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Casual friends turn championship-hungry foes at UFC 152

Benavidez vs. Johnson bumped down to co-main event of weekend card in Toronto

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Joseph Benavidez throws a left at Dominick Cruz during their WEC bantamweight title fight at WEC 50 inside The Pearl at The Palms Wednesday, August 18, 2010. Cruz won by split decision.

Case Keefer on MMA Oddsbreaker show

When Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson square off for the inaugural UFC flyweight title Saturday in Toronto, it won’t mark the first time they’ve been together at the Air Canada Centre.

They’ll trade punches as freely as they passed popcorn a couple of months ago at the venue. While in Canada’s largest city to promote the announcement of UFC 152 this summer, Benavidez and Johnson enjoyed an event the polar opposite of a cage fight.

They went to a Coldplay concert together.

“When we were there, they just had us do all sorts of stuff,” Benavidez said. “They had us go to a Blue Jays game and they said, ‘Hey, we’ve got Coldplay tickets if you guys want to go.’ I was like ‘cool.’ Ends up our seats were together.”

Plenty of fighters on the UFC roster would react to that situation by storming out of the venue before the opening act ever hit the stage. They’d see it as a problem, a distraction to the ultimate goal of dismantling their opponent.

The two best 125-pound fighters in the world, however, were excited to spend time with each other. Benavidez (16-2 MMA, 3-0 UFC) and Johnson (16-2-1 MMA, 3-1-1 UFC) bonded on a similar promotional tour of Australia before UFC on FX 2 earlier this year.

It’s a bond they’ll put on hold in an attempt to get a UFC championship belt strapped across their waist.

“We’re just cool and really get along personality-wise,” Benavidez said. “I think I’ve been cool with everybody I’ve fought, but I’ve never went into a fight and liked someone as much as I like Demetrious.”

It’s not as if they’re best buddies or train together. Johnson sticks to his camp in Seattle, while Benavidez has arguably surpassed Urijah Faber as Team Alpha Male’s premier fighter in Sacramento, Calif.

Benavidez just felt a kinship with “Mighty Mouse” when they had to work together. Known as one the most pleasant fighters in mixed martial arts, Johnson never has anything but positive remarks about his opponents.

“He’s a great competitor,” Johnson said of Benavidez. “We’re going to make history and to be the first fighter ever crowned champion at a new weight class. I’m speechless. I believe we’re both going to deliver.”

Johnson and Benavidez emerged as the winners in the semifinals of the four-man flyweight tournament when the UFC introduced the new division. The tourney took several months longer than anticipated after Johnson’s first fight with Ian McCall ended controversially in a draw.

Johnson had to rematch McCall, leaving Benavidez frustrated and on an indefinite wait — it only turned out to last six months — for a challenger.

“I just had to slap myself and say, ‘You’re waiting for the UFC title; it’s going to be worth the wait,’” Benavidez said. “I think I made a lot of improvements in that time.”

He figured Johnson would win the rematch but wasn’t sure if that’s what he preferred. The idea of fighting a friend, albeit not a close one, is never ideal.

But Benavidez snapped out of any reservations shortly after Johnson beat McCall by unanimous decision. He knew he had while watching Coldplay tear through their catalog of radio hits.

“Just to think, hey, in a few months, it’s going to be us in there and the crowd is going to be crazy because we’re in there,” Benavidez said. “I kind of looked at him and thought, ‘I can’t wait to punch you.’ I wanted to go at it right there, but he was in the zone listening to music.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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