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‘Heathen’ can wait: Jeremy Stephens, one of the UFC’s most prolific fighters ever, continues his evolution

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LOS ANGELES — May 26, 2007 was a special day for Jeremy Stephens. It was the date of his debut in the UFC. And it was also his 21st birthday.

Stephens lost to Din Thomas at UFC 71, but at least “Lil’ Heathen,” already a 14-fight veteran of that point, could have a proper — legal — after party in Las Vegas.

About a year later, Stephens traveled to San Diego from his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa for the first time. Stephens’ mentor, Josh Neer, had left Des Moines to train with Miletich Fighting Systems in Davenport, Iowa. Stephens went along, but that was at the tail-end of that team’s then-unprecedented run of success. Things were winding down and Stephens headed west.

When he first entered through the doors of Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Calif., in 2008, Stephens was still a kid, coach Eric Del Fierro said. Just a few years out of school.

Over the last decade, Stephens has had winning streaks and losing streaks. He’s had good times and bad times, personally and professionally. Stephens has the most losses in UFC history (13), but he has hung tough for 11 years with the promotion. And Del Fierro said Stephens is now — still only 31 years old — the “best he’s ever looked.”

“I’ve seen him grow as a person,” Del Fierro told MMA Fighting. “I’d see the kid out of high school just wilding out and I see him just growing and being more mature and being responsible and having what the rest of society has. He’s got a wife, he has kids.

“It’s good to see him humble in that way. Not, ‘Hey man, I just got a check, I’ll be back, I’m going to Barbados for the weekend.’ Who knows. That’s what he’d do, be in and out, as a kid. Now, he’s got a focus. Yeah, he’s happy if he makes money, but the focus is still there, the drive is still there.”

Stephens will headline his second straight UFC card Saturday when he meets Josh Emmett in the UFC on FOX 28 main event in Orlando. Win or lose, that night Stephens will move into sole possession of second place in all-time UFC fights with 28, one behind Michael Bisping.

Every fighter hits his or her stride at different times. Stephens seems to be doing it now, 41 fights into an already an impressive career. If he beats Emmett, Stephens could be only be one victory away from a featherweight title shot.

“I’ve learned from my losses,” Stephens said at a recent UFC media lunch. “You can go back and look at my fights and you can be like, ‘Damn, Jeremy has actually evolved every time. He’s took that loss, he’s accepted it, he’s come back and he’s grown and he’s progressed and he’s moved past that.’”

There is one distinct pivot point in Stephens’ career and it was an infamous moment in UFC history. Stephens was arrested the day of his fight at UFC on FX 5 in October 2012 on felony assault and burglary charges. UFC president Dana White vowed that Stephens would still compete on the card against Yves Edwards, but he was unable to bail him out and the bout was cancelled.

Stephens ended up fighting Edwards two months later at UFC on FOX 5. That ended up being a bad idea. Edwards knocked Stephens out in the first round. It remains the only time he’s been knocked out in his career and the only other time he was finished was a submission against Thomas in his UFC debut.

While Stephens still gives Edwards all the credit — the two remain friends to this day — he said it was a volatile few months and he wasn’t fully prepared for the fight, especially against someone as good as Edwards.

“It was the most chaotic time in my life and it was the first time I really had to fight for money,” Stephens said. “I wasn’t in shape and I went in there and I got knocked out.”

Stephens vowed to himself after that loss that something like that would never happen again. He has maintained his innocence in the bar incident that got him arrested and charges were dropped against him in 2013. Stephens followed up by moving down to featherweight and going on a three-fight winning streak.

The changes he made were both inside the cage and out of it.

“When I came back, I was way better,” he said. “Because before, the Jeremy Stephens of old would have just hunted you down and not moved his head and just kept eating your punches and still knocked you out anyway. After that, it changed my game up. I started moving my head, I started finding better techniques, I started wrestling my butt off. I really learned a lot from that.

“That was a really pivotal point in my life — in all aspects of my life. That was a game changer for me. I’m very blessed that it did happen, because I’m a whole other man, I’m a whole other animal and I’m still here in the UFC years later, still putting it down and giving you guys the highlight knock outs.”

Del Fierro remembers that time in Stephens’ life well. He was alongside him then, as he is now. Stephens spent some time away from Alliance in 2016, but is back now. Del Fierro was in his corner for his wins against Gilbert Melendez and Doo Hoo Choi, the latter an incredible, second-round knockout at UFC St. Louis last month.

“Part of the relationship I have with some of these guys is they become family,” Del Fierro said. “I think one of the things that Jeremy as a man had to do himself is explore other camps, go train elsewhere. The grass is always greener everywhere else and you have to kind of find yourself.”

Stephens said his time at Alliance and with Del Fierro specifically has changed his career and his life.

“He’s a beast, man,” Stephens said of his coach. “He’s the music to my ears. Me and him got a great relationship. He’s the type of guy, he seems pretty cool when he’s coaching everybody else, but then when we get in there and he’s cussing at me and he’s riling me up. We go in there and handle business. That’s a special connection. That’s something that I can’t get from anybody else.

“He’s seen my ups, he’s seen my downs. He knows how I fight. I always tell people, it’s like Mortal Kombat and Jeremy Stephens is one of his favorite fighters to play with. He knows how to use me and go in there and make me get my wins. We have a great connection and I love that connection.”

Ironically, the focus for Stephens at Alliance recently has been getting back to the ruthless “Lil’ Heathen” of old. It’s not that Stephens has grown soft with a family, but Del Fierro said his place in life has him thinking, maybe too much.

Del Fierro said Stephens was recently sparring with a younger training partner, who was getting the better of him. Stephens asked his coach what was going on.

“The difference between you and him is life,” Del Fierro said he told Stephens. “You have kids now, you have a wife. You’re providing. You’re in the mindset where, ‘I have to win, I have to make money.’ This kid is just trying to beat you. He’s not making anything. The Jeremy of old, the Jeremy people tune in to see all the old highlights, that Jeremy had no fear. Had no doubt.

“He was a monster. You remember him. We were all fans of him. It’s him just getting back to that.”

Stephens was a monster against Melendez. He was a monster against Choi. And, if he gets by Emmett on Saturday, the kid who debuted in the UFC 11 years ago — the ever-improving, endlessly durable slugger — will be one step closer to a distinction separate from being one of the most prolific fighters in UFC history. He’ll draw nearer to that elusive title shot.

“I’ve evolved every day, man,” Stephens said. “I’m a human, I make mistakes. I do shit that I’m not supposed to do and I go back and I learn from it. You live, you learn. That’s part about being a man, being a father and being a fighter for the first time.”