At UFC 215, we have a crossroads fight involving former Strikeforce champion and top-ranked UFC lightweight Gilbert Melendez and two-division top-10 occupant Jeremy “Lil Heathen” Stephens.
Melendez is a man who was once referred to as the best lightweight not in the UFC, a title he shared with former Bellator and UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. On the other side of the Octagon, Stephens has developed into a dynamic power-punching brawler, but he always manages to get tripped up in the biggest spots.
These two featherweight fighters aren’t just fighting for a win. They are fighting for a return to relevancy and, in some ways, one last run toward the title. Stephens has the most on the line in terms of the benefits reaped in the aftermath of a victory or the damage done in the shadow of defeat. Let’s take a look at Stephens in more detail.
Stephens is a puncher, plain and simple. His game plan is centered around doing maximum damage with any and every strike he throws. He’s an educated brawler — a guy who has power, physicality and the durability necessary to initiate and win firefights with anyone he may cross paths with in an MMA arena.
Stephens’ game is defined by his top-end athletic ability, namely his overall speed and explosiveness. He has lost a step in his later years, but he still remains one of the better athletes in the division. His offensive striking is surprisingly nuanced and well developed. He has shown off his feints that create responses to allow him to aggressively counter. Stephens often leans on the left hook and/or right uppercut to punish opponents when they react. When trying to aggressively close distance, he tends to probe with his jab and use punishing leg kicks to measure distance for his heavy artillery.
In spite of this underappreciated craft, Stephens is still best going forward, pushing an opponent back, getting inside the pocket and beating his opponent up or stopping them. He has shown the ability to exchange with and outwork guys in the pocket and land effectively exiting the pocket.
Stephens also flashes legitimate wrestling chops. Historically, he has been a sound wrestler, and this has only improved as he dropped a weight class as a result of his now prodigious advantages in size and physical strength. This has allowed him to keep the fight where he prefers to have it, on the feet.
The drop in divisions has done him an immense amount of good. The aforementioned physical advantages have allowed him to maximize his offensive wrestling skills, and while he isn’t always a finisher, he is completely capable of maintaining top position and doing enough damage to slow opponents and win rounds.
As layered and nuanced as Stephens can be offensively, more times than not he is fairly a one-note striker. He has the tools to do a lot of different things, but he often resorts to the simplistic ones to get the job done. This includes applying pressure and launching power shots.
The problem with this is twofold. The first issue is his lack of developed footwork that would allow him to effectively and consistently get in and stay in range to do his work. Due to his fairly unrefined footwork, Stephens often ends up stalking or following his opponents, getting out-positioned, walking into shots, or getting taken down. Then, there’s his lack of activity on offense or on the counter. Stephens relies on power and athleticism to maximize the effect of each shot, but his footwork makes him work harder to get in position to fire off. His lack of volume essentially limits the damage he can do to get in position, the ability to work into position, and his ability to make opponents defensive for fear of active counters. This, too, allows him to be out-positioned, walked into shots or taken down.
His footwork isn’t good enough independently to get him into positions of strength or to keep him out of trouble. Stephens doesn’t throw enough to maximize the opportunities when in position, help supplement his footwork to get in position or to ward off opponents when they attempt to do these things. This is made clear in his featherweight fights against Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway, Cub Swanson and Renato Moicano and his lightweight encounters with Donald Cerrone, Yves Edwards, Spencer Fisher and Melvin Guillard.
This lack of activity and footwork highlights another historically suspect aspect of Stephens’ striking, which is his defense. Stephens leans on the threat of his shots and durability to bolster his defensive prowess, but the lack of the aforementioned attributes makes them less a line of defense and more a pathway to offensive success. The lack of steady offense backfires, as it emboldens guys to open up or counter. His ability to take big shots results in him taking more, because he can and because he feels he is always one shot away from winning.
Stephens has been a pro for almost 13 years. He’s been in the UFC for a decade. He has faced every level of opposition, whether it’s physical, technical or strategical, and he has faced every type of opponent.
Stephens rarely flashes the sort of cage IQ and awareness at this stage of the game that a guy with his level of seasoning should show, especially versus opponents of comparable or superior physical, technical and strategic tools. His record is the record of a fighter who has been matched tough, fought often and made it clear he is above the majority of fighters in either the featherweight or lightweight division but not quite better than the best.
The concerning thing for Stephens is that, at his core, when stakes are highest and opposition is best, he still wins and loses in the same manner as he did when he wasn’t as experienced but was much more physically gifted. Stephens has been unable to make the correct adjustments in his overall fight game. In his performance from fight to fight or from round to round, it appears as if he hasn’t really gained anything, which means he just has 13 years of punishment. This punishment has fully exposed the limitations of his game in two weight classes and has more or less robbed him of his athleticism, as well as his reputation as a legitimately world-class fighter. Compare Stephens to Dustin Poirier, who followed a similar path with much better results in two weight classes. The difference is that Poirier learned and grew, whereas Stephens hasn’t.
Few guys have a better, longer or more accomplished list of opponents on their fight record. That’s the good news about Stephens. The bad news is that very few “elite” or ranked fighters have less name wins on their resume. It’s comparable it to NCAA football, where strength of schedule matters and playing the best means something, but losing to the best, while not as damaging as losses to second- and third-tier opposition, still clearly defines who you are and where you rank in the pecking order.
Stephen’s strength of schedule is great. His win/loss record versus the meatiest part of his schedule is not. He has lots of wins and the occasional loss against fighters he should beat as a result of his offensive and athletic talent, his durability and his experience. However, when faced with guys he was even money against or favored to be beaten by, Stephens record and his performances tend to trend downward. He is more Adrien Broner than Terence Crawford, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Marcus Davis, Diego Saraiva, Cole Miller, Sam Stout, Justin Buchholz, Danny Downes, Estevan Payan, Rony Jason, Rafael dos Anjos, Dennis Bermudez and Darren Elkins are all UFC opponents that Stephens has defeated. None, with the possible exception of dos Anjos, are really considered to be elite, and dos Anjos, whom Stephens beat almost 10 years ago, had not yet switched camps and gone on a run to be a lightweight champion and welterweight contender.
Bermudez was a good win, but one that has been hampered by the fact that Bermudez is as hit-and-miss as he is talented. Elkins, another good fighter, has never shown the dominance or class of an elite fighter in his skills or his results. The point is, the guys Stephens beat weren’t bad fighters, but they weren’t elite fighters. They were talented, but limited and flawed guys who gave Stephens clear avenues to victory.
When the level of skill, talent and experience increased, Stephens’ performance level and his win totals decreased. This has been proven by his losses to Joe Lauzon, Edwards, Din Thomas, Edgar, Swanson, Holloway, Anthony Pettis, Fisher and Charles Oliveira. Most of these guys were at some point considered elite. Some are former or future champions. The rest were just outside of the top tier. Stephens wasn’t able to beat any of them. In most cases, he was decisively outclassed in decisions or finished.
When faced with the best opposition available, Stephens underperformed, which essentially nullifies the value of his rather illustrious list of opponents, because he never beat the ones that meant the most, when it meant the most.
Stephens is a guy with great talent and a wealth of experience, but he has not lived up to the physical gifts he was blessed with or made the most of the amount of fights he has had and the variety of fighters he has faced. He has been a good fighter, but he had the offensive tools and physical skills to be a great fighter.
On Saturday night, Stephens has another chance to take a step toward greatness. If he can beat Melendez, then he will have a chance to change the narrative, redirect his career arc and show the MMA community he has more to offer. If he doesn’t, the narrative remains and we may all have to accept that we have already seen the best of Stephens.