Jeremy Stephens was one fight away from entering "the mix" in the 155 pound division before a split decision loss at the hands of Anthony Pettis sent him back down the lightweight ladder. Now, he's got a golden opportunity in front of him in "Cowboy" Cerrone, who's also reeling from a high profile defeat. If Stephens can win, he's back and if he can stop the Greg Jackson product, he'll immediately be a player again.
Donald Cerrone was right on the cusp of title contention after winning his first four UFC fights in eight months, including a dominant pair of stoppages against Charles Oliveira and Dennis Siver which knocked both men down to the featherweight division. He ran into the high volume attack of Nate Diaz this past December, however, and was knocked off his perch in the division. Now he's out to regain the status Diaz stole from him.
Will Stephens corral the "Cowboy?" Can Cerrone get back to his winning ways? What's the key to victory for both men on Tuesday night?
Let's find out:
Record: 20-7 overall, 7-6 in the UFC
How he got here: Fighting on the local Iowa scene, Jeremy Stephens got off to a 12-1 start to his career while fighting on the local Iowa circuit in his backyard. This string of victories earned him a shot in the UFC, but he would lose via second round armbar to Din Thomas.
"Lil Heathen" has had a very up and down career thus far in the UFC. He's never been able to string along more than two consecutive wins together and also has only one strung together two losses. He's faced some of the best in the promotion like Melvin Guillard, Anthony Pettis, Gleison Tibau and Joe Lauzon, but has come up short more often than not against the best in the division.
His power has helped him win fights that he shouldn't have, however. The best examples of this would be his come-from-behind victories against both Rafael Dos Anjos and Marcus Davis, when he scored late third round knockouts in fights he had lost the first two rounds.
He was on a nice streak until his last bout, a wrestling match against Anthony Pettis that was razor close although Stephens would lose a split decision. He's had plenty of time to think about it since October and he's more than ready for the challenge that Donald Cerrone brings to the table.
How he gets it done: If "Lil Heathen" wants to hang with Cerrone on the feet, he needs to channel the striking from his Sam Stout fight. At UFC 113 in 2010, he wasn't looking to wing big hooks or uppercuts, but instead stayed within himself inside the pocket and traded aggressively and accurately. He was actually able to outstrike the striker.
Of course, the best way to beat Cerrone would be to mix it up, enter the clinch, maybe even work for takedowns. If he can keep "Cowboy" guessing, it'll give him better opportunities to find success as long as Cerrone isn't ready for what he attempts.
Of course, the big equalizer for Stephens is his power. He's come from behind on several occasions, finishing fights he was losing with one big punch. Who can forget that "from the south pole" uppercut he threw against Rafael Dos Anjos which put the Brazilian's lights out or his "Knockout of the Night" against Marcus Davis last year?
As long as Stephens is still standing and breathing, he's a threat with his power, even against someone with a pretty solid chin like Cerrone.
Record: 17-4 (1 No Contest) overall, 4-1 in the UFC
Key Losses: Nate Diaz (UFC 141), Ben Henderson 2x (WEC 48, WEC 43)
How he got here: Cerrone, a former bull-rider, transitioned to mixed martial arts (MMA) and got off to a very hot start. He was undefeated in his first 10 fights, working all the way up to a WEC title fight with then-champion Jamie Varner.
Cerrone would come up short via close split technical decision. Despite the setback, the Greg Jackson-trained fighter would go on to battle Ben Henderson for the interim title when Varner became injured. He would lose another close decision in what was deemed the 2009 "Fight of the Year." After again bouncing back, "Cowboy" would try (and fail) for a third time at WEC gold in a rematch with Henderson, but would at least get redemption against Varner in his next fight, soundly defeating the former champ via unanimous decision.
After defeating Chris Horodecki in the final WEC event ever, Cerrone made his UFC debut on the Spike TV "Prelims" of UFC 126 against Paul Kelly. "Cowboy" surprised many by working his ground game against the Brit and completely outclassed "Tellys," earning a submission victory by way of rear naked choke in the second round.
He would continue his torrid 2011 with victories over Vagner Rocha, his first knockout victory over Charles Oliveira and then he capped it off by destroying top contender Dennis Siver before the midway point of the first round. After his impressive showing against Siver, he called for one more fight in 2011 and he had his wish granted against Nate Diaz, but he bit off more than he could chew, losing a dominant unanimous decision against the Stockton slugger.
Now after actually taking some time off, Cerrone is ready to get back in action.
How he gets it done: Both of these men are talented and well-rounded, but Cerrone has a few distinct advantages. The first is that he's much more likely to use kicks in the striking game. This should give him some bonus effectiveness from a distance that Stephens won't be able to counter. The other is his submission game.
Stephens has been stopped via submission on multiple occasions, although not lately, most recently losing to Joe Lauzon via armbar in 2009. If Cerrone can take the fight to the ground, he's got some very crafty submissions skills and he could tie Stephens up into his web, threatening with chokes, armbars or anything else.
Footwork will be key for Cerrone. Stephens has been outpointed before by similar strikers like Marcus Davis so as long as he can dance circles around Stephens, avoid the big power shot and keep peppering away with jabs and straight rights, he should at least be able to score a decision if not worse.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight is the amount of rest Donald Cerrone's had. He fought a ridiculous five times in 2011 during a matter of 11 months. After losing to Nate Diaz, he's finally had a good near-five months to take a break and heal up some of his nagging injuries.
Now the big factor here is, has he made good use of his time? Has he actually taken a break for a bit and will he be returning 100 percent, or did that insane 11 month stretch take too much out of him as a fighter?
Hell, perhaps he's the type of combatant that actually gets better under pressure and being in constant regular training camps. Perhaps Cerrone will actually be worse off after taking four and a half months between fights. That's a question we'll have to get answered on Tuesday night.
Bottom Line: Both of these men are bangers on the feet. I expect almost all of this fight to stay standing and I expect it to be very exciting. Cerrone is much more technical, what with his kickboxing background and all, but Stephens is a workhorse on the feet, has terrific cardio and will be a constant threat to alter the fight with his power. This is a brute force versus finesse style of fight. I expect some solid back-and-forth and neither man to gain too much of an advantage at any one time. Neither fight is the type to back down either so this should be very entertaining to watch as both men have raked in quite a few bonuses in their UFC careers thus far.
Who will come out on top at UFC on Fuel TV 3? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!