Jeremy Stephens and Cub Swanson want to believe their stories are still being written.
They both likely shudder to think they would be defined by moments past. Were that the case, Swanson would forever be remembered as the victim of Jose Aldo’s insane eight-second double flying knee at WEC 41; Stephens would be remembered as the guy whose biggest career headlines came after his arrest on felony assault charges just before UFC on FX 5.
Neither would make a particularly proud legacy, so it’s tempting to cast Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 44 main event as a crossroads for both men.
The winner could be granted a future featherweight title shot and perhaps a chance to replace sour memories of the past with a brighter future. The loser shuffles back to the 145-pound pack, known at least a while longer for stuff he’d probably sooner forget.
Stephens obviously has the longer road to redemption. He was meant to fight Yves Edwards in Minneapolis in Oct. 2012, but police jailed him just hours before showtime on a warrant stemming from a year-old altercation in his home state of Iowa.
Details of the incident were ugly—the kind of thing that could follow a professional fighter his entire career—but charges against Stephens were dropped last July. At the time, Stephens’ manager said the 28-year-old knockout artist turned down multiple plea deals before prosecutors ultimately decided not to pursue the matter.
This week, Stephens elaborated to MMA Fighting’s Chuck Mindenhall that he had “no involvement” with the assault and that his accusers were “out for money.”
It was a big ordeal, man, but I’m kind of thankful for it. It was a really bad thing that happened, but I’m kind of thankful for it because it opened my eyes to a lot of things I wasn’t paying attention to before. ... It’s been a blessing in disguise to make me a better person, a better father and overall a different human being.
Different human being or not, Stephens’ fighting life took a hit in the wake of that high-profile arrest. The UFC finally got him in the cage with Edwards in December 2012, but he was knocked out in a minute, 55 seconds. It was his third consecutive loss in the lightweight division, and after five years and 15 fights in the Octagon, it felt as though he was nearing the end of his usefulness to the UFC.
Little did we know.
Stephens cut to featherweight in the spring of 2013 and has since put together three consecutive wins. The highlight thus far has been last November’s first-round KO of Rony Jason in Brazil, but Stephens has yet to tangle with any A-list 145-pound contenders. It remains to be seen if his signature brand of high-energy savagery will carry the day against the division’s best.
If he ever means to truly distance himself from the debacle that cast him out of his originally scheduled bout against Edwards, there is really only one way to do it. He needs to bury it in a run at the featherweight title, moving beyond the also-ran status that plagued him at lightweight to prove he’ll be a long-term asset in his new weight class.
That’s where Swanson comes in.
The 30-year-old Jackson’s MMA fighter has been a mainstay in the featherweight division dating back to the early days of the Zuffa-era WEC. He’s riding a five-fight win streak in the Octagon (four of them stoppages) and hasn’t tasted defeat in more than two-and-a-half years.
You might think a guy like that could write his own ticket, but Swanson told ESPN’s Brett Okamoto this week that his negotiations with the UFC prior to the Stephens fight didn’t exactly go as planned:
I was told ‘no’ to everybody I asked for. I was like, ‘What about this person?’ They said it didn’t make sense for the division. We basically sat down and went through the entire list of names from Jose Aldo all the way down, and they told me why I couldn’t fight them. It was just very clear I would have to wait for the fights I wanted.
To understand why, one need look no further than a rough patch from 2009-11, which saw Swanson go 2-3. Overall, he’s 11-4 in WEC/UFC, but his biggest opportunities have mostly so far resulted in letdowns.
Also—yeah—the Aldo thing.
It happened in June 2009 and not only propelled Aldo into a WEC 145-pound title fight but also turned out to be the cornerstone of his career highlight reel. Just a glove touch, a grin from Swanson and then Aldo suspending the laws of physics. The kind of thing you could watch again and again before the true genius of the move hits you.
It was certainly not as ignominious as Stephens’ arrest, but when we talk about Swanson, the fact that he once played the Kelly Tripucka to Aldo's Michael Jordan is never far from our minds.
It’s no secret what it would take for Swanson to erase that memory. He has to beat Stephens on Saturday night and get back into a title match against Aldo, provided the champion gets past Chad Mendes at UFC 176. Once there, he has to win—or at least make it look better than the first time.
Considering that even the most favorable roads for both Swanson and Stephens lead to Aldo, neither is going to have an easy time of it. But this weekend—in what we all expect to be a crackerjack fight—one will get the opportunity to prove his story will be more than just a footnote.
The other may be left still trying to escape his own shadow.