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UFC on FOX 30: Alvarez vs. Poirier 2 – Jose Aldo vs. Jeremy Stephens Toe-to-Toe Preview

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Jose Aldo vs. Jeremy Stephens co-headlines UFC on FOX 30 this July 28, 2018 at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, Canada

One Sentence Summary

David: Can Aldo survive being sacrificed at Dana’s altar of numetal?

Phil: Jeremy Stephens has earned himself a marquee win after a long, tough career… just not this one, please?

Stats

Record: Jose Aldo 26-4 | Jeremy Stephens 28-14

Odds: Jose Aldo +110 | Jeremy Stephens -120

History / Introduction to both fighters

Phil: Jose Aldo’s career of late has been nothing short of heartbreaking. A proud man who was profoundly unimpressed with proclamations from on high from the brass, or glaring promotional missteps by the company (his comment on the first Reebok designs: “We look like Power Rangers”), he cemented himself as the greatest featherweight we’ve ever seen. Then Conor McGregor mocked him and knocked him out in 13 seconds, and just when he regained his throne it was yanked away from him by Max Holloway. I always felt like he was driven more by pride than by his love for MMA, and he’s been vocal about not wanting to continue with the UFC once his contract is done, three fights from now. The big question is how much of a physical and mental toll it’s taken on him.

David: Aldo is like a Pride-era fighter who just happened to fight in the UFC. He’s always had a rogue-like presence to the octagon. Like his personality, his fighting style is stripped of any pretense. He doesn’t want to mock beer companies, and quote urban dictionary. He just wants to get inside a cage, and make money hurting people as efficiently as possible. I remember his fight with Pequeno like yesterday—mostly because I’m a nerd, but because I knew I was watching two (one and a half?) quality prospects. That’s Aldo in a nutshell; he came here to kick ass, and chew dangerous BBQ and — other than Holloway and McGregor — he’s all out of dangerous BBQ.

Phil: If Aldo’s career has been concerning, then Jeremy Stephens’ recent run has been nothing short of incredibly impressive. When he first dropped to featherweight I thought it was nothing more than a last-ditch attempt from a journeyman that was guaranteed to end in tears. He wasn’t a small or a quick lightweight, so it’d make sense for him to be slow, and plodding, and that he’d probably gas out. He was slow, and he was plodding, but he was also frighteningly consistent and seemingly never stopped developing as a fighter. He’s currently on a three fight streak, and they were all brutal as hell. David… Jeremy Stephens is definitely fighting on Saturday night.

David: That last sentence is definitely a statement you wrote. Where Aldo was the gift the UFC didn’t deserve, Stephens was the egg the UFC hatched, born amidst salt and coke. Stephens began as your garden variety, bricks-for-hands Dana White acolyte of unimaginative guitar riffs and tribal tattoos. Between dropping n-bombs in manufactured outrage against Floyd Mayweather, or having daddy Dana pass off felony assault charges as if they were baby droppings, Stephens looked like he’d end up part of the UFC assembly line graveyard, with Junie Browning in one corner, and Stephens in another corner, also defunct, but with a little less stink. Beyond all expectations, he’s experienced a serious renaissance, kind of like when John Travolta’s career was basically dead but then Pulp Fiction came out.

What’s at stake?

Phil: I’m not sure. Holloway’s recovery is very much up in the air. Given Aldo’s unhappiness with the company, I very much doubt he’s given another shot at the belt, whoever holds it, but Stephens could put himself into position for another shot. Even then, though, there’s also the fact that both Edgar and Holloway have relatively recent wins over Stephens. This in turn is balanced by the fact that he’s one of the fighters that Dana will always go to bat for.

David: There’s definitely more on the line for Stephens. If an assault charge couldn’t even register in the ethics center of Dana’s brain for an undercard fight against an aging Yves Edwards, White will make a win over Aldo look like Stephens could challenge for Woodley’s belt with pre-paid roles in a new Expendables film.

Where do they want it?

David: Aldo is probably one of MMA’s most dynamic strikers. But not in a kitchen-sink way. Aside from the flying double-knee he caught Cub Swanson with, he’s never thrown a Guile flashkick, or E. Honda’s hundred hand slap. He’s dynamic in that he lands strikes with elite speed and thudding power consistently. Some of that’s waned in recent years, so his style has morphed in subtle ways. The biggest change is keeping a small cone of fire for attack. He doesn’t attack distance as much he used to when his leg kicks were weapons of mass destruction. Now he settles into a cocoon of violent release points, snapping when threatened, and threatening to snap. Aldo is a lot like a video game boss. You’re gonna lose at first, but eventually you see through the algorithm, and it might be enough. Aldo’s algorithm is see-through at this point, but that doesn’t make him a gimmie.

