Just four fights into his UFC career, Askar Askarov has looked like nothing but a future flyweight title contender. Saturday's dominant handling of veteran Joseph Benavidez could be the final hurdle to get him there.
Askarov (13-0-1) landed the cleaner, harder strikes throughout and had his way with Benavidez (28-8) on the ground en route to a three-round unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-26) at UFC 259 inside the APEX in Las Vegas.
"This win means a lot to me because Joseph Benavidez is a true legend of the sport," Askarov said. "It was an honor for me to face him."
A 28-year-old native of Dagestan, Russia, Askarov relied on a front kick to the body to consistently keep Benavidez off balance in order to line him up with hard right hands. Askarov closed the round by taking Benavidez's back looking for a choke.
The second round saw Askarov gain complete control as he rocked Benavidez in the opening minute with a pair of counter right hands that opened up a gash below the left eye of Benavidez. Askarov went on to take his opponent's back and spend the majority of the round using his weight to wear him down.
Askarov opened Round 3 by landing a question mark kick to the face and finished the fight strong with a series of flush strikes to complete the thorough victory.
Reigning 125-pound champion Deiveson Figueiredo is scheduled to defend his title in a June rematch against Brandon Moreno after the flyweights combined to author a fight-of-the-year contender in December that ended in a draw. The No. 3-ranked Askarov, who fought Moreno to a draw of his own in their 2019 thriller, could be next in line for a title shot considering Benavidez was ranked one spot above him.
"I still have some mistakes in my game I have to work on harder. I'm going to improve my game and I think I'm ready for the title," Askarov said. "This is the message I want to send to [UFC president] Dana White: Dana, all the guys I've fought in the UFC have been Top 1, Top 2, Top 3. I've fought all the top-ranked guys and I beat them. I'm here. I'm ready for this title. It doesn't matter who has it, I want to fight for it."
The loss was a damaging one for the 36-year-old Benavidez, leaving his future uncertain.
Benavidez spent most of the fight with his hands down and took an uncharacteristic amount of chances early on. The longtime division stalwart has now lost three straight including a pair of vacant fights against Figueiredo last year which made him 0-4 in UFC title fights.