This Saturday night (Jan. 25, 2014) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweights Darren Elkins and Jeremy Stephens are set to square off on the main card of UFC on FOX 10 from United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
No. 10-ranked Elkins recently got back into the win column by defeating Hatsu Hioki via decision at UFC Fight Night 27. Prior to that, he had to go back to the drawing board after a stoppage loss to surging No. 1 featherweight Chad Mendes at UFC on FOX 7. "Dangerous" is a game competitor with only three losses on his record, but he has his hands full with the experienced Stephens.
Since making his way down to featherweight, Stephens has seen a resurgence of his mixed martial arts (MMA) career. Last seen defeating TUF: Brazil 1 winner Rony Jason with an emphatic first round head kick at UFC Fight Night 32, "Lil' Heathen" sits with a 2-0 record at 145 pounds. He'll receive a nice step up in competition when he faces Elkins in Chicago.
This fight is going to show us whether or not Elkins and Stephens can become legitimate contenders in a stacked UFC featherweight division. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for both fighters:
Record: 17-3 overall, 7-2 UFC
Key Wins: Hatsu Hioki (UFC Fight Night 27), Duane Ludwig (UFC on Versus 1), Pat Curran (C3: Domination)
Key Losses: Chad Mendes (UFC on FOX 7), Charles Oliveira (UFC on Versus 2)
Keys to Victory: Elkins has quietly racked up seven wins in UFC since early 2010. After starting out at lightweight, he made his way to featherweight in mid-2011 and has put together a 6-1 resume ever since.
But the only power striker he's faced that could be compared to Stephens is Mendes, who finished Elkins in just over a minute. The loss lead to speculation that Elkins couldn't contend with the true elite of the division, but in his defense, Mendes has been running through all competition not named Jose Aldo the past few years.
The jury is still out on Elkins. He has a huge opportunity to get his biggest name win in UFC this Saturday.
To do so, he's going to have to bring a razor-sharp focus to the cage in Chicago. Even the slightest temporary lapse in concentration could see him staring up at the lights. Despite having seven knockouts to his name, it's obvious that Elkins should not engage in a slugfest with "Lil' Heathen." Stephens has been knocked out before, so he might win. But there's no reason to play with fire.
Elkins should look to use his smothering takedown and top control to neutralize the otherworldly striking power of Stephens. He used a similar strategy to stymie Diego Brandao at UFC 146, and that gameplan will most likely benefit him here. Elkins always shows up in shape and ready to go the full distance and it's up to him to make sure this fight lasts that long.
A quick fight is going to favor Stephens exponentially, but if it becomes a slower, grinding affair, the scales will tip in Elkins' favor.
"Damage" has a chance to erase the memories of his loss to Mendes this Saturday. He'll need to make this fight ugly in order to do so.
Record: 22-9 overall, 9-8 UFC
Key Wins: Rafael dos Anjos (UFC 91), Rony Jason (UFC Fight Night 32), Sam Stout (UFC 113)
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (UFC 136), Donald Cerrone (UFC on FUEL TV 3)
Keys to Victory: Iowa-born Stephens is a seasoned veteran who has an impressive 17 Octagon bouts under his belt. He's reinvented himself at featherweight after an up-and-down tenure as a UFC lightweight, and the results have been favorable thus far.
"Lil' Heathen" always had fight-changing knockout power, but it looks to be amplified at his new weight class. That theory was on full display last November when he floored Jason with an absolutely devastating kick. With 15 knockout victories to his name, it's no secret that he'll be looking to put a similar stamp on Elkins.
But he can't get careless against him. If he does, he's going to find himself in a world of trouble.
Stephens has a wrestling background and also owns a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Those skills will prove invaluable if and when this fight hits the ground, and Stephens could surprise with his all-around game. He may not be skilled enough in submissions to pull off a fight-ending hold off his back should Elkins take him down, however.
His bread and butter has always been his striking, and that's not going to change here. Elkins has been finished by way of strikes twice in his three total losses, a fact that helps Stephens' plight greatly. Stephens will come out guns blazing in pursuit of his first top-10 win at featherweight.
It's just a matter of whether or not Elkins can weather that storm.
Bottom Line from Chicago: The bottom line for this fight is that the winner is going to emerge as a contender in the tough UFC featherweight division. With the title picture finally getting figured out between Jose Aldo and Ricardo Lamas at UFC 169 on Feb. 1, top contenders will be clamoring for an opportunity to fight for the belt.
But only one of them will get that shot, so there's going to be some highly-ranked opposition looking for a solid opponent. The winner of this bout is going to fit that bill, and that's what makes this fight so pivotal for the career trajectories of both Elkins and Stephens.
With so many big names toward the peak of the UFC featherweight top 10, Elkins rarely receives any credit or publicity for his rather shining record as of late. He can change all of that by notching his biggest win on a grand stage this weekend.
A heavy dose of his substantial wrestling skill is probably his best way of obtaining that victory.
"Lil' Heathen" has been on a roll, and Elkins has shown he can be knocked out in the past. He brings the momentum of his huge knockout win over Jason into the bout, plus he's fighting close to his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa. Stephens has to harness that crowd energy into a motivating force rather than letting it put pressure on him. His many UFC bouts will be instrumental in maintaining his calm.
With a nice ranking spot on the line, this bout should be a war. Enjoy the fight.
Darren Elkins and Jeremy Stephens will square off to see who advances on at featherweight. Will "Lil' Heathen" make it three in a row, or will Elkins prove to be too "Damaging" for him?