In February 2018, everything was coming up Jeremy Stephens. He was newly married with a beautiful new home, and he was on a three-fight win streak that had seemingly knocked his opponents into the netherworld.
“Gilbert Melendez is not fighting. I knocked Dooho Choi into pushing paper for the military. Josh Emmett, he’s nowhere to be found,” Stephens says, recounting his most recent victories.
Yet with all of this, something still wasn’t clicking for one of the most feared featherweights in UFC history.
“I just wasn't happy.”
The uneasy feeling came to a head last July in Calgary, when Stephens was felled by Jose Aldo. There’s no shame in being finished by the former champ; it had happened to many, many before.
But for Stephens, it was a breaking point.
“It wasn't just the last fight itself. It was just these patterns in my life and my biggest moment of where I'm about to break through…boom, failure. This happened to me, like, three times. And after the last one it just really just took a toll, and I went into a dark spot.”
Those dark spots can be crushing, fatal even. Stephens openly admits suicide crossed his mind. He credits his trusted friends and loved ones who extended a hand and saw something in “Lil Heathen” that he couldn’t see himself.
“My coach Eric DelFierro, Dominick Cruz and a few others had gone through this program of emotional intelligence, EQ training [at ChoiceCenter University in Las Vegas], and they sent me there. They believed in me. They saw something in me. They knew that I could get the tools to help myself and get the mental coaching. And I went out there and it changed my life.”
It wasn’t easy. To get to the light often means a long journey through the darkness, and Stephens’ journey was certainly that.
“I would go back, and in the past it was just as a haunting thing…some dark stuff. It was affecting me in more ways than I really was looking at. These patterns were showing up. I was having a conversation with my kids and crying to them because my way of being…I was passing things on that were passed on to me. I was passing it on to my kids. That was something I’d never even noticed."
As daunting as self-discovery of such a nature has the potential to be, Stephens’ trademark toughness came through for him emotionally the way it had come through for him physically so many times in the past.
“I'm the type of guy that, if I can get this data, I can make the changes. Just like in my fighting. If you ever seen me fight in the beginning, I was a completely different guy compared to where I am now. I was able to face it and be like ‘You know what? I can work with it. I'm a mentally tough guy and I can I can make these changes.’ It’s like the Charles Darwin Theory. It's not the strongest or the smartest person; it’s the person who's willing to adapt to change who will survive.”
Evidence that the training was life-altering came when Stephens emerged a new man, without the rewards his trade usually associates with happiness.
“I didn't get a knockout. I didn't get a ton of money. And I found true joy and happiness.”
Armed with a new mindset and increased mental strength, Stephens carried what he had learned in the EQ training into the gym, and was able to wield it in the craft he truly loves: fighting. Even as he stares down one of the hottest newcomers in the promotion, Zabit Magomedshapirov, Stephens is more concerned about the man in the mirror.
“I've done things in my training that I've never done. I went to places that I'd never been. And I dug in and I looked at myself. So there really is no opponent. It was really a battle with myself, and I feel really good. I feel blessed. I feel amazing.”
A public admission such as this from an athlete as high-profile as Stephens can be a normalizing experience for many who struggle with mental health afflictions who might be watching from the cheap seats. He seems humbled by the public response, by the people that have come forward to seek help after hearing of his struggles. To the surprise of Stephens, he has even reached some of his fellow fighters.
“There's a few people, some fellow UFC people, who actually reached out and asked me about this program, and I was able to have them get in contact with these people, and help people. Because you never know where people are at. It's very scary for me to do something like that. I never talk about anything like that. And I'm glad I did it because hopefully I reach some people and save some lives out there.”
Steve Latrell is a writer and producer for UFC.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheUFSteve