Savvy striker, Cub Swanson, faces a fellow knockout specialist, Jeremy Stephens, in a potential title eliminator match in the featherweight division this Saturday night (June 28, 2014) on FOX Sports 1 from inside the AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.
Since losing his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) debut to Ricardo Lamas, Swanson has been on a tear, running through five straight opponents. After repeatedly calling for a title shot, Swanson is given a chance to main event. If he can continue his vicious streak of wins, he very well might get his first shot at Octagon gold.
Jeremy Stephens had a pretty terrible 2013. Not only did he lose both of his bouts -- resutling in the first ever three-fight losing streak of his career -- he was also finished via strikes for the first time. To make matters worse, Stephens was arrested the day before one of his fights, which sparked a large amount of controversy.
Stephens took this adversity in stride, dropping a weight class and looking better than ever. Three straight wins, including a positively violent head kick knockout of Rony "Jason," have catapulted him into the top 10. According to the UFC, an impressive win could earn him the first title shot of his mixed martial arts (MMA) career as well.
Who will take advantage of this opportunity?
Let's find out.
When Stephens entered the Octagon way back in 2007 at the age of 20, he showed some potential, as a decent wrestler with big punches is always a dangerous combination. Since then, Stephens has developed every part of his martial arts style much further, in large part thanks to his work with Alliance MMA.
It became clear just how much Stephens' striking had improved after his drop to featherweight. When he's not trying to brawl -- Stephens will always be a brawler at heart -- "Lil Heathen" moves much better. He's lighter on his feet and throws tighter combinations.
Stephens generally attacks his opponent with two and three punch combinations. Usually a mix of hooks, uppercuts, and overhands, Stephens does a very good job mixing up his power in these strikes. Even when he does try to throw with speed rather than power, Stephens' punches are very dangerous.
Speaking of power, there are very few men who know how to utilize their entire body in a single punch like Stephens. When Stephens is looking for a one punch knockout, he backs the strike with every ounce of body weight he has. This results in brilliant finishes, either for him (such as Raphael Dos Anjos and Marcus Davis) or against him (such as Yves Edwards).
As I mentioned above, Stephens has a brawler's mentality. He's more than willingly to stand his ground in an exchange and risk eating a punch in order to come back with a combination of his own. Thanks to his fairly sturdy chin and crushing power, it usually works out well for him.
Perhaps the biggest improvement to Stephens' striking is his kicking ability. Stephens fights a bit more like a Muay Thai fighter now, and his delivery of kicks shows it. Against Elkins, Stephens repeatedly landed hard kicks to the leg and body. And as Rony Jason found out, Stephens can throw high kicks as well
Swanson has also greatly improved since the start of his World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) career. In addition to years of work at Jackson's MMA, Swanson has been training with professional boxer Timothy Bradley.
Swanson has some of the smoothest movement in MMA. He fluidly circles, lunges in and out, and switches his stances, always ready to fire off a quick strike. Though his hands stay low, his defensive head movement is excellent as well. In addition, he usually gets his head off the center line when he lunges in with a punch, which makes him harder to counter.
For the most part, Swanson restricts himself to throwing one or two strikes at a time. After circling around his opponent, Swanson will either with shoot out a quick kick or lunge in with a long punch. Swanson is very quick, allowing him to dart in and land before exiting at an angle.
In order to make this style work, Swanson has to be very unpredictable and does a few things very well to keep his opponent guessing. The first, and likely most important, is his frequent use of feints. After landing a hard strike, he'll begin feinting that strike and then coming in with another shot. For example, Swanson landed a hard uppercut against Dennis Siver. Then, he feinted with an uppercut and instead stepped into a left high kick.
This combination would also be an example of the second thing Swanson does very well: stay unpredictability. Swanson loves to throw fairly absurd or rare strikes on their own or in combination with each other. When Swanson is willing to throw an overhand, capoeira-style high kick, and flying knee within a minute of each other, it suddenly becomes very hard to guess what he's willing to do next.
