The short story on UFC lightweight Jeremy Stephens is a change in training camps has brought about a reinvigorated and retooled fighter who is ready to give his best performance against arguably his biggest opponent to date: Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
The long story regarding “Lil’ Heathen” began immediately following the split decision loss to Anthony “Showtime” Pettis at UFC 136 last October. Many expected a strikers’ duel between the young knockout artists, but instead received a wrestlers’ struggle as the pair traded takedowns instead of haymakers. It was an awkward outing that Stephens is happy to move on from and has made strides to make sure to never duplicate it. In the wake of the least inspired and least exciting Octagon appearance of his career, Stephens knew a drastic change had to be made to his fighting life, both in and out of the cage, which resulted in the Midwesterner relocating to the California coast to become the newest member of Alliance MMA.
“I told the guys after my last fight I needed to mix it up,” remembers Stephens. “I said I was going to make the move out there and get a house closer to the gym, so I could be around those guys more. I'm a man of my word and I did it. I had a long talk with Coach Eric Del Fierro one night and he was like, 'What's on your mind? You didn't seem like you when you fought.' I told him there were a lot of things going on in my mind and I wasn't prepared mentally for that fight. I had a good camp, no excuses, but I didn't get my head into that fight. We had a long talk about that and what I needed to work on. I had talks with Dominick [Cruz] with him being a good friend and a good training partner for quite some time. I had some talks with him and Del Fierro, and I had to make the move. I decided it was best for me, my career, my family, and my future to make another step and that's what I did. I went from Iowa to San Diego and to training with the best team out there.”
At 25 years old, “Lil’ Heathen” is making a fresh start with a new team in the lead up to his 14th bout inside the Octagon. Previously, the junior veteran has racked up seven wins in the UFC, including a Fight of the Night victory over Sam Stout and three highlight reel “Knockout of the Night” bonuses. On the flip side, Stephens has acquired six losses, which have been the momentum killers that have kept the heavy-handed battler from being listed among the 155-pound elite. Under the tutelage of a different, but highly regarded, coach and being pushed by premium training partners, Stephens is poised to break through to the top 10 of his weight class with a win at UFC on FUEL TV 3.
“I feel like going over to Team Alliance is really bringing me back to my roots,” tells Stephens. “I feel like Eric Del Fierro is an awesome coach and a really good game planner. He knows what buttons to push and knows what your weaknesses are. He really is dedicated to his team and I really like that. I really like all the guys that are on the team. Iron sharpens iron and that's what I really needed. I needed a group of guys - a team - really pushing me. Being over there has helped me out a lot. It's taken me out of my comfort zone. I was getting too comfortable where I was at. I needed guys who could kick my ass and were better than me and on the same track. Guys with the same mentalities, same goals, there are a lot of different weight classes, there are guys from the UFC, guys from other countries like England and Sweden coming over, and just guys who are beasts in the gym. It's a really good team and I'm glad to be a part of it.”
Don’t worry, the endearing head-hunting style of Stephens is not going anywhere, and is only looking to be evolved further with Del Fierro’s insistence. “Starting to hit pads with Eric, he makes me pressure him a lot because I'm a pressure fighter,” explains Stephens, whose third round knockouts of Marcus Davis and Rafael dos Anjos are enormous fan favorites, and serve as proof of the power and “never quit” attitude that makes him a potential force in the division. “I'm constantly moving my feet, constantly stalking him down, reacting. I'm not thinking as much as I'm reacting off of combinations that Cerrone throws. Even if I only have two seconds left, I know if I throw a combination I can knock you out.”
No one has documented this physical and emotional maturation of Stephens better than himself. Besides tweets and status updates, Stephens regularly posts video blogs on Youtube (youtube.com/lilheathenmma) that give fans an in-depth look at him in the gym working to get better or relaxing with friends trying to unwind from the grind. At the heart of it, Stephens is embracing what social media was made for, which is transparency and access. For added interest, he has also been directing and starring in his most recent entries with a spectacular “rat tail” haircut.
“In life and throughout fighting, I was kind of growing up inside the Octagon,” reveals Stephens. “I had some bad managers in the past who were ripping me off and taking advantage of me because I was young and getting bonuses. I had a manager try to sue me, and that lasted forever. I had to go back to court in Iowa during the Anthony Pettis camp. That's all behind me now. I have a really good manager now, Ryan Haas. I've been with him two to three years and he's an amazing guy who is behind me and goes above and beyond what other managers do. He told me to start blogging and taking advantage of marketing myself, and he built me a website and did stuff for me that in the past managers never spoke to me about. He told me, 'You live an exciting life. You have really good character and are a really good kid and you can inspire a lot of people.' So, I started doing these blogs. First it was kind of different for me. As we went along, I had a really good friend of mine with me and we went around and were constantly blogging and it became natural to me to talk about the foods I was eating, my training, and just joking around every day. I get a lot of feedback from the fans. I enjoy doing it. It inspires people and helps people out and I like to be a part of that.”
