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UFC’s first visit to St. Louis becomes a stage for unlikely heroes to shine

UFC Fight Night: Elkins v Johnson Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

To use MMA insider parlance, if St. Louis was the first “sneaky good” UFC card of 2018 it lived up to billing through some good ol’ boys that have been around forever and yet don’t usually shine in the sun. Namely, Darren Elkins and Jeremy Stephens, a couple of UFC stalwarts who just keep kind of plugging along, event by event, year by year, punch by ever-loving punch.

Collectively the two have fought just about everyone on the roster, including each other back in 2014 (Stephens won). Neither is what you might call star material. You wouldn’t pay specifically for the privilege of watching either fight. Just as surely neither is dynamic on the mic, or even remotely charismatic. Yet each is foundational glue for a promotion that needs reliable, ever-ready dudes who can compete against anyone and fill out cards in places like…well, St. Louis.

On Sunday night, Elkins was cast (once again) as an underdog against Michael Johnson. The fight was originally slated for the prelims but got upgraded to the main card when Uriah Hall and Vitor Belfort’s fight was scotched. It always looked like the cherry on top to a “sneaky good” card — potentially even a Luxardo — given how indispensible Elkins is and what a gunslinger Johnson can be.

And it was. It was.

Within minutes there was Elkins with the usual blood streaming down his nose, a head perfectly placed on a body in which “The Damage” is clearly marked. As always, it was as though he were fighting on a listing ship, always rolling to one side or the other overcompensating for balance. Yet even as he absorbed Johnson’s punches and his head was snapping back, you knew he wasn’t going anywhere. That in fact he was simply activating, just gathering his bearings through a series of wake-up combinations. If Mirsad Bektic couldn’t finish Elkins 10 months ago, Johnson was spinning his wheels. And in the second round, already behind on the scorecards, the 33-year-old Indiana native Elkins did what he’s accustomed to do — he turned the tables.

This time it was by a rear-naked choke, giving him the most improbable six-fight win streak since “The Immortal” Matt Brown went on his heater five years ago. On the microphone afterwards, Elkins — looking like a deranged farmhand, all blood and rural giddiness — admitted he knew he wouldn’t be getting a title shot. What he asked for instead was a name in the feathers who would pave the way for a title shot. In the damdest way, you knew he had a case. Yet it was the case of a whipping post who simply outlasts every whip; Elkins could rack up four more wins in a row and still be no closer to that most glamorous end.

In some ways, that’s what has become lovable about him as a fighter — his durability, combined with his clumsy approach to the dinner table where Max Holloway and Frankie Edgar are seated. He wasn’t invited. Yet there he is anyway.

As for Iowa’s own “Lil Heathen” Stephens, it’s been a bumpy back road to headlining this latest Fight Night. In his 27th UFC fight, Stephens has been a quiet picture of rugged perseverance. He has survived fights with Edgar and Holloway, an unfortunate encounter with Conor McGregor, as well as a weekend stint in a Minnesota jail just before a fight with Yves Edwards. He has also defeated former champions Renan Barao, Rafael dos Anjos and Gilbert Melendez. Since debuting at UFC 71 in 2007, he has never won more than three fights in a row.

In fact, heading into his fight with the Korean wunderkind Doo Ho Choi, he carried a 13-13 overall record in the UFC — the kind of record that you marvel at (given the monsters he faced) while shrugging your shoulders. He wasn’t going to go gently in his return to the Midwest, though, not when he was the last fighter of the night to make the walk. And not with fellow country boy Matt Hughes — seven months removed from being hit by a train — sitting cageside.

It took a round to get going, but Stephens reminded everyone of his firepower — not to mention his willingness to enter any man’s wheelhouse to unleash it. Stephens and Choi teed off a bit in the second round, and it was Stephens that landed the big right hand that dropped Choi. Moments later, while Choi was still on the canvas, Stephens landed a diving punch into Choi’s guard that was so violent it bordered on obscene. The referee Keith Peterson jumped in to stop the onslaught, and Stephens put an exclamation mark on the kind of night tailor-made for him to shine.

The UFC’s inaugural visit to the Lou was pretty memorable, and two of its less heralded veterans made it that way. Sometimes it’s fun to see perseverance rewarded, especially for two guys who for so long have come to define what it means to be “sneaky good.”

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