Ferocious puncher, Jeremy Stephens, will take on acrobatic striker, Yair Rodriguez, this Saturday (Sept. 21, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 159 from inside Mexico City Arena in Mexico City, Mexico.
Stephens’ longevity inside the Octagon really deserves a lot of respect. He’s fought the highest level of competition for 12 years now, and most impressively, the best performances of his career have come in the previous three or four years. While it appears that Stephens may never actually earn the title shot he’s worked so long for, “Lil Heathen” remains just 33 years old, so hope is not dead just yet.
Once more, Stephens will walk to the cage on Saturday night and try to knock his foe’s block off. Let’s first take a closer look at his skill set:
Stephens has been a Featherweight for six years now, a smart move that coincided with some technical improvements. “Lil Heathen” will forever be a brawler at heart, but he definitely is smarter in his approach to closing the distance and finding a home for his power shots.
In almost all of his fights, Stephens pressures opponents and looks to swing from the pocket. The man does hit very hard and is blessed with an iron chin, two factors that often shift one-to-one exchanges in his favor.
While stalking, Stephens is still something of a right hand-heavy striker. Despite his attempts to mix it up more, Stephens cannot help but rely on his overhand. One effective adjustment that Stephens has made is to step into Southpaw after flinging his right hand, which can allow for an effective follow up combination (GIF).
The most vital improvement to Stephens’ overall game has been the extra focus on kicks. His stance has evolved over the years from a flat-footed stalk to more of an upright, Muay Thai style of striking, and it’s made him far more effective. Stephens does a brilliant job of chopping into the calf of opponents (GIF), which can quickly leave a foe far more vulnerable to his powerful punches.
In this week’s technique highlight, we discuss the benefits of having a powerful right hand and right kick, and how the two strikes play off each other.
While stalking, Stephens has greatly improved at countering his opponents (GIF). Notably, he picked up a pair of amazing knockouts in similar fashion against Dennis Bermudez and Rony Jason. Both opponents were over-committing to their punches, bringing their heads forward with strikes. As they did so, Stephens was able to time a jump knee (GIF) and high kick (GIF) respectively, landing both shots perfectly.
Aside from those counters, Stephens does a great job of slipping to his right and firing with a combination. Ideally, he’ll slip a jab and come back before his foe’s hand is back in place, but it doesn’t have to be that perfect to land effectively. Plus, Stephens does a great job of not just firing a right hand off the slip, as he usually fires at least two punches and will dig to the body as well (GIF).
Similarly, Stephens loves using the uppercut to counter the jab. The set up is similar — slip outside the jab before firing back a power punch (GIF) — but Stephens will really stalk his opponent to draw out the jab. “Lil Heathen” may or may not slip that jab whenever it comes, but chances are his uppercut will land with far more power.
Stephens makes good use of the uppercut even if he does load it up too much. Part of that is because Stephens is quite aggressive with his overhand, which comes around and over the top his opponent’s guard. The uppercut comes from beneath and through the center, meaning it’s the exact opposite path of the overhand. Of course, the uppercut and overhand are easier to distinguish while blocking than most punches, but it only takes a moment of hesitation from his opponent for one of these kill shots to slip through (GIF).
Despite all the improvements to his stalking tactics, Stephens is still an easily frustrated fighter. His most recent loss to Zabit Magomedsharipov demonstrated many of the age-old Stephens’ issues, as he failed to cut off the cage as Magomedsharipov circled and fired straight punches. In addition, Magomedsharipov fought much of the bout as a Southpaw, which limited the effectiveness of Stephens’ calf kick and resulted in him swinging a wide right hook more often.
A high school wrestler, Stephens’ wrestling has always been something of a back up plan for “Lil Heathen.” Generally, if Stephens is shooting for takedowns, things aren’t going according to plan on the feet.
Offensively, Stephens does his best work with the double leg along the fence. It’s nothing complicated, but Stephens’ extra size and strength at 145 pounds makes it easier to control opponents along the fence and then force them to the mat. Alternatively, Stephens will look to pick up a single leg in the center of the Octagon, but that transition usually ends with him driving his foe to the fence and unable to finish the shot.
In terms of defensive wrestling, Stephens probably does not get the credit he deserves. Outside of Frankie Edgar, few men have found consistent success in taking and holding Stephens down for an extended period of time. Other fighters — such as Renato Moicano and Renan Barao — managed to score some points with takedowns, but Stephens was up before long and flinging leather.
Generally, the key to out-wrestling Stephens is to frustrate him with stand up first. Moicano scored his pair of takedowns easily because Stephens was so annoyed with his movement, whereas more straight forward bruisers like Darren Elkins and Dennis Bermudez struggled to get Stephens down. Against those powerful wrestlers, Stephens stood his ground against their shots, and he remained upright far more often than not.
Stephens has not submitted anyone since his UFC career began, but he has occasionally showed off his offensive jiu-jitsu. For example, Stephens attempted a deep kimura opposite Danny Downes. Throughout the entire fight, Stephens pretty much abused his opponent on the feet and on the mat. In the second round, Stephens locked up a kimura and jammed it behind Downes’ back. Despite his shoulder reportedly popping multiple times, Downes did not tap, and his toughness prevented Stephens from securing his first UFC submission win.
Again, Stephens’ defensive jiu-jitsu is under appreciated. He hasn’t been submitted since 2009, and he’s been put in some compromising positions by skilled finishers like Charles Oliveira and Magomedsharipov. He may not be throwing up omoplatas or anything so fancy, but Stephens understands how to scramble back to his feet without getting strangled — a valuable skill for any knockout artist.
Stephens is a damn tough test for much of the division. Even if the strategy to defeating Stephens is well-understood by most, the margin for error is incredibly thin. Given Yair Rodriguez’s love of risky techniques, this main even should prove nothing if not entertaining.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 159 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+“Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the main card portion that will stream on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.
To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Night 159: “Stephens vs. Rodriguez” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.