CALGARY, Alberta — When Brian Ortega declined a short-notice opponent at UFC 226, there was much discussion about whether that decision may have hurt his standing with the promotion and his image with the fans.
The opponent in question, Jeremy Stephens, thinks Ortega made a bad choice for one simple reason: That might have been Ortega’s best chance to beat the longtime featherweight standout.
“That’s something that he’s had to deal with, the fans, the reaction,” Stephens said at a scrum following his open workout for UFC on FOX 30 here at The Palace Theatre. “That was his best opportunity to beat me. Having had to dehydrate myself, I had no coach, my coach had a bad sinus infection, he was in the hospital, it was a crazy moment. Maybe it just wasn’t supposed to happen that way.”
Ortega was supposed to fight UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway in the July 7 main event in Las Vegas, but Holloway was removed from the bout after being hospitalized earlier in the week for concussion-like symptoms. UFC officials offered Stephens to Ortega as an opponent just days’ away from the event and Ortega and his team chose to pass on that option.
While that deliberation was happening, Stephens was already in the process of cutting weight and he was willing to put aside his UFC on FOX 30 bout with Jose Aldo to take on Ortega instead.
“All we had to do was sign the contracts before the fight. I was just a couple of weeks out from a golden opportunity right here, July 28, I was ready to go,” Stephens said. “I was hoping that fight would come, I was tired of camp. I really was just kind of maintaining at that point, where you’re just kind of sitting on idle you’re ready to go at any moment. That call happened and I look at it as I lost a little bit more weight and I was able to eat some food and be happy around this time. I’m having a really good high energy workout, I could have kept going. I’m fed and my weight’s good, so it was all a big benefit.”
Even with Ortega out of the picture, the UFC was considering putting Stephens into a rematch with the man who beat him at UFC 205, Frankie Edgar. That matchup would reportedly have been for an interim title, but the bout failed to materialize.
Nevertheless, Stephens’s coach called him, preparing him to win the rematch with Edgar.
“He’s telling me the combination to beat him and I just remember going to bed, I couldn’t sleep much,” Stephens said. “I was just like, man, this is crazy but we’re about to do it. And I just remember my coach telling me that combo and I went to sleep with that combo, woke up, started getting after it in the morning and then the fight was off after that.”
Stephens is taking the experience as one big positive, believing that the extra work only has him better prepared to defeat Aldo, a two-time UFC featherweight champion. As soon as the call came to possibly fight Ortega, he started doing what he had to do to become eligible for fight night.
“I took off running like a night game at the sandlot,” Stephens said. “The fireworks are going off, I could see my shadow. I’m putting in work after the second training session that I had. Woke up in the morning, literally I ran an hour-and-a-half and then biked another half hour. So I was well under a 158 pounds heading in there with calories still burning. I was on board with George Lockhart, he’s my dietitian, and we were ready to rock.
“Nothing ever came of it. No lost feelings, I get a chance to put myself in an undeniable position come this Saturday.”