Finally, Swanson's range of targets is very helpful. His body work is excellent, as it's very difficult to distinguish whether or not a lunging hook is going high or to the midsection. In addition, Swanson's kicks vary from the top of his opponent's dome to the soft part of his calf.
Speaking of Swanson's calf kicks, they're a huge part of his game. Not only do these kicks hurt, they help pin his opponent in place and disrupt his rhythm. After landing one of these low kicks, Swanson will burst forward with a punch.
Swanson will interrupt his single shot style with occasional flurries of violence, or in Swanson's own words "beautiful destruction." Once he's in this aggressive mode, there's no guessing what Swanson will throw. He'll smoothly tie together his lunging shots with spinning moves, kicks, flying attacks, and more.
Swanson's best punch may be his counter left hook. While moving backwards, Swanson loses none of his power and brilliantly counters with this strike often. For a fairly open puncher like Stephens, this counter has to be on his mind.
A part-time high school wrestler, Stephens has put a lot of work into developing his wrestling inside the Octagon. Furthermore, the drop in weight has clearly helped as well, as Stephens' wrestling has been untouchable so far in his featherweight career.
For the most part, Stephens relies on his double leg to drag the fight to the mat. After forcing his opponent back to the cage with his heavy hands, Stephens changes levels. From there, he sucks up his opponent's hips and throws them to the mat. Alternatively, Stephens will use a single leg and run the pipe. Stephens does leave his neck out a bit when he uses this takedown and will need to be very wary against Swanson.
In addition, Stephens is a very strong from within the clinch. He likes to transition from his single leg directly into back clinch. From there, Stephens will looks to kick out one of his opponent's feet and drag him to the mat. If that fails, Stephens will look to lift and slam his foe.
While Stephens likes to power through his shots, Swanson looks to take his opponent down with a bit more finesse. Swanson rarely goes for a double leg, but he showed against Dustin Poirier that he has a nice blast when he needs it.
However, most of Swanson's takedowns come from within the clinch. Swanson is one of the finer Judo practitioners in the UFC and has sent many of his opponent's flying through the air. When he's the one looking for a throw, Swanson grabs a head and arm, gets his hip across his opponent's body, and yanks him over.
Swanson is also excellent at using his opponent's aggression against him with his Judo. As his opponent pushes forward in the clinch or, in Dennis Siver's case, off of a failed takedown, Swanson will use their momentum and underhooks against them. He'll step across the body, dig a whizzer, and turn his whole body into the throw.
Defensively, these men are very different as well. Face with a hard-nosed, grinding wrestler in Darren Elkins, Stephens sacrificed his movement in order to adopt a stonewall strategy of defense. When Elkins looked to punch, Stephens would stand his ground and hammer away at "The Damage." Then, Elkins would look to shoot, but Stephens gave up no ground and pushed him back away.
On the other hand, Swanson's style is far too movement-based to attempt such a defense. Instead, he relies on his ability to limp leg out of singles and his counter-throws to avoid being put on his back. This makes Swanson a bit more vulnerable to the double leg in the center of the cage, but his defense against the cage is very good.
The two men do share one similarity in terms of takedown defense: they both attack while defending. Stephens landed brutal uppercuts as Elkins looked to recover from failed shots. On the other hand, Swanson will attack with flying knees or a series of punches while his opponent looks to take him down with a single leg.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Swanson, who has finished four of his opponents via submission, is an offensively minded black belt. Swanson's highly aggressive jiu-jitsu attack is not without flaws, but he's so very threatening with his ground game that it is difficult for all but expert grapplers to deal with.
Swanson's primary submission attack is his guillotine choke. He finished two of his opponents in the WEC with this choke, and he often uses it to deter takedowns. To finish his guillotine, Swanson leans up and into the choke from within the full guard. This is the usual finish for a guillotine with the arm in, but Swanson uses regardless, as this finish allows him to control his opponent easier.
