Jeremy Stephens can't re-program himself. Even if he could, he probably wouldn't want to. Win or lose, his style of fighting is pleasing to himself. That doesn't mean, however, that he doesn't recognize potential shortcomings. Having entered the UFC at age 20, Stephens' game - which was arguably too much for his peers in regional circuit around him - simply didn't have the time to earn the refinement it needed. Of course, his contemporaries in the UFC and the game itself continue to rapidly evolve as well.
In the wake of the loss to Anthony Pettis, Stephens acknowledges some changes had to be made. Some were already in motion, as 'Lil' Heathen' had earned his purple belt in jiu-jitsu with the gi. But other, more immediate alterations to his life and preparation were in order. He needed a camp with more sparring partners, hands-on attention and the right kind of environment to continue to add skills to his arsenal.
Ahead of his bout with Donald Cerrone at UFC on FUEL 3, though, Stephens believes he doesn't want to get away from who he is or what got him to his current placement. If he's going to beat Cerrone, he believes it will happen by using a game that at its core is still unchanged. Everywhere else, sure, he's more than welcome to add a higher degree of sophistication. But as he put it, 'going for broke' is part of who he is and not something he's prepared to let go.
In this interview with MMA Fighting, Stephens discusses what went wrong against Anthony Pettis, proclaims his desire to earn a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, explains why he believes Donald Cerrone broke against Nate Diaz, how Eric Del Fierro has improved his striking, training with Alliance MMA exclusively and getting over staph infection.
Full audio and partial transcription below:
Luke Thomas: Let's get right into this fight you have with Cerrone. It was originally going to be against Yves Edwards and you're filling in. Talk to me about why you took this fight on short notice rather than taking a different fight. What was attractive about fighting Donald Cerrone?
Jeremy Stephens: To me, it really wasn't short notice. I had about 10-12 weeks to prepare for the fight and I was actually looking to fight sooner than that but ended up getting a staph infection which sidelined me for a little bit. Then we got word that Yves was out and Donald Cerrone would be May 15th. I wanted to fight sooner, but when I heard Donald Cerrone, I knew it would be a good fight for the fans and for me and I had to take it. It's a good opportunity, once in a lifetime to fight someone that's going to come at me the way that I do and it's a fight for the fans for sure.
Luke Thomas: How'd you get staph and how bad was it?
Jeremy Stephens: Oh, it's just something. It's just on the mat. I'm on the mat all the year-round training. Of course you're going to get something like that. It was kinda bad. I ended up having it pretty bad so I had to sit back and take care of it. No worries, it gave me time to relax, ease my mind and think about the future.
Luke Thomas: Was that the first time you've had staph?
Jeremy Stephens: No, I had it once when I was 18-19 years old. I had it about 2-3 times.
Luke Thomas: Is that common? How often do you see your fellow fighters get staph?
Jeremy Stephens: It's pretty common. It's on the mat, staph's already on your skin. You can get it from ingrown hair. My aunt got it one time from washing dishes, she had a small cut and it just gets infected, you know? It's pretty common.
Luke Thomas: Alright, let's talk about Donald Cerrone. Is he in any way in your mind similar in any kind of capacity to any previous opponents you've faced?
Jeremy Stephens: I don't think he's similar as to fighting, but he brings it. He comes to fight. He comes forward and he's similar in other aspects. Donald Cerrone likes to fight and so do I, but I feel like I have the advantage over him in that area.
Luke Thomas: You mentioned something in your video blogs or I think it was a video interview that I felt was interesting. Right now, correct me if I'm wrong, you're a purple belt in the gi, is that correct?
Jeremy Stephens: Yep, that's correct.
Luke Thomas: Who are you a purple belt under?
Jeremy Stephens: The Gracie Humaita family and Dean Lister.
Luke Thomas: A lot of guys who start MMA who do the no-gi thing, some do no-gi, some don't. Tell me what your trip through using the gi has been like. Were you initially resistant to using it?
Jeremy Stephens: Just actually when I started. I live in San Diego now. I've been there four years and I originally started in Iowa. The highest belt there was a purple belt at the time and I never got into it. When I started in California, I realized that a lot of the fighters were getting into the gi and it was just something that interests me after my career. I want a good longevity career and I want my black belt to go along with my gym as my credentials in the sport afterwards. I don't want to just be known as a UFC fighter. I want to have my black belt and have some credentials that would be to my advantage after my fight career is over.
Luke Thomas: And you fundamentally believe that training in the gi sharpens technique versus strictly no-gi?
Jeremy Stephens: Living proof, brother. (laughs)
Luke Thomas: Tell me what it has done to your game. Obviously submission defense is a component, but do you feel like you're in a position now where, obviously you've won Knockout of the Night three times, do you feel like you're in a position now where you can leverage your submission game to win UFC fights?
Jeremy Stephens: Yeah, definitely. I use it, when it comes to fighting, I use it to a fighting advantage. Like when I get a guy in a good situation or inside, I'm not just going to try to submit you. I'm gonna try to cut your eyes open or go for the knockout at all times, but it does help my game.
It helps my defense. It helps me get in better position. It really slowed me down and made me focus on technique instead of just using strength or scrambling. Yeah, it's definitely an advantage for everyone who gets in the gi that's a fighter. Everybody is also different as well, too, but as far as my game, it helped me out a lot.
Luke Thomas: Let's talk about Alliance MMA. How long have you been with them?
Jeremy Stephens: I've been training with them off and on since I came to San Diego, but full-time was actually for this camp so I've been with these guys anywhere from 15-20 weeks now and I've been training with them full-time and mixing things up over there. Coach Eric Del Fierro has been my gameplanner and he's been a bright coach to have in my corner.
