Tough road back: Joe Stevenson TUF 9 Finale interview exclusive with MMAmania.com

If you have ever doubted Joe Stevenson’s toughness then now is the perfect time to stop.

That's because his entire mixed martial arts career has revolved about that one attribute. And he's plans to take it to a whole new level thanks to fresh perspective training with Greg Jackson and his stable of elite fighters in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Stevenson began his UFC career by competing on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 2, proving he was the toughest of them all by winning the welterweight final. His first fight coming off the show, however, didn’t go his way when he dropped a decision to "The Dentist" Josh Neer.

It was a much-needed wake up call for "Daddy." He responded by winning his next four fights inside the Octagon, defeating guys like Melvin Guillard and Kurt Pellegrino in the process. The string of wins put Stevenson on a collision course with B.J. Penn at UFC 80 with the vacant lightweight title up for grabs.

In one of the more memorable scenes in UFC history, Stevenson was cut bad in the first round and was soaked with his own blood. In the second round, sensing that the fight would be stopped soon, Stevenson came out guns blazing. However, he was eventually forced to submit to a rear naked choke.

Despite the loss, Stevenson remained resolute.

He rebounded with a submission win over Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Gleison Tibau at UFC 86 with his signature guillotine choke. Unfortunately for Stevenson, his trip back to the top of the division was derailed shortly thereafter with back-to-back losses to Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez.

Score two for TUF 1.

Many started labeling him as proverbial gatekeeper of the division. Stevenson was left to question his place in the division. His future in the sport. And he is still just 27-years-old. He needed a change of scenery.

And what better perspective than from MMA mastermind, Greg Jackson.

For several weeks now the recently-annointed Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt has been putting his skills to the test against Jackson’s star studded roster of successful mixed martial artists, which includes some of the very best athletes in the game today, in preparation for his showdown with Nate Diaz at TUF 9 Finale this weekend.

We caught up with Stevenson after one of his intense training sessions, and it seems like toughness is all around Joe these days. And he will need every bit of it, along with an improved skill set, if he wants to get past the young and ambitious Diaz. He talked to us about his fight with Diaz, why he no longer wants a rematch with Diego Sanchez and why he does want a rematch with Kenny Florian.

Check it out:

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Let’s go back to 2005. You won the welterweight division on season two of The Ultimate Fighter by defeating Luke Cummo. Tell us about your experience on the show?

Joe Stevenson: The experience on the show was definitely something that, when it’s all said and done, I was glad I had done. However, I have always said that is not something I would want to have to go through again though -- six weeks without being able to talk to my wife and kids. It’s something you can do once, but you wouldn’t want to do it twice.

If I was giving advice to someone going in … you have to be physically, mentally and emotionally ready to step onto the plateau because if you're not, you're going to get eaten alive. There is no way you should go into that show just wanting to get recognized. You should be going into that show with the intent of winning it. You can’t just be happy to be there.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): You were on Team Hughes. What were some key things you learned from him and do you still keep in touch with the future hall-of-famer?

Joe Stevenson: When I see Matt around I definitely say "Hi." Other than that, I have lost so many cell phones … I don’t have his number anymore (laughs). I do still use some of the techniques I learned from him and others on the show. It was a big melting pot of different people from different camps. Sharing my knowledge and experience with others to benefit them and having them do the same in return was awesome.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): You defeated Marcus Davis on the show when Marcus tapped out from elbow strikes in the first round. Today, Davis is considered a top welterweight. How do you think you’d do against Davis today and does that cause you to think about moving up to welterweight to shake things up in your career?

Joe Stevenson: It is crazy that you ask that. That was actually running through my mind recently. I had one of Marcus’s friends, Dale Hartt, here and we were talking about that fight. He was saying how awesome Marcus is now and that fight would be different. I have given it a lot of thought. He has improved his game, but I still see holes. I think I am a bad match up for him stylistically.

But just because someone beats you, it does not mean that you're better rankings wise. It doesn’t mean you can automatically beat this guy or that guy. The sport is all about styles and how you match up with a person. Just as in other sports, it's how one team matches up against another. There are so many different ways in which a fight can go so you just have to get in there and fight someone to really know.

As far being competitive with guys in the top of the welterweight division … I just had a pretty competitive fight with Diego Sanchez and he was ranked in the top 10. Rankings are subjective, though. I think I could be a threat to anyone at 170, but size does matter. Everyone said it doesn’t, but it does -- especially when someone knows what they are doing. St. Pierre vs. Penn is a perfect example.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): You are now training over at Greg Jackson’ camp, alongside fellow TUF 2 castmates Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans. Is it fair to say that your time there has taken your game to another level, and if so, what specifically have you improved upon?

Joe Stevenson: I definitely can say that my time there has been well spent and I have improved vastly. The exciting part is there is lots of room to improve. I can’t go into too much detail this close to a fight. It was definitely the best move for my career though.

Knowing Keith and Rashad were there and having the opportunity to come back and be with them again in an environment where I was going to feel a little out of touch and out of tune was huge. Having those guys here has been great. There are so many great guys here to roll with. I have spent a lot of time with Donald Cerrone and Leonard Garcia. I have trained with Keith and Rashad as well. It’s been an invaluable experience.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): According to a post-fight statement, you expressed interest in a rematch with Diego Sanchez. How would the fight go any differently a second time around?

