Jeremy Stephens may not have been sharp-tongued enough to compete with Conor McGregor in the memorable exchange when Stephens challenged and McGregor asked, “Who the … is that guy?”
But the San Diego-trained featherweight has delivered a powerful response with the fists he touted that day, producing back-to-back fight-of-the-night showings in the UFC and accepting a sudden turnaround to be in the main event on Fox Saturday night against fourth-ranked featherweight Josh Emmett (13-1) in Orlando, Fla.
“I was coming off a fight in good health and because — not taking any damage, not taking the bonus money or ballooning up to 180 [pounds] — this is my life,” Stephens said at a recent interview in Los Angeles.
“This is how I like to fight, being more active. And what a great chance to take advantage of a great opportunity. A lot of people are turning down fights, waiting around … I don’t like to wait.”
That’s more than a veiled swipe at Ireland’s McGregor, who ,after becoming the UFC’s first fighter to simultaneously wear two division belts in November 2016, cashed in on the August novelty boxing match against Floyd Mayweather Jr., and hasn’t returned to the octagon since.
Now would be a golden opportunity to ask McGregor, “Where the … are you?”
“No, I’m not really worried about McGregor at the moment,” Stephens said. “I told him, ‘You know exactly who the … I am.’ You’ve seen me pull out more spectacular knockouts than him. He watches in the background, he knows me.
“I learned I need to brush up on my [trash] talking skills. I might not be good at that, but I can fight my [rear] off.”
Stephens (27-14) has absorbed five losses since June 2014, but he also has claimed three bonuses in that span and his No. 7 ranking should have an arrow trending upward placed next to it after his second-round knockout of Dooho Choi on Jan. 14.
When the UFC needed a main-event featherweight for Orlando, it cast its attention to the Chula Vista resident well-versed in the grind of the business while training at that town’s Alliance MMA alongside former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.
“I wake up and get a piece of humble pie when I train there. Some days, I want to go home and cry,” Stephens said of Alliance. “I’ve learned to dust my boots off, leave it there, take a nap and use it as a learning experience. It’s a tough gym to be in, hard-nosed, a fighter’s gym. You need heart or you get weeded out.”
The competition has helped Stephens feel like he’s solving the ever-changing riddle of consistently winning in the UFC.
“Fighting is always a work in progress,” Stephens said. “At 31, I feel like I’m putting everything together and coming into my prime.
“The key is to always get better and be able to improve and make adjustments in between fights, rounds and minutes. If you want to be a champion, those are the adjustments you have to make.”
Stephens says he’s respectful of Emmett due to his knockout of veteran Ricardo Lamas in December, but he considers his foe less experienced, with plans to let his heavy hands result in another premature ending.
“I’m focused on the moment. [Victory] takes me a couple rankings higher, closer to that ultimate goal, which is getting that title,” Stephens said.
“If I go in there, put Josh away … fighting back to back says a lot about a guy. So I’m going to put a stamp on Josh and show how a champion can fight.”
Originally from Des Moines, Iowa, Stephens credits living in San Diego for his ability to remain so active, crediting the effect of hot yoga and sauna sessions.
“I don’t have to get up at 5 a.m. to snow-blow my driveway and it’s a lot healthier lifestyle than in the cold of the Midwest, where people are smoking cigarettes, bummed out, eating donuts, on the couch,” he said. “San Diego’s beautiful, with great energy, and I’m more prone to getting the fresh foods that come from the ocean. Organic is in fashion.”
With the March 3 UFC 222 winner of featherweight contenders Frankie Edgar and Brian Ortega expected to land the next shot at injured champion Max Holloway, a Stephens victory Saturday after doing the UFC the favor of filling the main event on short notice would leave him well-positioned to fulfill the potential he once boasted to McGregor about.
“You’re never promised anything,” Stephens said. “I’m here to fight, and they know I’m the guy taking opportunities while others are sitting back. I’m sure I’ll be taken care of accordingly.”
The UFC Fight Night card begins on Fox at 5 p.m. Pacific time Saturday.