For a perennial No. 2 in UFC, there’s always more work to do

A dominant champion rules the fighting game like a king. Respect accumulates from all sides, sometimes admiringly, sometimes reluctantly. Each Champion’s journey into the Octagon inspires anticipation of how greatness will once again manifest itself. The fans, even those who are generally hard to please, stand in awe.

Then there’s the allure of the up-and-coming challenger that everyone loves to chase. We all appreciate the opportunity to witness a disruption of the pecking order. It doesn’t matter if the underdog story turns out to be more flash than fire. We still enjoy the landscape on the drive up the mountain.

But what about the fighter who rises within reach of the top of a weight class… and seemingly stays there forever? Often underestimated is the perennial No. 2, or in the case of MMA, the No. 1 contender, the athlete who outperforms everyone else in the division except the champion for an extended period of time. There was always one or two of these scattered throughout the sport.

Joseph Benavidez fits the bill better than anyone in the history of the sport. Throughout Demetrious Johnson’s six-year tenure with the UFC men’s flyweight belt, Benavidez was the clear No. 2. He lost twice to “Mighty Mouse” — including a narrow decision in the UFC’s first 125-pound title fight — but that was it the only losses during Benavidez’s 15-fight winning streak from 2010 to 2018. That must make him the GOAT of second best – which sounds dismissive until you realize there’s no shame in constantly proving yourself to be better than everyone any other in the world except one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time.

“People say I’ve lost twice,” Benavidez told reporters after his 2016 win over future two-division champion Henry Cejudo when he set up for a third shot at Johnson. “But me and Demetrious could fight a million times and it will be a million great matches between two world-class fighters.”

Benavidez never had that trilogy fight with “Mighty Mouse,” but after retiring from the sport a year ago, he got his due respect. “Even though he never became a champion, it’s still an amazing career,” Johnson told MMA Junkie Radio shortly after Benavidez’s announcement. “People will look back on his fights and see how good he was… I mean – legend.”

In today’s UFC, there is perhaps no better example of a No. 2 perennial than a flyweight competing next weekend. Katlyn Chookagian sat just behind champion Valentina Shevchenko in the UFC rankings for almost three years. She first took that spot in September 2019, and although she briefly slipped down the pecking order after her unsuccessful challenge from Shevchenko the following February, she soon regained her No. 2 status at 125 pounds and has stayed there. According to the UFC, Chookagian has spent 54 weeks as a top contender behind the champion.

But the 33-year-old is not impressed – not yet.

“It’s an interesting position we’re in,” Chookagian (18-4), who faces Manon Fiorot (9-1) in the top-10 flyweight division at UFC 280 on Saturday, told ESPN. “Some people say, ‘Wow, that’s such an achievement. You’ve been at the top for so long.’ But me, as I am, I think, ‘If you’re not in first place, you’re in last place.’ “I never wanted to be in the UFC just to be here. I’ve always wanted to be the champion. So there’s more to do. I have to keep working.”

Continually working on her craft as a mixed martial artist is in Chookagian’s nature, according to her trainer. Mark Henry describes her as “one of the hardest workers I know” — and that’s from a man who also coaches Frankie Edgar, one of the sport’s most famous lunch-bucket workers.

For Chookagian, being spoken to in the same conversation as Edgar is the highest praise. “He’s been my motivation since I started,” she said. “Even before I had an amateur MMA fight I would see him at the gym where he worked and worked to get better even though he was already a champion. Definitely a good influence.”

For his part, Edgar appreciates the nod, but deflects it back to his teammate. “She says she looks like it me as an inspiration, but for the last 10 years we’ve been in the same gym together and all I’ve seen is she I work hard every day,” he said. “I think that consistency has kept Katlyn at the top of her game for so long.”

Edgar knows a thing or two about holding out as a contender. After his run as UFC lightweight champion ended in 2012, he transitioned to extended residencies just below the top rung of the featherweight and bantamweight ladders. And as Henry sees it, there’s a continuity between what Edgar has seemingly been doing for ages — he’s been in the UFC since 2007 and will retire next month at UFC 281 in Madison Square Garden — and what Chookagian is doing now .

“While Frankie fought in three divisions and was a top contender for years, Katlyn was right there in the gym watching him do it,” Henry said. “When it was her turn, she could handle that too.”

A Chookagian win on Saturday would be their fifth in a row, all against top 10 opponents. It seems to position Chookagian for another try against Shevchenko, but there are no guarantees, especially for someone who could fly under the radar in this weekend’s stacked card. UFC 280 features two title fights, four champions or ex-champions, and a full dozen fighters ranked in the ESPN divisional rankings. Chookagian-Fiorot is just one of five bouts that feature two top 10 fighters. These two women, who usually let their struggles speak for themselves, have been able to go largely unnoticed.

“I really wish I was good at talking crap because I think it would help my career,” Chookagian said moodily. “But it’s not who I am. So, because I’m not good at these things, I must be good at something else. Winning – I’m good at that.”

But even a win doesn’t necessarily have to kill a fighter’s star power. Chookagian’s nine UFC flyweight wins tie her with Shevchenko for the most ever in the division. However, the champion has placed in more than half of her 125-pound wins, while all nine Chookagian wins have gone the distance. Add in her two scorecard wins in bantamweight bouts, and Chookagian has more decision wins than any woman in UFC history. That’s not exactly a coveted record.

“Yes, decisions are not what the UFC is looking for,” admitted Henry. “The fans want to see people getting knocked out. But winning alone is hard enough when you’re faced with the kind of competition Katlyn has. She only fights top 10 opponents and has been one of the most dominant fighters in the sport.”

In the eyes of her teammate, that’s no exaggeration. “Katlyn is literally the best fighter whose name isn’t Valentina,” Edgar said. “She’s proven it time and time again.”

If she proves it again on Saturday, Chookagian could earn another opportunity to erase the “No Name Valentina” portion of this award. For a perennial No. 2 in UFC, there’s always more work to do

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