He faced a tough weight cut and his coach was ill, but as soon as Jeremy Stephens heard the UFC needed a replacement for fallen featherweight champion Max Holloway earlier this month, the San Diego fighter said yes.
Stephens’ interest went for naught when unbeaten featherweight title challenger Brian Ortega of Los Angeles balked at meeting the heavy handed Stephens on short notice for an interim belt.
“As a fighter, as someone who wants to be a champion, you feel you can beat everybody,” Stephens said. “We sign contracts to fight, not to dip, duck and dodge. [Ortega] complained that he doesn’t have any money .… It’s like, ‘Dude, you got offered a fight and a chance to earn good money, [so] fight, it’s your best chance to beat me.’
“I had to dehydrate myself, my coach was sick … now I get to go on with this fight that I was preparing for, go in there and beat a guy, and then we can talk about what’s next.”
The 32-year-old Stephens (28-14) seeks a fourth consecutive victory when he meets former featherweight champion Jose Aldo (26-4) Saturday in the Fox-televised co-main event of the UFC’s “Fight Night” card in Calgary, Canada.
Brazil’s Aldo has lost only to Holloway (twice) and Conor McGregor in the past decade.
“It’s an amazing opportunity, another former champion to put under my belt,” said Stephens, who has previously defeated former bantamweight champion Renan Barao. “I’m starting to get some nice trophies on my wall of heads that I have taken off. I feel like beating this guy will really solidify my spot here as one of the baddest men to deal with in the UFC.”
Trained at Alliance MMA in Chula Vista, Stephens, the No. 4-rated featherweight, showed little sensitivity to second-ranked Aldo’s rut of three losses in his past four fights. The win was over former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, who once beat Stephens.
“I don’t care what he’s been doing. I’ve been in these situations where I’ve come off two losses and had one of the best performances of my life so I’m expecting a fired-up Jose Aldo to come in giving 110%, as I will,” Stephens said. “When I do that, he’s going to be painted on the canvas.”
UFC president Dana White said this week it remains uncertain what will become of the postponed Holloway-Ortega meeting with Holloway undergoing a battery of tests following his July 4 withdrawal from UFC 226 due to concussion effects.
Stephens will be more closely monitoring Holloway’s status once he’s done fighting Saturday night.
“I’m in this game getting my head busted up as well. It’s a sensitive topic in the line of work we’re in and I don’t wish it upon anybody,” Stephens said. “We don’t know what will happen … but Max can look back at what he did as a great career. He’s a great kid and I wish him the best.
“This easily can happen to anybody. My focus is on training smarter now. I work hard, but I have a purpose to get to the fight healthy. The sport’s evolving on that. You can tell by seeing the guys falling left and right.”
Stephens is confident he’ll not only endure, but thrive through the challenge of Aldo.
“I want to prove I can be a champion. I feel this is the right time with a wealth of knowledge in my bank account. My best is yet to come,” he said.
“This is my opportunity .… I’m dialed in for a dominant performance and if I take [Aldo] out as planned, there’s really no denying who the next guy in line should be. Maybe I push Brian aside.
“We’re here to make people talk about the featherweight division, to ‘make it great again,’ the whole Trump thing …. This is a fight the UFC bosses are excited for, and it’s a chance to solidify my status.”