Jeremy Stephens is a stranger in a strange land for the first time in what feels like forever.
On Wednesday, Stephens makes his PFL debut when he fights Clay Collard in the main event of the promotion’s 2022 season opener. It represents a fresh start for the longtime UFC vet, who made 34 appearances for the UFC dating back to May 2007.
A change of scenery might be exactly what “Lil Heathen” needs as he seeks his first win in over four years. Stephens’ UFC run ended with a string of five losses and one no-contest, leading to questions about how much the 35-year-old still has to offer inside the cage.
Stephens, who faces Collard at Esports Stadium Arlington in Arlington, Texas, has heard all the criticism – he’s bringing it along as he chases a PFL tournament crown.
“You’ve got to use that pain, use that hunger, use that people are writing you off,” Stephens said in a recent interview with MMA Fighting. “You’ve got to have a chip on your shoulder in this sport. Piss off your ego and make you want to get back up and ride that horse again.
“I’m down, but I’m not out, and that’s why I just can’t wait to have that burst breakthrough performance. I feel like I haven’t fought my best fight yet and people are going to see something very exciting on April 20.”
The PFL tournament features one of the deepest, most experienced fields in the league. Past PFL champions Raush Manfio and Natan Schulte are back, as is former UFC champion Anthony Pettis, who took a split decision over Stephens at UFC 136 . UFC veterans Collard, Olivier Aubin-Mercier, Stevie Ray and Don Madge participate as well.
Stephens hasn’t won since a UFC knockout of Josh Emmett in February 2018. So where does he think he stands heading into the 2022 PFL season?
“I don’t know, I just feel like if I’m looking in from the outside it’s like, ‘Man, he’s coming off some losses,’” Stephens said. “‘He’s coming off losses, he’s getting older,’ those types of thoughts. ‘What are they thinking?’ ‘Is he done? He’s moving over to the PFL.’ You’ve got to use those haters as your motivators. You’ve got to take all that s***, mustard it up and spit out gold. That’s what I want to do, I want to stuff it right in motherf****** faces.
“I’m still here, I’m here to stay, I’m still devastating, I’m still very fast, ferocious, I’m in better shape. I’m probably a better version than I’ve ever been at this point in my life. I’m in the prime of my career and I get to come over and have a new experience. I can’t wait to go out there and run a motherf*****’s face over and be like, I did it.”
Stephens was a stalwart of the UFC’s lightweight division before moving down to 145 pounds, where he cracked the top-10 with with wins over the likes of Emmett, Doo Ho Choi, Gilbert Melendez, Renan Barao, and Darren Elkins. He also holds the dubious record for most losses in UFC history at 18, but sees the upcoming PFL season as a chance to bolster his legacy.
“It’s just another mark in the great story that I’ve had,” Stephens said. “Fighting in the UFC, 21 years old, fighting almost 15 years in that, coming over to the PFL and I like what it represents. Player for life. I’ve been in the game for life in this sport and putting it down, and I’m excited to go in there and just rejuvenate my career, rejuvenate my spirits. It gives me something to fight for. I’ve had a lot of love and support and people backing me in these difficult times, and I just can’t wait to go out there and really just thank them by going out there and having a really amazing performance and doing what I do, and that’s just be ferocious and take care of it.
“If I do that brick by brick, if I just do my job and fight the way Jeremy Stephens fights, be in this type of mindset, fighting frequently, fighting the way that I want to fight, doing what I can, I have no doubt in my mind that I will be a $1,000,000 PFL winner and moving on to what’s gonna be next, which is more fights. I’m not done. I would love to keep climbing at the top of my career and really max out my body and see how far I can really push things.”
Collard, Stephens’ upcoming opponent, made an instant impact this past PFL season with an impressive decision win over Pettis.
Wednesday’s matchup between the like-minded strikers seems like the perfect recipe for an entertaining brawl, and for Stephens, it’s an opportunity to make a statement against one of the biggest dogs in the yard. As for a potential rematch with Pettis or a chance to knock off one of the previous PFL champs, he isn’t looking that far ahead just yet.
“There’s nothing more to say than this is the only fight in front of me,” Stephens said. “This is my only focus. I’m not worried about this, ‘Oh, a million dollars, yeah maybe, blah blah blah blah.’ This is the only fight that I have for sure signed on the contract, on the dotted line, and I have a great opponent and I’m looking forward to those challenges and conquering them challenges with bricks in my hands.”
Just two fights away from 50 professional outings, Stephens is aware that he’s at the stage of his career where he can expect to hear plenty of questions about his eventual retirement. A seven-figure payout at the end of the PFL tournament could expedite that process.
Then again, why walk away with one million-dollar prize when he could go for two?
“Maybe,” Stephens said when asked if winning the 2022 PFL tournament could be his swan song. “Maybe I go down to 145 pounds now that I got money to pay for a diet, and then I go win that tournament and I’m out. I think that would be a huge, huge f****** just ride off into the sunset.
“Jeremy Stephens at ‘55, tough f****** fights, wins a million f******* dollars plus his money, he’s living good. Now he wants to go down to ‘45, he’s got money for a f******* dietician now, things are changing around the Stephens household. I would love to go to 145 pounds and win it there and then I would just cash out.”