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Stephens' Best is Next to Come

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Marcus Davis and I was actually a fan of his. Every time I watched him fight, I was like ‘this guy’s gonna knock somebody out.’" 

In the always interesting world of MMA math, one thing is crystal clear: the less you have to worry about on fight night, the better. And if you ask Jeremy Stephens about his upcoming bout with former welterweight contender Marcus Davis, ‘The Irish Hand Grenade’ will have plenty to think about in his lightweight debut.

“It’s not just the weight cut,” said Stephens. “I think his last fight (against Nate Diaz) and the way things have been going for him are gonna kinda wear on him a little bit too. He’s gotta overcome a lot of stuff that’s been going on, like losing and getting beat real bad, and then he’s gotta come down to ’55 and face a real heavy-handed striker that hits like a 170-185 pound guy. I’m aggressive, I’m young, and I’m getting better and better every time I get in there. So is the weight cut gonna affect him, how’s his face gonna look after the first round with him cutting very easily, is he hungry, is he motivated, is coming down here really gonna be a smart decision for him? He’s got a lot of factors at play.”

Weight cut. Dealing with past losses. Fighting a young, heavy-handed striker. Dealing with cuts. Dealing with motivation.

That’s about five worries right there. Stephens?

“I’m looking forward to going in there to scrap.”

In MMA math, Stephens wins 5-1. But everyone, including Stephens, knows that a fight that may play out one way on paper could go in a completely different direction when the bell rings. Case in point, Stephens’ UFC 119 bout with Melvin Guillard last September. On paper, forget about Fight of the Night; this was a Fight of the Year in the making. But after a fast start that saw Guillard miss a wild haymaker and get put on the seat of his pants by a Stephens counter, this visceral war turned tactical, with Guillard pulling out a three round split decision win.

“I came out and in the first ten seconds I dropped him,” recalled Stephens. “He wanted to come out and bang with me, and I think once he got caught, he decided to stick to the Greg Jackson gameplan, which is to run and try to pick his shots and try to score. I was a little more flat-footed, trying to brawl and knock him out. I felt like I won the fight, but it was kind of a weird fight. Sometimes good strikers cancel each other out like that.”

It was almost as if Stephens was like all the fans at Conseco Fieldhouse and those watching at home, waiting and waiting for the Fight of the Year to start. It never did. But Iowa’s ‘Lil’ Heathen’ insists that Guillard’s gameplan didn’t throw him off his.

“I don’t think he took me out of my game,” he said. “I just felt like I was chasing him a lot. I was landing a lot of leg kicks and I know I was hurting him and landing some shots. I stumbled him in the third and I felt like I had the Octagon control the whole time. He’d come in with some shots when I’d raise my hands and tell him to come in and fight – he’d try to sneak in a shot - but I didn’t feel like he was trying to fight me. Maybe I should have gone for a couple more takedowns, but I just learned from it.”

And for Stephens, the key part of learning from the experience was to shake it off in the only way he knows how – by going back to the gym in his new home of San Diego.

“I went back right away and said ‘man, what do I need to work on?’” he said. “I had a bad night in the Octagon and that was probably one of my worst performances, but after the fight I went back and tried to work on some things; my coaches told me that all I had to do was fine-tune and make some adjustments, so I shook it off and I was back in the gym the next week.”

He hasn’t left the gym yet, putting in the hours necessary to rebound from the loss to Guillard, get back to the form that saw him win his two bouts before that against Justin Buchholz and Sam Stout, and to gain the consistency he needs to move to the next level in the lightweight division.

“I feel like I’ve already been taking those steps to reach the next level in all my fights,” he said. “I feel like I’m getting better and better every time I step into the ring. I’m developing my game a lot more, so I’m definitely happy with the adjustments I’m making, and I like seeing that I’m getting better. I know that there’s a lot more room for improvement and that’s what I work on so that every time I step into the Octagon, it’s that next step up in competition and my training as well.”

In addition to leaving the snow and cold of his native Des Moines behind, Stephens has also found that San Diego has given him the training environment he needs to move from prospect to contender.

“I have coaches in all specific areas that are top-notch,” he said. “Black belts, good Muay Thai instructors, a good strength and conditioning coach, and I have a yoga teacher and a massage therapist. I have coaches and good people around me that are helping me learn and develop as a fighter in every aspect of the game. That’s probably the biggest improvement.”

And as far as adjusting to life outside of Iowa, he’s made peace with that aspect of his life as well.

“I’m focused on my family and my career and the important things in life,” he said. “I don’t go out as much - I’m getting older and I’m a lot more focused. In my off-time I’m training to get my black belt and making other adjustments in my game, so to be honest it’s a whole new focus out here for me and a lot more dedication and a lot more work that I’m putting in these days.”

He’s just 24 too, an amazing statistic when you consider that he’s a five year vet of the pro game that has compiled 10 Octagon bouts (5-5) since debuting against Din Thomas in 2007.

“I think people get shocked when they ask me how old I am and I tell them,” he said. “I think the beard kinda throws them off nowadays. (Laughs) I’m only 24 and I’ve got a lot of room to grow, but in all my fights, I just keep getting better and keep growing. As you get older, you get wiser and get a lot smarter and better as you grow.”

Stephens expects that this growing wisdom will help him against the 37-year old Davis, a veteran of 30 pro MMA fights and 20 pro boxing matches who is one of the fighters Stephens always made sure he was around to watch on television.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Marcus Davis and I was actually a fan of his,” said Stephens. “Every time I watched him fight, I was like ‘this guy’s gonna knock somebody out.’ He’s a good counterstriker, he’s had a lot of fights, he comes to fight every time, and I think he’s gonna bring out the best in me, and I could bring out the best in him.”

Lesson one - there’s no time to be a fan when the fists are flying by your head. Stephens has this one down.

“I’m gonna be the younger, stronger, faster, better fighter that night and I’m gonna go out there and give them a show and I know he’ll do the same as well,” he said. “I know Marcus won’t be a runner, he’ll come to fight, and I’m looking forward to it.”

As for the final answer to this MMA math equation?

“Everybody’s like ‘what’s your best fight?’ and I always say ‘watch my next one.’”