Joe Stevenson: Well, I wouldn’t let it go to decision (laughs). You can’t let it go to those judges hands. Honestly, at the point of where I am at now, I wouldn’t want to ask Greg to coach me against one of his former students. At that point, when I wanted a rematch, I didn’t know that I would be coming over to Greg Jackson’s.

So I don’t know that I would end up fighting Diego again. Training at Jackson’s camp takes precedence. If it came down to fighting Diego for a title or number one contender match, I would go to Greg and discuss the matter with him and go from there.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Since you will be fighting on the TUF 9 Finale, have you been watching this season. And if so, what are your impressions on the newest crop of fighters?

Joe Stevenson: I came out to Albuquerque, N.M., right when it started to air. I watched the first two episodes back home and then I was here. So I don’t have much to say because they don’t have cable at the house I am staying at. But from what I did see it looks like a great show.

Dan Henderson is one of my heroes. I think Michael Bipsing is a great fighter and has a lot of talent so that fight will be exciting. Michael is a very straight forward person, not fake at all. And Dan is just an awesome person and I am grateful to count him as a friend.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): You are fighting Nate Diaz at the TUF 9 Finale. Given you have a wrestling background, are a shorter fighter and will have a six-inch reach disadvantage, what will your gameplan be? Do you plan on going for take downs and controlling the fight on the ground (like Clay Guida did) or will you stand on box with your taller opponent before deciding whether to take it to the ground or not?

Joe Stevenson: Well, it will definitely start on its feet. My plan is to hit him, hit him hard and do so continuously. Let’s see if Diaz can take a punch. I will bring my full arsenal into this fight. I will stand and bang with Diaz and if I need to take him to the ground I will do that. That is about all I can reveal as far as my gameplan goes.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Diaz has only been submitted once in his career and that was early on against a more experienced Hermes Franca. Could you see yourself submitting Diaz with your guillotine or is a decision win your best bet in this fight?

Joe Stevenson: Anytime I get my arms wrapped around someone’s neck they are in serious danger of being choked out. I will be looking to finish this fight. Whether it'ss by choking him out or laying down punches until he can’t answer back. I am actually pretty good at having the referee stop the fight for a T(KO) win.

Diaz is a hard guy to knockout, though, he is always in it. So it will be a challenge to knock the guy out. I will be using my hands to loosen him up before looking to do anything else.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): In terms of your overall impact in the division you were on a tear winning one fight after the other. Then you ran into a string of tough battles, losing to top guys B.J. Penn, Kenny Florian and most recently Diego Sanchez. Do you see this fight with Diaz as a pivotal fight in your UFC career? Do you see yourself getting back on track toward title contention with a win?

Joe Stevenson: Hopefully, yeah (laughs). Any fight front of you, especially in the UFC, is a pivotal fight. You have to look at each fight the same, so yes this is a very pivotal fight. This fight is the only thing I am focused on now and I have to beat him before I can think about where I fit in. If I let those thoughts run rampant, it will just distract me from the task at hand.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Since you have fought both guys I have to ask, who is going to coming out victorious at UFC 101. Will it be B.J. Penn or Kenny Florian?

Joe Stevenson: B.J. Penn. I think he will bring too much to the table for Florian. I know Kenny is taking this fight seriously and training his butt off. Kenny has got some things he will be able to pull off against B.J., but no one is as well versed as B.J and he will have a little too much for Kenny in every avenue.

I don’t think Kenny will be able to push the pace or keep pace with B.J. Your best bet with B.J is getting him tired (like GSP did) and I think Kenny will tire out in the later rounds. You had asked me about a rematch with Diego Sanchez. I want a rematch with Kenny Florian after he loses this fight. I want that fight to get myself back into title contention.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): You are fighting alongside Diego Sanchez and Clay Guida on the TUF 9 Finale. What are your thoughts on that fight?

Joe Stevenson: I think that is going to be a great fight. I think stylistically it could actually go in Clay’s favor. But Diego is always a threat and brings a lot of tools to the table. He hits hard, has decent wrestling and great submissions. I think it will be a great fight for the fans. I could see Clay pulling out a decision win though.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Last question, Joe: This upcoming season of The Ultimate Fighter will be the biggest one ever with Quinton Jackson and Rashad Evans as coaches. And then there is Kimbo Slice. What are your thoughts on this season?

Joe Stevenson: I can guarantee you I will be watching the entire season (laughs).

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Time for shout outs:

Joe Stevenson: I want to thank MMA Warehouse, Warrior Wear and Sprawl. They have always been there for me. I want to say Hi to everyone back home at Cobra Kai. Thank you for the support. Thanks to all the fans and I hope everyone enjoys watching the fight with Nate Diaz.

Brian Oswald (MMAMania.com): Thank you taking the time out of your training schedule to talk to us. Good luck in your fight this Saturday night.

Joe Stevenson: Thank you, man. Take care.

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