To see Swanson's WEC finish of John Franchi, click HERE.
When Swanson latches onto his opponent's neck and doesn't feel he can finish the choke, he will use it to stand up. Once his opponent's hands are defending his neck, Swanson's hips are free, allowing him to scoot out. From there, he can apply downward pressure on his opponent's head and look to stand.
When Swanson is on his back, he's constantly looking to stand, sweep, or submit. The guillotine can help with all three of these things, but Swanson uses other attacks as well. In addition to using his feet to kick off his opponent's hips -- which creates space to stand -- Swanson likes to attack with the omoplata.
To use the omoplata, Swanson relies on his flexibility to pull his leg towards his head whenever his opponent places his hand on the mat. Once he triangles his leg, trapping the arm, he will swivel and look to apply pressure. Swanson is smart with this attack; he focuses on sitting up so that he can stand or sweep with the move. The omoplata is exceptionally difficult to finish, and Swanson knows this, so he uses it to improve his position.
As I mentioned, Swanson's defensive jiu-jitsu is imperfect. His three submission losses are largely due to his aggressiveness, as he leaves opening. For example, Lamas countered Swanson's repeated guillotine attempt by passing his guard. When Swanson held onto the grip, Lamas switched to the fighting ending arm triangle choke.
The first time I saw the fight, I was impressed by Lamas' quick thinking. But after seeing Swanson's bout with Tommy Lee in the WEC, it became clear that Lamas watched his tape. While Swanson was looking for his stand up from the guillotine, Lee would grab the arm triangle. He failed to escape Swanson's guard, making the choke weak, but it showed Swanson's willingness to hang onto the choke past the point of failure.
Stephens has not submitted an opponent since 2007, but he has been developing his submission game. In recent years, Stephens has shown off a dangerous kimura. For example, he managed to sweep Marcus Davis with one during their 2011 brawl.
In all honesty, "Lil Heathen" deserved a submission victory in his bout with Danny Downes. Full credit to Downes toughness and flexibility, but Stephens had a kimura absolutely locked in. He was wrenching Downes' arm far behind his back and from multiple positions, but Downes endured long enough to lose a wide decision.
Stephens has improved defensively as well, although he's not untouchable. In his last bout, Elkins threatened with an armbar and pair of guillotines, but Stephens defended them all the same way: he quickly spun the hell out of there. It was a little risky in terms of positional control, but it's much easier to defend submissions by quickly yanking away then staying too long.
Best chance for success
In order to upset Swanson, Stephens needs to really balance himself well. When Swanson is bouncing around on the outside, Stephens should focus on his kicks. While Swanson is off-balance from the kick, Stephens should throw a quick combination, such as his favored 3-2.
Additionally, Stephens should look to counter Swanson as he jumps in. If Stephens times Swanson's aggressive forward momentum with a solid punch, it could end very badly for the Jackson's MMA-trained product. If Stephens is successful with these tactics -- or if Swanson just gets impatient -- there's a good chance Swanson will wade in and brawl. A situation like that favors "Lil Heathen;" as the man thrives in brawls.
Finally, I think it would be a very bad idea for Stephens to look for a takedown. He leaves his neck out a bit too much to risk it against someone with an excellent guillotine like Swanson. This is especially important if he gets hurt by punches.
For Swanson, he should focus heavily on his in-and-out movement. He has to remain calm, composed, and pick his shots. Stephens has ridiculous power, and Swanson has to respect that.
In all honestly, it might be in Swanson's best interest to mix in takedown attempts. Even if they don't land, it will knock Stephens' off his game a bit and may make him more flat-footed. Plus, Swanson would have a decent chance to finish with a submission if he secured a dominant position.
There you have it.
Will Swanson finally get his title shot, or will Stephens add another knockout to his highlight reel?