The year started off on a sour note for Joe Stevenson. In February at UFC 95, "Daddy" suffered a unanimous decision loss to top UFC lightweight contender Diego Sanchez. It was the second loss in a row for The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 2 winner and his third in four fights, albeit against some of the best lightweight fighters in the world — Sanchez, Kenny Florian and B.J. Penn for the then-vacant lightweight strap.
In June, Stevenson had a chance to put things back in order at the TUF 9 Finale by squaring off against another TUF winner, Nate Diaz. And win he did, largely by out-wrestling the Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt. Stevenson also picked up "Fight of the Night" honors in the process (his second in a row).
Now 30-10, Stevenson now looks to string back consecutive wins and climb back up the contender ladder for his second shot at the UFC lightweight title.
He’ll get his chance at UFC 104: "Machida vs. Shogun" on October 24, 2009 when he meets the hard-hitting Spencer Fisher (23-4). The action gets underway from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Calif. and airs live on pay-per-view (PPV).
We caught up with Stevenson this week to ask him about his upcoming match against a fellow veteran in "The King" Fisher, find out how training at his new camp (Jackson Submission Fighting) is going, and see how he feels about a possible future rematch against Diego Sanchez or Kenny Florian (a fight he calls a "fluke").
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): You earned your BJJ blackbelt under Robert Drysdale about a year ago. Can you talk about what that means to you, especially to earn it under Drysdale, and how stylistically that might be different from other jiu-jitsu players?
Joe Stevenson: Robert is one of the best jiu-jitsu competitors, and what people don’t understand is he’s also probably one of the best coaches out there in the game today. Just because of his ability to break down the jiu-jitsu for a particular person to help give him a better concept of what works for his body composition and size. So to have that blackbelt was one of the best moments of my life.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Back in April you teamed up with Greg Jackson’s Submission Fighting camp. I read that you were invited by Rashad Evans to help prepare you for the Nate Diaz fight. Can you tell us a bit about how that works? I assume you are still affiliated with your other camps with Marc Laimon and Cobra Kai?
Joe Stevenson: Yeah, Marc is a great friend of mine. My gym is called Joe Stevenson’s Cobra Kai. And honestly, you just try to tippy-toe around things such as, ‘Oh, well I’m going to fight him from that gym or him from that gym.’
… At Marc’s, I really … launched my grappling, (he) really pushed me above and beyond what I thought I was capable of. He helped me believe in myself.
And then with a team like Jackson’s … I’m now put in a situation where I’m not a big fish in a little pond, but a little fish in a big pond. And every day I have to be on my top game and be prepared to go to work.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Will that impact which opponents you feel comfortable taking on, such as a Diego Sanchez rematch. I know he used to train with Jackson.
Joe Stevenson: Honestly, you would have to talk to Greg about that. I am never going to be the person to put him in any type of awkward position, because he’s such a friend and a good man to me.
But, I … pretty much wouldn’t mind fighting him again.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): (Laughs) Pretty much?
(Stevenson holds his ground, saying nothing.)
Okay. Well let’s talk about the win over Diaz. Both of you were coming off losses. Was this a make or break fight for your UFC career, being that you were coming off two losses?
Joe Stevenson: Well, in the fans’ eyes perhaps, because of the fact that they just care about the two losses, and not the fact that they were against two top-ranked guys in the world — and one was close and one was a fluke. I would rather get caught and submitted or knocked out than lose a decision any day. Because in a decision you either lost because the guy’s better than you or because you did something wrong.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Is that what you call the fluke, the fact that the decision didn’t go your way or the fact that you did something wrong?
Joe Stevenson: No, no, no. The fact that … I’m calling the fluke the fight with Kenny where I gave up my back and got rear-naked (choked).
I’d rather get finished than lose a decision such as losing to Diego, just given the fact that when you lose a decision there’s clearly something you could have done to affect the outcome in a different way, unless you were just dominated.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Right. Well, you beat Diaz largely by out-wrestling him. As gifted as the Diaz brothers are on the ground and on the feet, they have been criticized in the past for holes in their wrestling games. Was that the game plan going in? Did you think Nate was weakest in that department and you went in to exploit that?
