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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on FOX 28’s Jeremy Stephens

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Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Long-time Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) veteran, Jeremy Stephens, will square off with surging power puncher, Josh Emmett, this Saturday (Feb. 24, 2018) at UFC on FOX 28 inside Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.

Stephens has been brawling inside the Octagon since 2007. He’s made small improvements consistently over his decade in UFC, but it’s all come together a bit more since his move to 145 pounds. Now a more physically imposing athlete who can wear down fighters opponents, Stephens has found renewed success and proven himself a Top 10-ranked contender multiple times. Little more than one month ago, Stephens overcame the odds to turn away a new knockout artist. He’s tasked to do the same here, but this time Stephens will also look to land himself in title contention.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

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. 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 to 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.

Stephens scored stoppages opposite Dennis Bermudez and Rony Jason as a result of their head position. Both men leaned far too forward while punching, and Stephens brutalized them. Specifically, Bermudez dipped his head forward while moving in behind the jab (GIF), whereas Jason lunged into a big overhand right (and Stephen’s shin).

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. These two strikes are great counters to the jab and play off each other well, which is the reason they’re the subject of this week’s technique highlight.

To clarify on much of the above, Stephens is far from a dedicated counter striker. He’s more of an aggressive opportunist, staling his foe and firing heavy shots then countering when they return. 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.

Opposite Choi, Stephens made better use of the jab than ever before. Once Choi slowed just a touch, Stephens was snapping his head back repeatedly with the jab, and using the strike to hide powerful right hands to the head and body. Stephens also closed the distance well by switching stances while advancing, forcing his opponent to fear power coming from both sides.

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’ 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).

The great flaw to Stephens’ kickboxing is impatience. 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. His work with the jab and cutting off the cage in both stances was a promising development last time out, but Choi is hardly a difficult fighter to hit.

Wrestling

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 down Stephens for extended periods 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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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.

Conclusion

For the second time in one month, Stephens is in the main event against a dangerous up-and-comer. Stephens may be pretty firmly in gatekeeper territory, but enough high-profile wins can change that no matter how set in stone his fate may appear. A victory here makes it three quality wins in a row, and the potential for Stephens to compete in a title eliminator next is definitely there.

*****

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.