMA judging to place significant weight on a takedown these days.

Benavidez is assisted greatly in this area by having Chad Mendes, T.J. Dillashaw, Lance Palmer and others at Team Alpha Male. They are all highly respectable wrestlers in their own right and will be testing Benavidez consistently in the days leading up to this fight, and even more so, given that a few of his training partners also feature on the Sacramento card, which is after all not far from the gym itself.

In the first fight, we saw Benavidez catch Johnson on one occasion with a shot that stopped Johnson in his tracks. Benavidez will be hoping for more of the same, albeit with his seemingly improved stopping power enough to actually finish the job this time around.

The Strategy

If Benavidez is to take the title away from “Mighty Mouse,” he will need to stay patient in the early going so that he can get to grips with the pace and movement of Johnson. Johnson is unlike any other fighter Benavidez has faced prior to or since his last loss to the champion.

Benavidez will have to improve his own explosiveness in order to close the distance at a pace that even Johnson cannot evade. I am a firm believer that leg kicks have become a severely underutilized weapon in all of MMA these days to the point that fighters don’t really expect to have their legs chopped from underneath them inside the Octagon anymore. In the past, we have seen several high-level bouts where a fighter that has utilized leg kicks has caught his opponent completely off-guard/unprepared and it then destabilizes their whole plan (see Forrest Griffin vs. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson or any Jose Aldo fight for prime examples).

Benavidez could find particular use in leg kicks. No matter how much Johnson could have trained for them, they will still take away some of his movement. Given that movement is a key feature in Johnson’s game, it goes without saying that if Benavidez takes such an approach, it will then open up more opportunities for him to seize upon towards the latter part of the fight and look to continue his streak of finishes within the UFC.

Photo: Joseph Benavidez (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Greg Byron
Staff Writer
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Greg Byron started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after his brother introduced him to a local MMA fighter/coach when he was just 16 years old. Greg has trained for nearly a decade in both BJJ and MMA, competing in several grappling events within the UK. In addition to MMA, Greg possesses a law degree and works for a firm in northern part of England.