Phil: Aldo has transitioned throughout his career. He started out as an unstructured, soccer kicking machine in the Pride Shogun mold, then became a Muai Thai destroyer. He has finally settled on his current incarnation, who is largely a power boxer. His pure speed does not appear to have decreased, and his defense remains probably the best we have ever seen in the sport. He pivots, he moves his head, he parries and he stiff-arms. He’s rarely rote or predictable in his defense, in part because he is simply so blazingly fast that he can see what’s coming and pull out the correct option. His flaw has typically been that he can’t gradate his offense. He always throws hard, and always throws fast. That may be an issue against Stephens, who thrives in exchanges. Aldo’s game relies on short sprints of terrifying offense, which are necessarily followed by periods where he goes on the defensive and recovers himself. Ramrod jab, leaping left hook, counter right straight and a still-dangerous knack for flying knees are the core of his offense.

David: Stephens has found a way to make the plodding style work. Rather than pressure slowly with bad footwork, Stephens makes every inch toward his opponent count, whether with punches or kicks. He doesn’t chain offense the way you’d like to see, but sequences well, anticipating movements and keeping his fists magnetized to the general target. The thing about Stephens is that he’s no longer a stereotype of a brawler. We saw this change in the Anthony Pettis fight, where he basically just went into full on Matt Lindland mode. It was a bad performance (Dana probably forgives him), but it revealed his willingness to forego his biggest weapon — that meathook of a right hand — in favor of utility and efficiency.

Phil: Down at featherweight, Jeremy Stephens has developed into a genuinely impressive striker, while never quite letting go of the key flaw which dogged him throughout his lightweight career. Primarily, that he is a plodder. He can move forward, and he has a preternatural feel for where opponents are going and how to intercept them with shots, but he simply must be sitting on top of his feet in order to be able to throw. Once he gets into exchanges and once an opponent is convinced to spend some time inside his effective range, he throws in combination, and works the body, and has a mean leg kick. Perhaps his most underrated weapon down at featherweight is his wrestling and ground and pound: it’s notable that he outwrestled Darren Elkins, and he absolutely pulverized Choi and Emmett once he had top position. However, this in particular feels like it speaks to the issues Stephens has in this fight: many of his tools will be constrained by the simple fact that he’s fighting Jose Aldo, who is virtually impossible to take down and incredibly difficult to hit. His main weapons here seem to be his cardio and his leg kicks. If he can hit Aldo’s lead leg as he pivots, and if he can draw him into exchanges, he can wear the former champion out. Can he do that?

Insight from past fights

David: When I look back at the Holloway fights, the things that stood out at exploiting Aldo were the things I don’t see Stephens replicating. Holloway has an uncanny ability to feint his pressure attack without retreating into a counter striker’s posture. It made Aldo’s defense look way worse than it is. Granted, Aldo is definitely not the same fighter he used to be, and neither is Stephens, but Stephens himself has had some rocky moments. He’s made excellent adjustments, but his old self — the predictable one — didn’t die either.

Phil: Stephen’s tendency to plant has been exploited in two significant fights. The first was by Do Bronx, who simply walked into him and seized the opportunity when Stephens loaded up to simply jump on the clinch and drag him down. Aldo won’t do that. The second (and far more notable) one is Stephens vs Moicano, who simply pivoted, retreated and jabbed, and never let Stephens into the fight. It feels like Jose Aldo can very much replicate that performance. Worth noting that it was an (insane) split decision, though.

X-Factors

David: The same x-factor for every less-spry fighter versus a spry one: that moment when father time says ‘I’m gonna send your body a message.’

Phil: Just where Aldo’s head, heart and body are all at really. He’s had a long, brutal career and doesn’t seem to be enjoying it in the same visceral way which Stephens does.

Prognostication

David: I think Stephens kicking Aldo in the legs will be exactly what Aldo needs to snap back. As long as his leg kicks are a significant factor, everything else will fall into place. Declining Aldo or not, he has the stylistic advantage. Jose Aldo by Decision.

Phil: This is really a referendum on Aldo, as much as it pains me to say it. Stephens should simply be too slow to hit him. He’s incredibly tough, and Aldo’s cardio is increasingly a concern, but I’d be surprised (and deeply saddened) if he can force the necessary exchanges to empty Aldo’s tank over three rounds. Jose Aldo by unanimous decision.


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