For some reason, the idea that Jeremy Stephens is only 28 years old feels more than a little absurd. Maybe it’s that he’s been in the UFC for seven years, or that he’s had a career with many graph chart spikes and plummets, against people long forgotten (Diego Saraiva), long retired (Din Thomas) or long relegated to the impoverished life of journalism (Danny Downes). Maybe it’s the old school brawler’s mentality. After all, that thing he did to Marcus Davis at UFC 125 was a form of early cruelty, straight from the stone ages.
Whatever the case, Stephens is a guy who feels like he’s always been there.
But ever since he had the "trouble," and then reinventing himself as a featherweight, "Lil’ Heathen" has silently rolled up into contention with the suddenness of a man we never saw coming. In fact, he’s been told that Saturday night’s fight main event with Cub Swanson is for the next 145-pound title shot. Stephens, in 18 total UFC fights -- 15 as a lightweight -- has never had a title shot.
How did this all happen…so stealthily…after all the other stuff?
"I think I’m just putting my full game together," he says. "When I moved out to Alliance I was actually finding a lot of momentum in the gym. It’s just that, with the Donald Cerrone fight I ended up breaking my orbital bone in the first round. A lot of guys would have folded, but I’m that certain 3 percent that keeps going and tries to finish the fight and it just happen to be my night.
"I had some personal things were I ended up getting arrested, and my fight with Yves Edwards ended up being on two week’s notice…I went from eating Ramen noodles and just garbage food and no training to put myself into key training in just two weeks. There was no love lost in my going in for the kill and getting clipped. I just took it as a learning lesson. But in that time, if I would have fought Yves Edwards when I was originally supposed to in Minnesota, I think right then and there people would have noticed my huge improvements."
You might remember the original setting for his fight with Edwards. That was supposed to happen at UFC on FX 5 back in 2012. Stephens was arrested on the day of the fight in Minneapolis, stemming from unresolved assault charges in his native Iowa. Bond was posted at $100,000 (and never lowered). UFC president Dana White spent a portion of his day promising to spring Stephens in time to fight, but Iowa wasn’t having it.
The thing was cancelled, very publically, and that brought on a negative backlash from fans that presumed him guilty.
"The fact is they didn’t get me on any of the charges," he says. "All the charges ended up getting dropped, and it was just a big miscommunication. They actually caught the guy who did it. Then they were trying to come after me with money, and there were several witnesses who pinpointed the guy who actually did it. I had no involvement other than it was my after party, so I ended up getting hitched up with that."
From the whole experience, Stephens had found silver linings.
"It was a big mess and I think people were out for money," he says. "It just came through but it took some time. It was a big ordeal, man, but I’m kind of thankful for it. It was a really bad thing that happened, but I’m kind of thankful for it because it opened my eyes to a lot of things I wasn’t paying attention to before. I got rid of a lot of people who were involved with my life, people who I thought were friends. And I’m real tight-knit now with my family, more than ever. It’s been a blessing in disguise to make me a better person, a better father and overall a different human being."
With the legal entanglements behind him, and even with the stigmas they carry going forward, Stephens has turned things around. After losing to Edwards in Seattle, he made the cut to featherweight. Since then he’s had a nice resurgence, with victories over Estevan Payan, a brutal head-kick knockout of Rony Jason in Brazil, and finally a dismantling of Darren Elkins.
That set up the showdown with Cub Swanson in San Antonio, a collision of two of the fight game’s most barbaric get-after-it’s. In his own pledge to get back to a shot against champion Jose Aldo, Swanson has rattled off five victories in a row, four of them coming via KO or TKO. The only one who stuck around for the scorecards was Dustin Poirier, who told Swanson midway through the third round in London, "I can’t believe you are taking this from me."
Ever since the fight was booked the thing has stood out as a potential barnburner, and Stephens embraces the expectation.
"This fight with Cub is exciting," he says. "We’re two guys who go for broke and we’re fan favorites just because of our fighting style. It’s not that we go out there and try to put on a performance, that’s just what we do man. I feel like I have all the tools and the more well rounded game to beat him. I have the power to knock him out, I have the wrestling to shut him down, I have the jiu-jitsu. I feel very confident about beating him and beating him in a dominant fashion, and putting his lights out."
UFC Fight Night 44 will mark the first time that Stephens has been in a main event slot since 2009, when he fought Joe Lauzon on two week’s notice. Back then, he admits, he was still green on the ground (or white, the color of his belt at the time). Lauzon won via second-round armbar.
That was one of his lows, in a career that has stretched out in the most unexpected ways. After losing three in a row in 2011-12, Stephens was on the verge of being cut. In his first featherweight fight, he fought in the curtain jerker to open the prelims at UFC 160. That was in May 2013.
A little more than a year later, he’s fighting in a main event with a title shot in the balance. The man who was always there that we never saw coming.
"I feel like with all these experiences I’ve had the highs and lows, I’ve been drug through mud," he says. "I’ve been on top, I’ve been on bottom. I’ve had knockout performances. I’ve been through so much in this game, a lot of people think I’m so much older than I actually am. In actuality I’m still young in the game. I finally feel like I’m putting it all together, and I don’t feel like anybody works harder than me."