Tonight (Sat., June 28, 2014), Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweights Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens will lock horns in the main event of UFC Fight Night 44, airing live at 10 p.m. EST on FOX Sports 1 from AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas.
No. 4-ranked Swanson was last seen finishing Dennis Siver in a "Fight of the Night"-winning performance at UFC 162 in July 2013. On the shelf dealing with a pesky elbow injury since then, the talented Jackson's Submission Fighting product has won his last five mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts.
He'll potentially lock up a long-awaited UFC title shot if he can get past No. 11-ranked Stephens. After a disappointing run at lightweight, "Lil' Heathen" cut down to 145 pounds and has won three straight bouts, his most recent being a UFC on FOX 10 decision win over Darren Elkins.
With both fighters able to end any bout in an instant, this one has fireworks written all over it. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Swanson vs. Stephens:
Record: 20-5 overall, 5-1 UFC
Key Wins: Dustin Poirier (UFC on Fuel TV 7), Dennis Siver (UFC 162), Charles Oliveira (UFC 152), Ross Pearson (UFC on FX 4)
Key Losses: Jose Aldo (WEC 41), Chad Mendes (WEC 50), Ricardo Lamas (UFC on FOX 1), Jens Pulver (WEC 31)
Keys to Victory: With 15 finishes in 20 wins, Swanson is a well-rounded and dangerous competitor who is an extremely tough test for any featherweight on the planet.
He may not match the sheer knockout power of Stephens, but he's close. Swanson should also hold a technical edge thanks to many hours spent with striking coach Mike Winkeljohn. Using excellent footwork and a high volume of fast, disruptive strikes will keep Stephen's thunderous punches at bay.
He can't let Stephens find a rhythm on the feet, so throwing several low kicks will also go far in sapping "Lil' Heathen's" power. Swanson will be ready to go five full rounds, and his gameplan will be on point as well.
If the fight hits the ground, Swanson should have a leg up. He owns a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt that could help him gain advantageous positions with transitions and sweeps. He just has to be careful to avoid Stephens' takedown attempts so he isn't smothered with ground and pound.
With excellent conditioning, heart, and desire, UFC Fight Night 44 could be Swanson's big coming out party. He has to stay one step ahead of Stephens' fight-changing strikes to make that goal a reality.
Record: 23-9 overall, 10-8 UFC
Key Wins: Rafael dos Anjos (UFC 91), Rony Jason (UFC Fight Night 32), Sam Stout (UFC 113), Darren Elkins (UFC on FOX 10)
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (UFC 136), Donald Cerrone (UFC on Fuel TV 3)
Keys to Victory: Stephens will have to fight one of the best bouts of his lengthy career to keep momentum building in San Antonio. He's looked great as of late, but his competition hasn't been anywhere near the level of Swanson.
To score the huge victory, Stephens has to fight smart; he can't rush in for the headhunting knockout. The chance that it succeeds will be far outweighed by the chance he is put into a bad spot by his veteran opponent.
With scary knockout power for a featherweight, Stephens will be looking to become only the second man to finish Swanson with strikes. Utilizing impeccable timing and patience will help him along that path.
Stephens also has his own black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, but he's only used it to submit three opponents in 32 total fights. His wrestling is decent enough, as he was able to defeat Elkins over the course of three rounds. While that does add up to a very strong ground game, in reality, Stephens does have to be careful.
Three of his losses have come by submission, so even if he succeeds in taking down Swanson, he'll need to be on the lookout for an armbar or triangle.
If he can pass Swanson's guard, avoid submissions, and score with ground and pound, the tides could turn in his favor.
Bottom Line From San Antonio: The bottom line for this fight is that the winner will be on the cusp of a featherweight title shot. Swanson is obviously more likely to earn the shot because he has a bigger win streak over better opposition.
However, Stephens has looked almost unstoppable since dropping weight, and if he can continue that trend against the crafty Swanson, he could be a surprise contender for a coveted title shot.
Either way you slice it, this bout is probably destined to be war. Neither Swanson nor Stephens likes to let their fights be decided by the judges, and this one will be no different. With both fighters having similar talents in the Octagon, each and every edge will come at a high price in San Antonio.
That means it will truly hinge on whom can implement their gameplan first. On the surface, it wouldn't be a surprise to see this bout turn into an all-out slugfest at some point.
Swanson wants nothing more than to get another shot at Aldo, but Stephens is quite the roadblock to have in that path. With experience, skill, and toughness in abundance from both sides, this headliner truly has "Fight of the Night" written all over it.
Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens will square off in a battle of hard-charging featherweights. Will the winner get a future shot at gold?