Up next for Stephens is a showdown at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia with former WEC star and current emerging UFC contender Cerrone on Tuesday. The Greg Jackson protégé cut a blue streak through the lightweight talent pool, winning four out of five fights in 2011, and netting four bonuses in the process. After nailing victories over Paul Kelly in February clear to Dennis Siver in late October, he finally tasted defeat at the hands of Nate Diaz at UFC 141. Cerrone is a long and lean kickboxer who has a penchant for using his lankiness on the ground to secure chokes. If Stephens wants to punch his ticket to the front of the weight class, then there is no one better to prove himself against than “Cowboy”.
“Cerrone as a fighter - he's a beast,” admits Stephens. “He's a gangster. He comes forward a lot, he pressures a lot. He shows up to fight every time. He's from a really good camp. Probably a lot of guys don't want to fight a guy like Cerrone. For me, it's an honor to fight him. We're both awesome, we both kick ass, and we both come to fight. That's what people want to see and those are the fights I want. You wake up every day knowing that if you're fighting a guy like Donald Cerrone you have to get your ass to the gym and train as hard as you can because you know he's doing the same thing. I think we both have a lot of respect for each other, we both are coming off a loss, we're both hungry to get back to a top position, and you're going to see two warriors go at it for 15 minutes of non-stop action. 15 minutes is a short period of time, but there's going to be a lot of fireworks, a lot of exchanges, and expect to see probably one of the best fights you've ever seen.”
With only a few defeats to his name, Cerrone’s resume does not provoke a lot of confidence from his would-be opponents. There is something that Stephens has in common with the losses on his opponent’s record: devastating punches. The Iowa native has an explosive element with his fists that easily rivals any in the weight class, and he is not afraid to stand in the pocket and sling leather. Stephens has the confidence that he can use those strengths of his against Cerrone and be effective against his foe’s strengths when he tries to use his technical striking and reach advantage. Lastly, Cerrone has a tendency to let his temper rise and gloves lower and exchange in a brawl, which is where Stephens’ knuckled knockout power will happily trade blows.
“Honestly, overall I think I'm a bad matchup stylistically for Donald Cerrone,” says Stephens. “I think he's a good kickboxer and probably even has better kickboxing than me. But I feel like my hands are more devastating, more explosive, faster, and I have that power where I can knock you out with either hand. He has stumbled in the past with guys with good hands, boxing skills, and good explosiveness in and out. His kickboxing is really good and I don't want to stay in his range on the outside. I want to stay outside of his range and when I come in, I want to be exploding and pressuring him with my hands for the whole 15 minutes. I can expect a takedown from Cerrone. I've seen him go for takedowns on guys with good hands when he has trouble with them. His wrestling is not bad either and his ground game, he's got a couple good submissions. But I don't think he's going to be able to take me down or submit me. I think it's going to be a standup war. But I know I have to expect the unexpected. Once he gets hit, I think he's going to switch up the gameplan and try to stay on the outside or go for takedowns and try to put me up against the cage. I'm not a points-based fighter; my gameplan is always to rip your head off.”
On May 15th, “Lil’ Heathen” clashes with “Cowboy” in a lightweight barnburner. “I want to show not just to the fans, but to myself as well, that when you hit a bump in the road and you get knocked down to not give up because you can dig a little deeper and come back stronger than ever,” states Stephens, who has a new team and new coaches, but still has the same goals: win fights and do it with authority. “Now after that loss, I'm starving, I'm hungry, I'm ready for a war, I'm focused, I'm out of my comfort zone, I'm training with the best people, and you guys should be ready to see the best Jeremy Stephens you've ever seen against probably the best Donald Cerrone you've ever seen. It's an exciting matchup and I'm excited everyday to wake up and train for a guy like Donald Cerrone. The fans are going to get what they deserve.”
The long and short of it, if Stephens and Cerrone bring their usual heat, then the Patriot Center should expect nothing less than an MMA inferno worthy of a Fight of the Night bonus.
Stephens Promises to Unveil the Best "Lil' Heathen" Yet
"15 minutes is a short period of time, but there's going to be a lot of fireworks, a lot of exchanges, and expect to see probably one of the best fights you've ever seen." - Jeremy Stephens