‘If you’re not in first place, you’re in last place’: For a perennial No. 2 in UFC, there’s always more work to do
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A dominant champion lords over the fight game like a king. All sides show respect, sometimes in admiration, sometimes in a grudging way. Every trip to the Octagon by the champ draws the anticipation of what greatness will be once more. Even those who are not easy to please stand in awe.
The appeal of the rising challenger is another reason why everyone loves to cheer them on. We all love the chance to witness the downfall of the pecking system. It doesn’t matter if the underdog story is more flash than fire. We still enjoy the view as we climb the mountain.
But, what about the fighter who climbs to the top of a weight category and stays there seemingly for ever? The perennial No. 2 or, in the case MMA, the No. The champion is the athlete who, over a long period of time, shows superiority to all other athletes in the same division. There have always been a few of these throughout the sport.
Joseph Benavidez fits the bill better than anyone in the sport’s history. For the entirety of Demetrious Johnson‘s six-year reign with the UFC men’s flyweight belt, Benavidez was the clear No. 2. He lost twice to “Mighty Mouse” — including a slim split decision in the UFC’s first 125-pound title bout — but those were the only losses during Benavidez’s 15-fight run of success from 2010 through 2018. He must be the GOAT OF second bests. It sounds dismissive, but it isn’t. There is no shame in showing yourself to be better than anyone in the world, except for one of the greatest mixed-martial artists of all time.
“People say I lost twice,” Benavidez told reporters following his 2016 win over future two-division champ Henry Cejudo, as he made a case for a third shot at Johnson. “But Demetrious and me could fight a million more times, and it’s going to be a million amazing competitions between two world-class fighters. “
Benavidez never got that trilogy fight with “Mighty Mouse,” but after retiring from the sport a year ago, he did get his due respect. Johnson said that Johnson had an amazing career, even though he was not a champion. Johnson spoke to MMA Junkie Radio shortly following Benavidez’s announcement. “People will look back on his fights and see just how great he was. I mean — legend. “
In today’s UFC there may not be a better example of a perennial No. This weekend’s women’s flyweight competition will be the 2nd. Katlyn Chookagian has sat right behind champion Valentina Shevchenko in the UFC rankings for the better part of three years. She first took over that spot in September 2019, and although she briefly slipped down the pecking order in the wake of her unsuccessful challenge of Shevchenko the following February, she soon regained her status as No. 2 at 125 pounds and has remained there. According to the UFC, Chookagian has spent 54 weeks as the top contender behind the champ.
But the 33-year-old is not impressed by herself — not yet, anyway.
“It’s an interesting position to be in,” Chookagian (18-4), who faces fellow top-10 flyweight Manon Fiorot (9-1) on Saturday at UFC 280, told ESPN. “Some people are amazed at the accomplishment. You’ve been at this top for so many years. But me, the way that I am, I think, “If you aren’t in first place, then you’re in second place.” I didn’t want to be in the UFC to just be here. I have always wanted to be the champ. There’s always more to do. I must keep working. “
Continually working at her craft as a mixed martial artist is in Chookagian’s nature, according to her coach. Mark Henry describes her as “one of the hardest workers I know” — and this is from a guy who also trains Frankie Edgar, one of the sport’s most renowned lunch-pail workers.
For Edgar, it is a great honor to be mentioned in the same conversation. She said, “He’s been a motivation since I started.” “Even before I had an amateur MMA bout, I would see him at the gym, working hard and trying to improve, even though he was already a champion. It was a great influence. “
Edgar appreciates the nod, but turns it around to his colleague. “She says she looks to me as inspiration, but for the past 10 years we’ve been in the same gym together and all I’ve seen is her working hard every day,” he said. Katlyn has been a consistent performer for so many years because of that consistency. “
Edgar has a lot to say about how to keep one’s power as a contender. After his run as UFC lightweight champion ended in 2012, he went on to extended residencies just below the top rung of the featherweight and bantamweight ladders. And as Henry sees it, there’s a continuity connecting what Edgar has been doing seemingly forever — he’s been in the UFC since 2007 and will end his career next month at UFC 281 at Madison Square Garden — and what Chookagian is doing now.
“While Frankie fought in three divisions, and was still a top contender for many years, Katlyn was there in the gym watching him handle it,” Henry stated. “So when it was her turn, she was able also to handle it. “
A Chookagian victory Saturday would be her fifth in a row, all against top-10 opponents. Chookagian would be in a position to face Shevchenko again, but there are no guarantees. UFC 280 features two title bouts, four champs or ex-champs and a full dozen fighters who are in the ESPN divisional rankings. Chookagian-Fiorot is just one of five bouts matching up a pair of top-10 fighters. These two women, who let their fighting speak for themselves, may go unnoticed.
” I wish I could talk crap because that would help me in my career,” Chookagian joked. “But it’s not me. Because I’m not good at this stuff, I must be good at something else. Winning is what I excel at. “
But winning doesn’t necessarily turn on a fighters star power. Chookagian’s nine UFC victories at flyweight tie her with Shevchenko as the most in the division. The champ has recorded finishes in more than half of her 125-pound wins, though, while all nine Chookagian victories have gone the distance. Add her two bantamweight scorecard wins to make Chookagian the most successful woman in UFC history. This is not a highly sought-after record.
“Yeah. Decisions aren’t what UFC is looking to get,” Henry acknowledged. “The fans want to see people knocked out. Katlyn is a tough opponent. It’s hard enough to win. She fights nothing but top-10 opponents and has been one of the most dominant fighters in the sport. That is not hyperbole in her eyes. Edgar stated that Katlyn is “literally the best woman fighter other than Valentina.” She has proven it repeatedly. “
If she proves it again on Saturday, Chookagian may be able to erase the “not called Valentina” part from that award.
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.