Joe Stevenson: Well, I was confident enough that I knew I wasn’t going to get submitted. I knew that he had the ability to submit me, but if I were at no point in time to take him lightly or allow myself to think that he had no chance and always to assume that he was right there on my toes, (then) I would walk away with the victory.
There’s a moment that you overestimate, you just think it’s in the bag, especially with someone like Nate, (then) you actually just get finished and caught.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Well, the unanimous decision earned you Fight of the Night honors. Were you surprised that the UFC gave out three Fight of the Night honors for that card, along with a KO and Submission of the Night?
Joe Stevenson: A little bit, it was surprising, but also I was happy to see that you don’t just have to strive for these bonuses, that there is more to it than that, that they are going to take care of you.
Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, well they’re making so much.’ They’re always complaining. Honestly, (the UFC has) gotta do it to ensure that the sport continues to grow. For them to do that at the point where they did, it was really awesome of them to do that. It was really cool.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Let’s talk about your upcoming opponent, Spencer Fisher. Both you guys have been fighting for a while now. This is certainly a battle of well-versed veterans. How do you see the matchup?
Joe Stevenson: I see the matchup being tough everywhere, all the way around. Spencer comes to bring it, and he brings it hard.
I see everywhere that I have this fight that I’m going to need to push the pace. He’s the type of fighter that pushes the pace, but I’m going to show him that that’s not necessarily what’s going to happen — that it’s going to be because I dictate what happens.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): While he’s certainly well-rounded, I would think that Fisher is probably more known for his standup. Do you think that stylistically he’ll want to keep this fight on the feet? Do you think that he’s not going to be too keen about going to the ground with you?
Joe Stevenson: Honestly, I don’t think very many people in the world are keen going to the ground with me, especially with me being the one that’s on top …
I have no idea what he’s going to do. I have an understanding of what he wants to do, probably, an idea, more or less. I’m not going to focus on that. I’m going to focus on what I want to do to him, and overbearing him with my will.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Will you have any hesitation just keeping it on the feet?
Joe Stevenson: I have no hesitation keeping it on my feet for a little bit. I have no hesitation keeping it there the whole time. I think he’s well-versed. … (But if) the fight never went to the ground, I would dictate clenches on the feet and dirty boxing like Randy Couture.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): You’ve been touted by many as having some of the best guillotines in the business. Was that a move that you actively sought out to make your bread and butter move, or did it just kind of happen by accident, you just discovered that you happen to be really good at guillotines?
Joe Stevenson: You know what happened, everyone tells you, ‘Oh man, be careful of his guillotine. Be careful of his guillotine.’ Or, ‘Oh, Joe’s got leg locks and guillotines. Joe’s got leg locks and guillotines.’ And then eventually you believe it in yourself and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what they’re worried about?’ And you start doing it more and more, and you see that it’s very difficult to stop, and you understand it very well, maybe better than others. And so it does become a signature move.
However, I would like to think that my ground game is much more than leg locks and guillotines.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): It wasn’t all that long ago that winners from past seasons of The Ultimate Fighter were considered up-and-coming fighters, but today we see former TUF cast members as top contenders in almost every weight class — including yourself, Diego and Kenny Florian, who you mentioned, are both top contenders in the division. Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Michael Bisping, Koscheck, all those guys. As the TUF franchise continues to cement its legacy, does that make your accomplishment as the TUF2 winner any more special to you?
Joe Stevenson: I think winning TUF was a great accomplishment in and of itself. What it’s done for me is amazing, and what it continues to do will be at no point in time ever old to me. It’s something that’s as part of my life as my kids. It took six weeks away from my family. It will always be there in the back of my head.
And yeah, it does help you appreciate a little more about it.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Would you ever want to be involved in a TUF season again, as a coach, or would that take too much time away from your family?
Joe Stevenson: Being a coach I would think I would be able to have my family with me. So I wouldn’t really mind that as much as being on the show and being away from everyone. Being a coach would be an awesome experience and would allow me to focus on training even more than I already do, which would be an amazing time and good for everyone.
Adam Wagner (MMAmania.com): Well, Joe, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with us. I wanted to give you a chance to thank any sponsors or if you have any parting words for your fans.
Joe Stevenson: I’d like to thank all the fans ... And I would like to tell anyone that is going to UFC 104 that I’m going to give everything I’ve got to have a very impressive win. And I’m so excited to be fighting in my backyard, in southern California!