Jeremy Stephens is one of the longest tenured competitors on the UFC roster, having first stepped into the Octagon on Saturday, May 26, 2007 at UFC 71 in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he lost to respected veteran Din Thomas.
The Iowa-born “Lil Heathen” has made the trek into the UFC cage 32 times, tied with Demian Maia for the second-most appearances in the company’s history, two back of joint leaders Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller, and one ahead of fellow stalwarts Diego Sanchez and Andrei Arlovski.
Stephens has been a Top 10 fixture in the featherweight division for nearly seven years and was a consistently entertaining, tantalizing young talent always on the cusp of breaking through during his lightweight run before that. He’s someone fans know will bring the goods every time he steps into the Octagon and that the results won’t change his approach.
Only certain fighters are capable of forging that kind of relationship with fans and career inside the cage, and Stephens is one of those select few.
Here’s a look at some of the key efforts that helped him reach that point.
These are the 10 signature performances of Jeremy Stephens’ UFC career.
UFC Fight Night 12 vs. Cole Miller
After registering his first UFC victory in his previous appearance, Stephens’ third trip into the Octagon came against Miller in January 2008 and provided the first “sit up and take notice” moment of his career.
Miller had been part of the amazing cast on Season 5 of The Ultimate Fighter and entered off back-to-back wins over fellow TUF 5 contestant Andy Wang and durable veteran Leonard Garcia. He too was one of numerous young lightweight talents looking to build some momentum and climb the divisional ladder, but Stephens was having none of it.
The 21-year-old Stephens landed a clean right hand that turned Miller’s head around less than 30 seconds into the bout, but spent the majority of the opening round on the defensive after the jiu-jitsu practitioner brought the fight to the ground. After working free and trying to recoup some offense late in the frame, Stephens came out in the second and went on the offensive again, stinging Miller early before the duo once again landed on the canvas.
Miller continued to attack, first with a kimura, and then an inverted triangle choke, again forcing Stephens to defend. Despite getting stuck in some tricky spots, the powerful striker stayed calm, worked free and proceeded to unleash hell in the closing moments of the second, bloodying Miller with short elbows and putting him away with heavy ground-and-pound.
UFC 91 vs. Rafael Dos Anjos
Nearly a dozen years after it transpired, this remains one of Stephens’ signature victories and most played highlights.
Dos Anjos was 24 years old at the time and making his UFC debut. The future lightweight champion did well through the opening two rounds, getting the better of things through the opening 10 minutes, entering the third frame ahead on the scorecards. But as the final round got underway, Stephens still looked fresh and stalked Dos Anjos, looking for an opening.
An overhand right was partially blocked by Dos Anjos’ gloves, but the uppercut that followed looked straight out of Street Fighter II; all that was missing were the flames and the “SHORYUKEN!” A quick barrage of punches brought the fight to a halt and sent Stephens racing across the Octagon, where he crashed headfirst into the fence in excitement.
All these years later, you’ll still be hard-pressed to find too many knockouts that are better than this one.
UFC 113 vs. Sam Stout
Perhaps more than any other fight on this list, this one is emblematic of Stephens’ career as a whole.
Neither man was in the mix at the time — Stephens had just snapped a two-fight skid in his previous bout, while Stout was coming off a pair of good victories following twin losses — but as was always the case with both combatants, that had zero impact on their performance come fight night.
The durable sluggers went shot-for-shot for 15 minutes inside the Bell Centre in Montreal, with Stephens coming out on the happy side of a split decision verdict. They garnered Fight of the Night honors and a cool $65,000 for their efforts while further cementing their positions as two of the most reliably entertaining, hard-nosed talents in the lightweight division.
UFC 136 vs. Anthony Pettis
What I’m about to say might sound strange to some given that this was Stephens’ 13th fight in the UFC and the 27th fight of his career, but this was the moment Stephens went from being a tough out in the middle of the division to the perennial Top 10 fighter he remains to this day.
After going 3-4 in his first seven UFC starts, Stephens entered this bout on the best run of his career to that point, having won two straight and four of his last five, with this Texas showdown opposite “Showtime” standing as the most high profile opportunity of his career. Pettis was less than a year removed from landing “The Showtime Kick,” but had lost his UFC debut four months earlier, making this a must-win pairing for the former WEC champion.
Stephens controlled the action in the first, and though he came out on the wrong side of the split decision verdict in the end, it was a performance where the 25-year-old really exhibited some crucial improvements and showed he could hang with someone as highly regarded and talented as Pettis.
Fans and observers often remember victories as the signature moments of an athlete’s career, but many times, the bigger breakthroughs and greater developments come during setbacks and that was the case here.
UFC 160 vs. Estevan Payan
Following his loss to Pettis, Stephens dropped two more lightweight bouts before deciding to relocate to the featherweight ranks. This was his debut in the 145-pound weight class and it didn’t take long for the Alliance MMA product to make it clear that he was going to be a factor in his new division.
Payan entered having gone unbeaten in his last eight and Stephens ran right through him, opening Payan up with a sharp elbow midway through the first round en route to a three-round unanimous decision victory.
