Jeremy Stephens and Melvin Guillard kick off the UFC 119 pay-per-view broadcast Saturday night in a lightweight contest that has more at stake than meets the eye.
The two explosive competitors are meeting at a career crossroads: experienced enough to have learned from the mistakes that cost them victories early, and yet still just entering their prime as professional athletes.
Guillard has long been expected to reach this point after having been viewed as an impressive talent whose maturity and mental game wasn’t on the same level as his dynamic striking ability. Stephens, however, has reached this stage through will and brute force.
When the 24-year-old Stephens steps into the Octagon on Saturday night, it will mark the tenth time he has done so. Though his record stands at just 5-4 through his first nine appearances, the powerful lightweight known as “Lil’ Heathen” has faced some stiff competition to date, and has put together back-to-back impressive performances.
Each of his losses have come to competitors who would be viewed as ahead of Stephens on the food chain – Din Thomas in his UFC debut, former trainer Spencer Fisher at the TUF 7 Finale, Joe Lauzon and Gleison Tibau back-to-back in the first half of 2009. In each of those bouts, Stephens was at a serious disadvantage in the experience department, and was still more of a puncher than a well-rounded mixed martial artist.
Even his most memorable victory came while Stephens was still crafting himself into a more complete fighter. After two back-and-forth rounds with UFC newcomer Rafael dos Anjos, Stephens stepped into a Street Fighter-esque uppercut, stopping short of offer up a hadouken, but connect with the power of Ken and Ryu combined. While devastating knockout has been replayed ad nauseam since, Stephens’ best in-cage performance came in his most recent outing against Sam Stout at UFC 113.
Both young lightweights entered off impressive wins; Stout had dominated Joe Lauzon in a technical display of kickboxing straight from the Team Tompkins playbook he’s learned from his entire career, while the ferocious Stephens earned a stoppage over Justin Buchholz just past the three minute mark of their bout at Fight Night 19. The contest would be a battle between technique and power, with the more fundamentally sound Stout entering as a clear favorite.
While jiu jitsu players will preach that technique will always win over size and strength, the same doesn’t hold true for striking, and didn’t that night in Montreal as Stephens earned a split decision victory over the Canadian. In addition to rocking the granite-jawed London, Ontario native on numerous occasions, Stephens showed a more measured and calculating approach that paired well with his well-established power.
A brawler at heart, Stephens will have been well-served to have spent his time preparing for Melvin Guillard working his ground game, as the 27-year-old has a history of being allergic to grappling and fond of leaving his neck out for the taking. The rest of his game seems to have come together since joining Greg Jackson’s all-star line-up in Albuquerque, so perhaps his submission defense has followed suit, but Stephens would be making a mistake by not at least testing Guillard on the ground a time or two.
Once again, Stephens will enter the cage as the underdog, a position that should allow Stephens to focus on earning the biggest win of his career and taking the next step forward in his progression as a fighter. Guillard was supposed to be on the cusp of contending his entire career; this is what was long expected of him, but the same cannot be said for Stephens.
He has been viewed as a good-but-not-great lightweight who put on entertaining bouts but never climbed above the middle of the divisional depth chart. That started to change when he put together a Fight of the Night performance in stifling Stout in front of his countrymen in May, and will continue to be re-written with another upset win on Saturday.
With the lightweight division in a serious state of flux, there is no time like the present for exciting, young talents like Stephens to go on a run and get himself into the upper reaches of the weight class.
If Cole Miller’s impressive win over Ross Pearson at last week’s Ultimate Fight Night event in Austin, Texas can vault the American Top Team member into the ranks of up-and-coming contenders, Stephens should be able to do the same with a win over Guillard, especially since he holds a dominant victory over the lanky lightweight.
For starters, he must get through “The Young Assassin,” a task that is far from easy. But after the performance he put on against Sam Stout and packing the power we’ve witnessed on numerous occasions, Jeremy Stephens has all the weapons to knock the Melvin Guillard hype train off the tracks and take over the 1:15 Express to Contenderville himself.