Jeremy Stephens celebrated his 21st birthday by getting into a fistfight.
Yet unlike the vast majority of those who commemorate reaching the magical milestone by engaging in fisticuffs, Stephens’ scrap was previously agreed upon, sanctioned, and took place in front of 14,728 people at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on the preliminary portion of the UFC 71 fight card.
“Honestly, I didn’t really know what the f*** I wanted back in the day,” said Stephens, who lost his promotional debut that evening to Din Thomas by second-round submission. “I was 21, I was young, and I was dumb. I didn’t know what I wanted at that time.”
Stephens began his professional career two years earlier, shuffling through small shows in his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, compiling a 12-1 record before stepping into the Octagon for the first time opposite Thomas, who is ten years Stephens’ senior and carried a 22-6 record with recent victories over Rich Clementi and Clay Guida into their showdown in Las Vegas.
He made a return to the regional circuit to pick up a victory before making his sophomore appearance inside the UFC cage on September 22, 2007, where he earned a unanimous decision win over Diego Saraiva, and has remained on the roster ever since.
Heading into this weekend’s UFC 249 main card meeting with Calvin Kattar, Stephens sits tied with Demian Maia for the second most appearances in UFC history, two behind both Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller. Those twin ties will be broken on Saturday and the top four will become clearly delineated, with “Cowboy” reclaiming first place, Miller remaining in the second position, and Stephens moving one ahead of Maia.
While he’s a dozen years deep into his UFC career, Stephens’ early start means that the perennial featherweight contender is still only 33 years old (he turns 34 later this month), and he’s been fortunate enough to compete two or three times per year every year since his rookie season in the Octagon, meaning that with a couple more years of things going the way they have, the hard-nosed kid from the Iowa capital could very well end up having the most fights in UFC history.
“I didn’t want to be one of those guys that went 0-2 or 0-3 in the UFC and called myself a ‘veteran,’” said Stephens, who spent the first five years on the roster competing in the lightweight division before relocating to the 145-pound weight class at the start of 2013. “I honestly didn’t call myself a “veteran” until I beat Marcus Davis, I believe.
“I didn’t like that word because I’d go to a local show and they’d be like, ‘This veteran of the UFC’ and I was like, ‘That f****** dude went 0-2!’
“I’ve been doing this since my 21st birthday in the UFC,” continued the permanently fired up featherweight. “People keep telling me how great this is and how awesome this is and I don’t really sit back and appreciate it because I don’t really have the time to. I just stay in the moment, stay in the work.
“Now that I can take this time, this moment, I’m very thankful for the fans, my family and everybody who has supported my career; they know how hard I’ve worked.”
Stephens paused momentarily, before adding, “But keep watching because I’m going to keep going.”
When you’ve managed a permanent place on the UFC roster for more than a dozen years, a statement like that last one isn’t really necessary, especially not when you’ve endured the ups and downs the Alliance MMA representative has experienced during that time.
Despite such a rollercoaster ride, no one would argue that the fiery Iowa native isn’t one of the top featherweights in the promotion, and that more than perhaps any fighter on the roster, Stephens’ win-loss record isn’t an accurate reflection of his skills, abilities, and standing within the weight class.
“I’ve fought a championship schedule because that’s what I am — I’m a champion every day that I wake up,” said Stephens in regards to the Murderer’s Row of talent he’s faced throughout his career, especially since dropping down to featherweight. “I’m not scared of these guys. I’ve fought the best; a real who’s who.”
During his lightweight run, Stephens shared the cage with future champions Rafael Dos Anjos and Anthony Pettis, perennial contender Donald Cerrone, and a host of seasoned veterans and fellow upstarts. Since moving to the 145-pound ranks, the level of competition he’s faced has been incredible, with the majority of his last 15 bouts having taken place against opponents ranked in the Top 15.
After well over a decade in the hurt business and having squared off with most of the top talents to grace the lightweight and featherweight divisions during his time, you could understand if Stephens were ready to take a step back — to seek out a more favorable matchup with designs on getting back into the win column before diving back into the deep end of the talent pool.
It would even make sense if the 33-year-old opted to ease off the gas a little and set his sights on fellow veterans with established names, rather than continuing to share the Octagon with the division’s present and future elite.
But that has never been how Stephens has operated and it never will be either.
“It just means that I lived the way I wanted to live and did the things that I wanted to do,” he said when asked to reflect on his journey to this point. “I went after it. I went for broke.
“I never gave up, I always kept persisting, and I never turned down an opportunity. I carried myself as a professional and was someone who went for it all. I did the unthinkable, especially coming where I came from in Des Moines, Iowa. It’s amazing.
“This is fun,” he added. “When I’m in there, that’s me being Jeremy Stephens — ‘Lil F****** Heathen’ — for 15 minutes. I still get to be that guy and I love it. I was born for this s***, man.”
Given how he spent his 21st birthday and the nearly 13 years since, it’s hard to argue otherwise.
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