Luke Thomas: Talk to me about your evolution. What was it before where you were part-time with them and now you're sort of exclusively with them. What changed?
Jeremy Stephens: I was just living on the other side of town. I was living in Point Loma which a half hour away from Chula Vista. I was training with another group of guys at some other gyms. I was training with K.J. Noons and a lot of different guys and I just needed a good team, a solid team around me and some of the guys were starting to disappear and I needed to be in a gym were a lot of guys had the same similar aspects as me and were getting after it so I had to make that change.
Luke Thomas: Coach Eric Del Fierro is an interesting guy. The reason why, fairly or unfairly, is he has a reputation of taking guys who are strikers and gives them very polished technique but, this is not my personal opinion, playing devil's advocate here, maybe he also makes fighters not go for the kill. How would you respond to that?
Jeremy Stephens: I think that's the fighter's aspect. You're the only one going into the Octagon for 15 minutes. You have to know how to train and know what to do. As far as guys not going for the kill or playing the technical aspect, you can't place that on a coach. Maybe that has some of an influence on that, but the fighter has to know that he's only in there for 15 minutes and he has to do everything he can to take that guy out.
That's not my mindset. You can train me jiu-jitsu technique and put me in a fight knowing I'm just going to be dropping bombs on you the whole time. Yeah, I know the technique's there, but I'll use it to land my strikes. That's how I evolve. I get around the best grapplers, the best wrestlers, the best strikers and I use their techniques, but my mindset's always to take guys out, to go for the kill. To me, that's the fighter's aspects. I think maybe some guys are thinking a bit way too much and are maybe trying to stick to the game plan just to win the fight. There's a lot of pressure there, but my style's always to go for broke and to swing big.
Luke Thomas: So what has Eric Del Fierro done for your particular game?
Jeremy Stephens: He's just helped me get back to pressuring guys the old style. Pretty much no respect of any of the guys' combinations or power. I know guys ain't hitting as hard as me and I know I have a good chin. He's got a good style for me. He makes me pressure when he holds pads. He makes me throw a lot of explosive powerful combinations.
He really hasn't changed too much of my game. He's just sharpened me up and helped me out mentally. That's the big part, just the mental aspect. He's really helped me define the person I am as a fighter and I've truly sharpened that tool back up and I think that was something I lost in my last fight and now it's back again and it's a whole new energy.
Luke Thomas: What's notable in this fight is you're coming off a loss and so is Cerrone. I want to start with you. The Pettis fight is weird because I didn't expect him to wrestle as much as he did. What went wrong for you in that particular fight?
Jeremy Stephens: I think, no excuses, I think my head just wasn't in the game. I had a good camp. I was in good shape, but my head was just not in the game. I had a lot of things going on outside the ring and I just didn't show up to that fight mentally. That's the biggest asset of the fight game is having your mental backing you up and it just wasn't there for me that night. I wasn't my normal self. I had to take some time off to kind of re-energize and reboot the system.
Luke Thomas: You're 25 years old and, if I'm not mistaken, you're UFC debut was against Din Thomas at UFC 71. Were you burnt out?
Jeremy Stephens: No, I wouldn't say I was burnt out. I think I just had some personal things going on in my life that distracted me a little bit. I allowed that to get into my mind and I just really wasn't focused 100 percent on the fight and that's some change that I had to make and some mistakes that I had to learn from to move and grow forward and grow as a man. It happens. Things go on and life goes on. You can't dwell on it. You've just got to move forward and just try to get better and learn from it.
Luke Thomas: Donald Cerrone lost to Nate Diaz. Nate Diaz is a top competitor and there's no shame there, but from your vantage point, why did Cerrone lose that fight?
Jeremy Stephens: I just don't think he knows how to move his head. He didn't capitalize. He fought with a lot of emotion and gassed himself out and I felt like he kind of gave up in the third round. Nate Diaz was fingering him from across the cage like he was a little girl. He didn't have it in his eyes. He kind of just broke and took his ass-whooping.
Luke Thomas: That's interesting you say that. Out of all the guys that have a reputation for toughness, Donald Cerrone is probably at the top of the list. Do you believe that reputation is undeserved?
Jeremy Stephens: No, I think Donald Cerrone is a tough guy. He's definitely a game competitor but when someone is just as tough as you and they're putting on the pressure and beating you up, you have plenty of time, five minutes of the last round to go in there and go for the kill, go for broke. You've got nothing to lose, everything to gain and I just don't think that he really went for it. There's times where I've been losing in the third round and I've come out with the knockout in the last couple seconds and I felt like he just kind of gave up, took his ass-whooping.
Luke Thomas: So 2012, we're almost halfway through. Obviously this is a big fight for you. Have you thought about what you want out of 2012? Obviously you want a bunch of wins, but have you thought about how many times you want to fight and where you want to be by the time 2013 starts?
Jeremy Stephens: No. All my focus is on this next fight. I have nothing else on my mind besides Donald Cerrone, getting that win and moving forward from there, but as of right now, this is the big picture. This is the light at the end of the tunnel. Tuesday is right around the corner. I've never felt so energized, never felt so good mentally and spiritually in my life. I'm ready to go take Donald Cerrone out and look forward to the future after that.
Luke Thomas: Who's gonna be in your corner on Tuesday night?
Jeremy Stephens: Eric Del Fierro and then Adrian who's also with Alliance and he's my boxing coach, been helping me out and my coach Chaco. He's from the other gym, but he's a good mental aspect and a good person to have in my corner. He's one of those guys that will probably be always in my corner.