With the fight seemingly up for grabs heading into the last round, fourth-ranked featherweight Cub Swanson turned it on to outlast the 11th-ranked Jeremy Stephens in the main event of UFC Fight Night 44 on Saturday.
Swanson, who looked uncharacteristically sluggish in the first two rounds, kept his composure and came on to win the last three rounds to secure a unanimous decision and score his sixth consecutive win.
The setback snapped an impressive three-fight winning streak for Stephens, who suffered his first career loss at 145 pounds.
Great fight, I have it 3-2 Cub. How do u have it?— Dana White (@danawhite) June 29, 2014
Here's a look at what we learned from this featherweight barnburner.
What We'll Remember About This Fight
Although Stephens undoubtedly possesses world-class talent and heart, he's still a step behind Swanson in every facet of the game.
In what was essentially a kickboxing match for the better part of five rounds, Stephens cracked Swanson with some of his best shots, only to watch the Jackson's MMA stalwart absorb the punishment and regroup on every occasion.
Swanson's confidence grew as the fight wore on, and despite Stephens' tremendous show of heart, it was obvious which fighter swayed the judges by night's end.
Swanson nearly finished Stephens in both the third and fifth rounds with vicious kicks to his body, but Lil' Heathen came prepared with a full gas tank and made it a war right until the last bell.
What We Learned About Swanson
He doesn't always get off to a quick start, but Swanson has more than enough heart and, more importantly, a trusty chin.
Swanson has the ability to change a fight in an instant, and in the third round, he did that to Stephens by landing a flush kick to Lil' Heathen's liver.
Swanson showed patience, toughness and maturity in his sixth win in two years in the UFC. With the win, Swanson did precisely what he needed to do (short of finishing Stephens) to make a case for a rematch with featherweight champ Jose Aldo (if Aldo happens to best Chad Mendes at UFC 176) in the coming months.
What We Learned About Stephens
While Stephens tasted defeat for the first time since getting KO'd by Yves Edwards at lightweight in 2012, the Alliance MMA standout definitely didn't take a step backward.
Stephens showed unmatched grit in this bout, twice recovering from devastating liver kicks from the venomous Swanson.
Lil' Heathen also put his potent punching power on display by threatening Swanson with right hands from the first bell to the last.
Stephens obviously must refine his game in order to reach his goal of receiving a title shot, but he certainly proved that he's found a permanent home at featherweight, regardless of the bout's outcome.
What's Next for Swanson
With Aldo and Mendes set to clash in early August, Swanson can lick his wounds from his bout with Stephens and prepare to watch the rematch between the champ and the division's No. 1 contender at UFC 176.
Swanson, who has defeated three straight world-ranked opponents, has suffered just one loss in the UFC, a submission setback against the currently third-ranked Ricardo Lamas in 2011.
If the UFC's brass doesn't grant Swanson a title shot in his next outing, the only other options appear to be a bout with the loser of Aldo vs. Mendes or a fight with the winner of Frankie Edgar vs. B.J. Penn.
What's Next for Stephens
Finally at the cusp of earning his first title shot, Lil' Heathen must now regroup and string together some more significant wins at 145.
Since he's only bested one world-ranked featherweight (Darren Elkins), a plethora of quality opponents are lurking for Stephens.
A bout with either the eighth-ranked Dennis Siver or the ninth-ranked Nik Lentz would suit Stephens just fine.
All fighter rankings from the UFC.