It's tough work trying to get Jeremy Stephens amped up for a fistfight.
With 32 professional fights under his belt, Stephens accepts his upcoming UFC Fight Night 44 main event scrap against No. 4-ranked featherweight contender Cub Swanson with a veteran's composure and grace.
He's not boisterous, and he's not making outrageous comments or bragging about how he's going to smash his foe in Round 1. He's matured during his time as a professional, and the fight itself is just a formality, just part of the job.
"I don't like to give arrogant statements anymore, and in the top 10 of UFC, it's all about the mental state and making it happen," Stephens told Bleacher Report. "I've been fighting since I was 16, fighting in the UFC since my 21st birthday. I just turned 28 and have 19 fights in the UFC, so I've adapted to everything."
If Stephens ever had a reason to get nervous or giddy before a fight, though, now is the time.
According to the 28-year-old knockout artist, a shot at the UFC featherweight title will fall into his lap if he defeats Swanson June 28 in San Antonio, Texas. This represents an opportunity that Stephens has failed to capture throughout his lengthy UFC career, but his 20th fight with the promotion might just be a special one.
"Lining this fight up, we were told it's a four-man tourney: Cub vs. myself and [Chad] Mendes vs. [champion Jose] Aldo, winners meet for a championship bout at the end of the year," Stephens said. "I don't really have anything to think or worry about other than putting all of my focus on this fight, then everything will fall in its place. The opportunity means the world and I'm not taking my dream for granted."
If we go back just six fights in Stephens' career, we find the beginning of a three-fight losing streak. Starting in October 2011, "Lil' Heathen" dropped a fight to current lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, and he followed this defeat with back-to-back losses to Donald Cerrone and Yves Edwards, the latter of which occurred via knockout, the only such loss in Stephens' career.
But then fate reversed itself, and Stephens dropped to featherweight and revved up his training at Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, California.
With a stable of UFC stars like Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Myles Jury and head coach Eric del Fierro by his side, Stephens honed his technique and unleashed the best version of himself fans had ever seen in his 145-pound debut.
After defeating Estevan Payan at UFC 160 in May 2013 to kick off his career as a featherweight, Stephens rattled off back-to-back wins over Rony Jason and Darren Elkins to secure his title eliminator with Swanson.
This rebirth is the product of nothing more than hard work and a commitment to the sport and to training, according to Stephens.
"Between my coaches and team at Alliance MMA, Functional Patterns and Victory MMA, they've done more than I even know or could explain [laughs]," Stephens said. "My whole overall game is getting better, not just where I need to grow, but I'm getting better in areas I'm already good."
These improvements did not come without struggle and hardship, though. Sparring with the superstars at Alliance MMA, Stephens sometimes comes out of the practice room beaten and battered. But it's in these moments that he finds a lesson, somewhere to grow, somewhere to evolve as a fighter.
"Some days you show up and just get crushed, and other days you do the crushing," Stephens said.
If June 28 turns out to be one of the latter days, "Lil' Heathen" will secure his fourth straight victory as a featherweight and find himself eye to eye with a shiny golden belt.
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