Why you should care
Because he’s bringing the red carpet to the Octagon.
There are moments when observant passersby might suspect Joseph Benavidez of being up to no good. As the chiseled UFC featherweight strolls through Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood on a warm fall day, he subtly slows a stride behind his wife, UFC broadcaster Megan Olivi, to gaze at a young lady in brown leather boots. Across the street, another beauty in a designer jacket catches his eye.
“[Olivi] knows what I’m looking for now,” Benavidez explains. “She’ll be like, ‘Oh, what kind of shoes was she wearing?’ I just have an eye for style! In a city like New York, I’m a total rubberneck.”
With his sculpted jaw, athletic build and propensity for mean mugging at any and every camera, Benavidez’s career choice won’t surprise those in the know. But at 5-foot-4 and 125 pounds, and with an eclectic fashion sense, the prizefighter looks more GQ than Chuck Liddell. In other words, Benavidez is not a UFC stereotype. But as the sport of mixed martial arts grows, with smaller weight divisions and female fighters rivaling the heavyweights in popularity and reach, real and perceived images of the UFC are changing. Benavidez wants to keep pushing.
“In our sport, it’s so hard to be an individual,” says Benavidez. “What we wear is regimented and when we do talk, it’s about fighting. But more and more fighters want to express themselves and show who they are.”
A top flyweight contender since 2012 — when he lost the division’s inaugural UFC title fight to the legendary Demetrious Johnson — Benavidez (28-5) is approaching a late-career breakthrough. At 35, he has already beaten the champ, two-division belt-holder Henry Cejudo, but that was before Cejudo beat Johnson, in 2018. Now, with Cejudo due to return from a shoulder injury in March, Benavidez may finally own the division that he helped build from inception. “I’m tired of waiting,” he says.
All of these fighters want to be seen. Something as easy to do as style is an instant conversation starter.
But if Cejudo, the 2008 Olympic gold medalist and No. 3 pound-for-pound UFC fighter, defends his bantamweight belt after returning, Benavidez may be left behind. It’s a fight the challenger wants desperately — though he says he’d fight another contender if need be — but does the UFC feel the same? “Unfortunately, I think they’re phasing out the 125[-pound] division,” says ESPN UFC journalist Ariel Helwani.
A New Mexico state champion wrestler in high school, Benavidez wrestled “maybe one semester,” he says, at William Penn University in Iowa before dropping out.
The regurgitated version is that Benavidez dropped out of college to pursue mixed martial arts and the rest is history. Solid truth is tougher to chew. During his short time at college and the year that followed when he returned home, Benavidez was lost, working as a screen printer and battling drug and alcohol abuse. He missed competing, but he really missed having a purpose. In early 2005, right around the time that the first season of The Ultimate Fighter propelled mixed martial arts into the mainstream, Benavidez got sober.
“I attribute a lot of my sobriety to my pursuit of the sport,” he says. “But I didn’t get sober to fight. I got sober, and then I decided to fight. I just wanted to be a better person, but my focus became so much clearer once I stopped using.”
After winning five fights in promotions so small they’re not on his official record, Benavidez decided to find a professional training gym in 2007. While visiting a friend in Sacramento, California, he met Urijah Faber, a World Extreme Cagefighting champion and future UFC Hall of Famer. Faber had founded Team Alpha Male, now one of the most famous talent houses in the sport. “I was the first pro to join,” says Benavidez. “The gym was literally being constructed when I showed up.”
What convinced him to follow Faber? Besides the knowledge that he could always return to his day job as a screen printer if fighting didn’t pan out, Benavidez was inspired by Faber’s transportation. “He was driving a Hummer,” says Benavidez. “I figured he must have been killing it. When I moved [to Sacramento] two months later, he was driving this tiny Mazda. The Hummer was borrowed!”
To Benavidez, the way you present yourself always sends a message. Which is why he started Dapper Scrappers, an Instagram blog that he hopes to someday turn into an athletic clothing company. When he’s not training, Benavidez is combing through thrift stores in Rome or texting himself notes about what clothes he spotted on pedestrians in Manhattan. Documenting the styles of Benavidez’s peers, Dapper Scrappers bills itself as the “home for all things Fashion and Style in the fight game.” The blog is all about documenting the style of the night — no runway, no judging, just an effort to elevate combat sports from the chokehold of Ed Hardy T-shirts.
“Image and marketing is so huge in this sport,” says Benavidez. “All of these fighters want to be seen. Something as easy to do as style is an instant conversation starter.”
As the official style hype man of the UFC, it comes as no surprise that Benavidez wants in on the next round of outfitting discussions between the company and its apparel sponsor, Reebok. Inspired by NBA star Russell Westbrook and legendary Italian Olympian–turned–fashion designer Ottavio Missoni, Benavidez hopes to design his own athletic-minded line one day — and is critical of the UFC apparel status quo. “You would never see Westbrook walk into a game with a plain NBA shirt on,” he says. “Why am I at a UFC media day wearing a UFC hat?”
Of course, Benavidez will be hard-pressed to exert any influence on his notoriously overbearing employer when it comes to sponsors: Fighters can no longer bring in outside sponsors to UFC events. The only way for advertisers to gain exposure on fight night is by dealing with the UFC at large. “The UFC uses that leverage to parse out small pieces of sponsorship deals to fighters while keeping the majority of revenue,” says mixed martial arts journalist John Nash. “The Reebok deal cleared out other sponsors from the cage. The UFC controls everything.”
That means for now, Benavidez will stick to his decadelong chase of the only belt he’s never worn.