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Eighteen years after his first professional bout, Joe Stevenson knows more about prizefighting than the majority of his peers. And as someone who has been in the game since he was a teenager, it’s sometimes the little things that mean the most to him.
“You never want to do this for anything but your own personal goals, but the truth is that the admiration from the fans really gives you that extra push,” he said. “I think everyone that does this sport wakes up in pain. I doubt there’s one person that does this sport that wakes up every day of their life feeling great. We’re in pain and there’s something that’s gotta push you. You have your goals and you’re going forward and you know you’re doing it, but you get tired. Then you hear your name or you feel the energy from the screams or you read the post that says good things about you.”
So when the announcement that Stevenson, winner of season two of The Ultimate Fighter, was coming back for TUF: Redemption nearly six years after his last UFC bout, it was greeted with the kind of positive response that gave “Joe Daddy” the jolt he needed to head into the second phase of his career.
“Everything in life is timing, and the fact of where I was in my life and where I am now, it kind of all came at the right time to allow me to do the show,” said Stevenson, who is 12 wins away from his goal of 50. As for his other goal…
“My kids wanted me in the video game,” he laughs. “That was a big thing to them. So that’s part of my goal, but my real goal is to make sure I get 50 wins and that way I can retire by hitting my goal. I think it’s really important to set goals and to hit them, especially when you have kids. If you’re just fighting to fight and training with no purpose, it teaches them the wrong thing. It teaches them to fight, yes, but it teaches them to run in a circle. You’ve got to set goals and show them that it’s important to achieve these goals.”
At 34, Stevenson is still young enough to get to where he wants to go, simply because he is old school and willing to fight all comers. He talks about turning down just one fight in his career against Sean Sherk, and that’s because he couldn’t cut 35 pounds in a month to make weight. That’s an impressive feat, but will other fighters share his attitude?
“I think there are plenty of guys in the UFC that are popular but not good enough,” he said. “So they’re popular and they get in, then they pick and choose who they fight. There are a lot of those guys, and I don’t feel threatened fighting any of them. I’ll fight anyone anytime. Now you’ll say that, but when it comes to contracts, you say, ‘Yeah, but it’s got to make sense.’ Then don’t say you’ll fight anyone anytime.”
On this week’s episode of TUF 25, Stevenson faces another willing and able fighter in Justin Edwards, who happens to be the same age as the Californian. But when it comes to experience, don’t forget that when Stevenson was 16, he was fighting future lightweight champion Jens Pulver.
“The referee was John Perretti, who was the UFC matchmaker at the time, and he said the winner of the fight’s in the UFC,” Stevenson recalled. “He (Pulver) gets the win, he beats John Lewis in spectacular fashion, he’s going at it with BJ Penn, he has the title in the UFC, and I’m still in high school. I had to pass on senior prom because I needed to save that money for bills because I had a kid on the way.”
Nearly two decades later, Stevenson is still at it, and the reason is simple.
“It’s the only thing in my life that, win or lose, you can walk away with your head high because you know you put everything into it,” he said. “There’s no gray area when you fight. There’s no fence riding. Dominick Cruz said it great after his fight with Cody (Garbrandt). He was like, ‘Hey, he was the better guy today.’ It instantly made me a fan of his, and that’s the truth. You win or you lose, it’s over, and you can get up and do it again. You’re in control of your destiny. Sometimes the fight won’t go your way, and maybe you’ll never get that rematch again and it will haunt you, but everything that went into that moment, you had control of.”