Long-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) veteran, Jeremy Stephens, will square off with fellow knockout artist, Doo Ho Choi, this Sunday (Jan. 14, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 124 inside Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri.
Numerous fighters quickly dropped from Lightweight down to 145 pounds when the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) organization was fully absorbed. Many were closer to the end of their careers than the start or on losing streaks, desperate for a new start that largely did not work out.
Lightweight may be the most talent-rich division in the sport, but the premiere Featherweights have never been a joke, either.
Stephens — who began shedding 10 more pounds in 2013 — was expected to be a member of that group. Instead, Stephens scored a trio of victories to earn a spot in the rankings, and while he never quite managed to earn a title shot, “Lil Heathen” has performed far better against stiffer opposition than ever before.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
There have been two major changes to Stephens’ approach since his drop to Featherweight. An improvement in conditioning was quickly noticeable and very helpful, a result of extra running and carrying less weight on his frame. Technically, Stephens has improved his technical kickboxing quite a bit, as Alliance MMA has transformed him into far more than just a brawler.
That said, Stephens loves to exchange. He does better to avoid sloppiness now, but there’s multiple reasons that Stephens thrives against fighters who are willing to trade with him. Just go get it out of the way, the natural gifts of power and a stiff chin are definitely among those reasons.
One of the biggest, however, is that Stephens does a fantastic job of capitalizing on bad habits in the pocket. Leaning forward face-first is among the most common bad striking habits in mixed martial arts (MMA), and Stephens has found numerous ways to capitalize violently. In this week’s technique analysis, we take a look at a few examples and why it’s such an effective time to counter.
Aside from those counters, Stephens does a great job of slipping to his right and firing with a combination. Ideally, he’ll slip a jab and come back before his foe’s hand is back in place, but it doesn’t have to be that perfect to land effectively. Plus, Stephens does a great job of not just firing a right hand off the slip, as he usually fires at least two punches and will dig to the body as well (GIF).
Similarly, Stephens loves using the uppercut to counter the jab. The set up is similar — slip outside the jab before firing back a power punch (GIF) — but Stephens will really stalk his opponent to draw out the jab. “Lil Heathen” may or may not slip that jab whenever it comes, but chances are his uppercut will land with far more power.
Stephens makes good use of the uppercut even if he does load it up too much. Part of that is because Stephens is quite aggressive with his overhand, which comes around and over the top his opponent’s guard. The uppercut comes from beneath and through the center, meaning it’s the exact opposite path of the overhand. Of course, the uppercut and overhand are easier to distinguish while blocking than most punches, but it only takes a moment of hesitation from his opponent for one of these kill shots to slip through (GIF).
To clarify on much of the above, Stephens is far from a dedicated counter striker. He’s more of an aggressive opportunist, which is a fair description of his opponent as well. When leading, Stephens has done a much better job lately of moving his head after punches, and he also goes to the body more frequently.
Kicks have played a far greater role in Stephens’ approach in the last few years. His stance is more Muay Thai influenced than in the first half of his career, and the addition of kicks has helped him avoid getting jabbed up at range. Stephens still struggles far more with fighters who avoid the pocket than anything else, but his extra focus on kicks does make it easier for Stephens to cut off the cage and find a home for his punches.
Stephens’ most recent victory proved the most effective display of kicking in his entire career. Opposite Gilbert Melendez, Stephens immediately began to attack the lead leg, targeting both the thigh and calf. As Melendez advanced and looked to fire his right hand, Stephens would remain out of reach, only to devastate the lead leg and quickly break down the former Strikeforce champ (GIF). When Stephens is faced with an opponent able to avoid the pocket and the fence, the cracks begin to show. Even this deep into his career, Stephens is fairly quick to grow frustrated, which results in sloppy aggression and counter punches from his opponent.
A high school wrestler, Stephens’ wrestling has always been something of a back up plan for “Lil Heathen.” Generally, if Stephens is shooting for takedowns, things aren’t going according to plan on the feet.
Offensively, Stephens does his best work with the double leg along the fence. It’s nothing complicated, but Stephens’ extra size and strength at 145 pounds makes it easier to control opponents along the fence and then force them to the mat. Alternatively, Stephens will look to pick up a single leg in the center of the Octagon, but that transition usually ends with him driving his foe to the fence and unable to finish the shot.
In terms of defensive wrestling, Stephens probably does not get the credit he deserves. Outside of Frankie Edgar, few men have found consistent success in taking and holding Stephens down for an extended period of time. Other fighters — such as Renato Moicano and Renan Barao — managed to score some points with takedowns, but Stephens was up before long and flinging leather.
Generally, the key to out-wrestling Stephens is to frustrate him with stand up first. Moicano scored his pair of takedowns easily because Stephens was so annoyed with his movement, whereas more straight forward bruisers like Darren Elkins and Dennis Bermudez struggled to get Stephens down. Against those powerful wrestlers, Stephens stood his ground against their shots, and he remained upright far more often than not.
It’s been nearly 11 years since Stephens last scored a submission win, and though Fightmetric does list a pair of submission attempts since his drop to Featherweight, I don’t remember them being all that significant.
That said, Stephens showed off a strong kimura opposite Danny Downes. Throughout the entire fight, Stephens pretty much abused his opponent on the feet and on the mat. In the second round, Stephens locked up a kimura and jammed it behind Downes’ back. Despite his shoulder reportedly popping multiple times, Downes did not tap, and his toughness prevented Stephens from securing his first UFC submission win.
Again, Stephens’ defensive jiu-jitsu is underappreciated. He hasn’t been submitted since 2009, and he recently survived the dangerous top games of Edgar and Charles Oliveira. Oliveira put Stephens in some bad positions, but he managed to remain composed and create just enough space to avoid being strangled.
Is Stephens likely to break into the Top 5 and finally go on a title run? Probably not. Even despite his improvements, the division’s absolute best have pretty consistently been able to capitalize on his flaws. However, Choi is no defense-first kickboxer or overwhelming wrestler, meaning Stephens has a real chance to make this a slugfest and show off why he’s been in UFC for a decade.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.