UFC's next big-time star might be hiding in plain sight

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

There is much angst in the media and among the UFC fan base about a lack of stars, particularly with Ronda Rousey in the WWE, Jon Jones in limbo with a PED hearing upcoming, and Conor McGregor not certain to fight again.

The news is filled with stories about declining fan interest in the UFC, which is often tied to the lack of big-name stars.

No doubt, the UFC could use a fighter with a big personality and knockout power, a willingness to mix it up that leads to regular Fight of the Night honors, and an eagerness to fight the biggest and baddest in his division.

What promoter couldn’t use a guy like that? A fighter like, say, Jeremy Stephens?

Jeremy Stephens will step into the cage on Saturday in the main event of UFC on Fox 28 in Orlando, Florida. (AP)

Stephens is 31 and about to step into the cage on Saturday in the main event of UFC on Fox 28 in Orlando, Florida, for the 42nd time to face Josh Emmett in what figures to be a barn-burner.

It’s a different Stephens, though, than the guy who went 5-8 in a five-and-a-half year period from October 2011 through April 2017.

After a disappointing loss to Renato Moicano last April, Stephens reassessed his career and how he was going about it.

He had on-and-off battles with coach Eric Del Fierro and despite obvious talent, the whole was far less than the sum of its parts. Things didn’t fit together correctly, and it led to inconsistency and underachievement.

At a news conference in New York in September 2016 to promote UFC 205, the company’s first show at Madison Square Garden, Stephens found himself on the receiving end of the ultimate putdown.

He interrupted a question posed to then-featherweight champion Conor McGregor, who glanced at Stephens and asked, “Who the [expletive] is that guy?”

The ignominy of the moment was only increased when it went viral on social media.

Fans, though, might rightly asked the same question on Saturday after the bout with Emmett, but for an entirely different reason. At long last, is Stephens the star the UFC has been looking for? He could be, but he knows he has to perform.

After an evaluation of his career, Stephens returned with impressive victories over Gilbert Melendez at UFC 215 and Dooho Choi last month, pushing into Saturday’s main event. A win there will put him firmly in the featherweight title mix.

“I went out and changed a wrestling coach and gave him an opportunity and it just wasn’t right,” Stephens said. “I got back with Eric Del Fierro and just hashed everything out, put it all on the line. There was a time when I was pulled toward other coaches, but I just dropped those other coaches and I gave Eric 100 percent of myself, my full commitment. I trusted in him, as I always have, but I gave him 100 percent instead of say, 80 percent.

“I allowed him to, you know, go ahead and take control. Ever since I’ve done that, I’ve been looking better and better, and it’s the best I’ve ever been, best I’ve ever felt. I’ve got no worries. I don’t have coaches pulling me in different directions. I am 100 percent clean and focused and it’s the right time.”

Jeremy Stephens is a charismatic guy who doesn’t shy away from the spotlight. (Getty Images)

After adopting that attitude and committing to following the process with Del Fierro, the results were instantly obvious. He battered Melendez, long one of the elites in the game, with crushing leg kicks that left Melendez unable to move effectively. He then came back in January and stopped Choi.

After he went back to the corner after the first round of the Choi fight, Stephens knew what he had to do. He blocked out the commotion in the arena and listened intently to every word Del Fierro said, and set out to implement his coach’s instructions as best he could.

“It’s just getting with Eric Del Fierro, man, and putting 100 percent of my trust in him and allow him to play me like he’s playing Mortal Kombat and Jeremy Stephens is his favorite fighter,” Stephens said. “He knows how to use me and he understands my weakness and he knows my strengths. And he’s dialing me in and getting me where I just execute to get the victory.

“In that last fight with Choi, before that second round, man, I’ll tell you, I couldn’t have been more focused. I listened to every single word he said and I took his advice to heart. I did exactly what he told me to do to get the win. I believe that with all my heart. I went out there and I said, ‘[Expletive] it,’ and I bit down on my mouthpiece and went out and did it. I credit that win to him.”

Stephens is a charismatic guy who doesn’t shy away from the spotlight, and even in an up-and-down UFC career, he’s always been a fun guy to watch. He’s earned eight fight-night bonuses, including Fight of the Night five times.

If he’s locked in and focused the way he has been, the UFC may have found a big-time star hiding in plain sight.

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