Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) featherweights Jeremy Stephens and Charles Oliveira will fight over a spot in the top 10 this Friday (Dec. 12, 2014) at The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 20 Finale inside the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Stephens has been in the UFC for a very long time, but recently reinvigorated his career by dropping down to featherweight. Since then, he's won three of his last four, with his sole loss coming to top contender Cub Swanson in a five-round war.
On the other hand, Oliveira is still struggling to find consistency inside the Octagon, regardless of division. His last two performances have been quite strong, as he submitted two tough opponents. The young Brazilian hopes to continue that success against Stephens.
Let's take a look at the keys to victory for each fighter.
Key Wins: Darren Elkins (UFC on FOX 10), Rony Jason (UFC Fight Night 32)
Key Losses: Cub Swanson (UFC Fight Night 44), Yves Edwards (UFC on FOX 5)
Keys to Victory: Stephens' ability to punch with power -- it has resulted in 15 career knockout victories after all -- but his technical kickboxing has greatly improved recently, likely thanks to his time training with Alliance MMA. In addition, his overall grappling game has been steadily growing since he joined the UFC in 2007, leaving "Lil Heathen" with a pair of respectable threats.
In this bout, Stephens needs to just overwhelm Oliveira. His opponent is a decent offensive Muay Thai striker, but he has very little stopping power and reacts poorly to being hit.
Stephens likely refers to that build as his wheelhouse.
Oliveira has really stepped up his aggression with his striking, which will definitely leave openings for Stephens. Though I rarely advocate the basic take-one-to-give-one strategy of fighting, it makes perfect sense for Stephens here. He can't get wild, like he did against Yves Edwards, but Stephens can definitely go out there and fight with the intention of a first round finish.
The real benefit is getting Oliveira out of the cage early is that there will be fewer opportunities for "Do Bronx" to work his ground game. Stephens is a respectable grappler, but Oliveira has submitted some strong jiu-jitsu players, meaning that it's simply not an area that Stephens wants to play around in.
Key Wins: Hatsu Hioki (UFC Fight Night 43), Andy Ogle (UFC Fight Night 36), Jonathon Brookins (TUF 15 Finale)
Key Losses: Frankie Edgar (UFC 162), Cub Swanson (UFC 152)
Keys to Victory: Oliveira may be the most dangerous submission artist in the UFC. He's certainly among the most active, as he's constantly attacking his opponent's throat and joints.
Which is how he has secured 11 submission victories, including all six of his UFC wins.
Oliveira is a highly aggressive fighter, even on the feet. Against Stephens, attempting to win a firefight will lead to unconsciousness for the Brazilian. However, he will need to get Stephens to open up in order to land a takedown.
If Oliveira lets Stephens come to him, he likely won't be able to finish a shot. Stephens is a veteran at knocking fools out; he knows how to land power punches and flurry without giving up easy takedowns. But if Oliveira were to pressure Stephens with strikes and then shoot when Stephens' inevitably tries to counter, his chances of completing the shot are much higher.
Finally, if Oliveira cannot land a takedown, he should just pull guard. It's not a popular or high-percentage strategy, but it's better than standing with "Lil Heathen" and could still result in a spectacular submission.
Bottom Line: At the moment, both of these fighters are basically fringe top 10, with Stephens controlling the number 10 position on the official UFC rankings.
For Stephens, this is an important fight for him. As a veteran of the sport, he needs to consistently turn away up-and-comers like Oliveira, otherwise it will be tough for him to maintain his position in the division. There's little chance that Stephens goes on a title run anytime soon -- unless he hits some type of Robbie Lawler-esque growth spurt -- but the UFC loves entertaining power punchers who are also highly ranked.
Oliveira, despite being just 26 years old, already has 11 fights inside the Octagon. That may sound impressive, and to some extent it definitely is, but "Do Bronx" is just 6-4 (1) in his four-year stay. If Oliveira continues to fall when he steps up in competition, he may not keep getting these opportunities.
However, a win here would be the biggest of Oliveira's career. It would show that he has finally gotten over the hump and should be able to build momentum quickly in the future.
At the TUF 20 Finale, Jeremy Stephens and Charles Oliveira will look for the finish. Which man will leave with a victory?