UFC Fight Night 32 vs. Rony Jason
If his first bout at featherweight showed he had the potential to eventually be a factor in the division, Stephens’ sophomore appearance in the 145-pound weight class served as an express lane to contention, as he ventured to Goiania, Brazil and starched the wildly popular Jason in under a minute.
If the Stout fight is representative of the whole of Stephens’ career and the Pettis contest was the one that set the tone for the last eight-plus years, this is the one that illustrates the explosive potential that has helped him remain a fixture in the Top 10 and someone fans always want to tune in to see compete.
Lots of athletes have power, but there is something different about the way Stephens can end a fight instantly. He possesses the kind of sudden, compact power that puts you on edge as soon as the fight begins because you know that at any minute, with any shot, momentum can shift or the fight can be over.
This was one of those moments where that sharp, dynamic power was on full display as he quickly closed the distance and silenced the partisan crowd, walking Jason down and flattening him with a right high kick as the Brazilian looked to throw an overhand right.
This might have been the quickest I’ve ever heard a crowd go from chanting “Uh Vai Morrer” in full throat to being completely speechless.
UFC 189 vs. Dennis Bermudez
Another quality offering in the Jeremy Stephens “Sudden Displays of Power” exhibit is this effort at UFC 189 against fellow Top 10 staple Bermudez.
Stephens had dropped two straight after earning victories in each of his first three featherweight appearances, while Bermudez had his seven-fight winning streak snapped in his most recent outing. They were each hovering in the middle third of the featherweight rankings and eager to secure the kind of victory that would keep them in marquee fights going forward, and that showed through the opening 10 minutes as they engaged in a tight, competitive back-and-forth battle.
With the outcome hanging in the balance as the third round began, Bermudez looked to be the aggressor, backing Stephens into the fence. Suddenly, Stephens elevated in place and caught Bermudez on the chin with a knee, kicking off the sequence that would bring the fight to a close seconds later.
This was the kind of victory Stephens could just never quite get during his lightweight run — a memorable triumph over a ranked opponent that solidified his place in the pecking order — and it remains one of the best performances of his lengthy career.
UFC 215 vs. Gilbert Melendez
Stephens entered this meeting with former Strikeforce lightweight champ Melendez on a two-fight slide. Not that either of the performances were particularly bad — he’d lost to Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision and Renato Moicano by split decision — but he was in need of an effort that would re-affirm his standing as one of the best fighters in the featherweight division.
To this day, this remains my favorite performance of Stephens’ career.
His knockouts of Dos Anjos, Jason, Bermudez and others are etched in my brain, but when I think of the fight where Stephens looked his absolute best from start to finish, this is the one. After 29 fights and a decade after making his UFC debut, Stephens walked into the Octagon in Edmonton and delivered a patient, measured, dominant performance.
From the outset, Stephens attacked Melendez’ lead leg, chopping him down with kick after kick after kick. Rather than chase a knockout or press to create an opening that wasn’t there, Stephens stayed on task, landing kick after kick after kick for 15 minutes, emerging victorious with scores of 30-26, 30-25, and 30-25 in his favor.
UFC Fight Night 124 vs. Dooho Choi
When the dust settles and the smoke clears, this might be the performance Stephens is most remembered for once he’s hung up his gloves.
Choi had won Fight of the Year honors with Cub Swanson in his last appearance at UFC 206 and was coming back following more than a year on the sidelines, while Stephens was fresh off his victory over Melendez and serving as the A-Side of a main event for the first time in his career. Everyone expected a wildly entertaining battle as soon as this one was announced, yet somehow, these two still managed to exceed expectations.
What’s crazy is that the first four minutes of this fight were largely tactical. They were trading strikes and each man landed a couple quality shots here and there, but it wasn’t until the final minute or so where they started throwing some bigger, harder, “trying to get you outta here” shots, which then carried over into the second round.
Though both remained technical, the force of their blows was ratcheted up to start the second, with Stephens putting a little more mustard on everything he threw and Choi struggling to cope with the power coming his way. After “The Korean Superboy” connected with a front kick to the face early in the round, Stephens took control, dictating the terms of engagement and marching down Choi, picking him apart with stiff strikes before eventually dropping him with an overhand right.
A quick flurry of ground-and-pound followed and the fight was halted, giving Stephens his second consecutive marquee victory and the one that could very well end up being considered the signature win of his career when all is said and done.
UFC on FOX 28 vs. Josh Emmett
Stephens was back in the Octagon six weeks after his victory over Choi, facing off with Josh Emmett in a second straight main event assignment that promised to be explosive and that delivered on that promise.
Emmett was two months removed from a vicious first-round knockout win over Ricardo Lamas that catapulted him into contention in the featherweight division, while Stephens was looking to continue the best run of his UFC career.
Both men looked to pick their spots, stick-and-move through much of the first round, with Emmett dropping Stephens with a heavy counter right along the fence with just over a minute remaining in the frame. Much like in the bout with Choi, Stephens came out in the second and answered back, clipping Emmett with a quick left hook after an exchange that put him on the deck. Moments later, the fight was over, and Stephens had another knockout and bonus check.
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