Phil and David breakdown everything you need (and don’t need) to know about Stephens vs. Choi for UFC St Louis.
Jeremy Stephens vs Doo Ho Choi headlines UFC Fight Night 124 this January 14, 2018 at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.
One sentence summary
David: Two right hands grow legs and a nervous system to clack knuckles in Missouri.
Phil: Yesterday’s power punching action fighter meets today’s power punching action fighter.
Record: Jeremy Stephens 26-14 | Doo Ho Choi 14-2
Odds: Jeremy Stephens +135 | Doo Ho Choi -155
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: You can see exactly when Stephens’ career could have traveled the road not-Dana protected – October 5th, 2012. Like a mini Robbie Lawler, Stephens hunkered down on his strengths in subtle ways and he’s been a mainstay ever since. In some ways this is a good fight for him; he seems to struggle most with elite veterans who can more or less handle his straightforward style whereas prospects eager to meet him head on sometimes struggle. This can either be a second wind for Stephens, or the long walk of the megacity.
Phil: Jeremy Stephens has been in the UFC for a long time, so it’s at least somewhat surprising that he’s still as good as ever. Fighters like Mike Perry can look at Stephens and see someone who managed to make a long and successful career despite fighting high-end competition for most of it, and not exactly having a style which shies away from taking damage. Like Perry, Stephens has also not always been someone who’s been on the right side of law enforcement (Jeremy Stephens is definitely fighting tonight!) but he seems to have found a surprisingly durable place as a simple man with simple pleasures, like punching people in the face.
David: It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Choi, and it’s been even longer since we’ve seen do something other than violently knock someone out. The Swanson fight was the first time since 2011 since Choi had gone the distance. Needless to say, he still managed to spread all of his usual right hand bomber violence over three rounds into a modern classic. He’ll have his hands full (literally) against Stephens, who strikes me as a very tough matchup for him.
Phil: It’s over a year since Doo Ho Choi stepped into the cage, but no-one can say that it wasn’t memorable when he did. His fight with Cub Swanson was wild and violent and awesome, and likely took pieces out of both men which they’ll never fully get back. The Korean Superboy possesses the unlikely but awesome mixture of the looks of a polite (if slightly smug) StarCraft pro with laser-sharp hands and a willingness to throw down.
What’s at stake?
David: For Choi, a lot. A win gets the UFC matchmakers itching for some “new blood” – along with “cornering a market” (without a real strategy other than “get some fans” I’m not sure this on their wish list) – and someone, who with enough improvement, can at least intrigue Max Holloway enough to share the oxygen of publicity.
Phil: Featherweight is open at the moment. Brian Ortega is around, but other than that pretty much no-one has any kind of momentum going at all. Josh Emmett? The winner of Johnson-Elkins? Nah. That being said, though, although there’s an option for someone to move into title contention talks with a win through sheer lack of alternative options, I doubt that it’ll be Stephens. He’s been in that “action gatekeeper” role for too long, and it’s going to take some serious work to dig himself out of it.
Where do they want it?
David: I mentioned the comparison to Lawler not because I think Stephens is half as good but because I think he has half the mindset – which is still a credit to him. He’s always been more versatile than advertised. It’s easy to forget that when his highlight reel consists of Rogan screaming “OOOOOHHHH” while dos Anjos’ head sprouts wings and flies into the rafters.
But like he did against Anthony Pettis, he has a solid spider sense to think about the judges and not just his fists. He’s also a worthy boxer. Obviously, his right hand is basically a cudgel attached to a human wrist. But he pumps the jab, incorporates leg kicks, and does pretty much everything the MMA manual of “hit him here here and here” instructs fighters to do. Within that, he has something of a coaches’ instincts – willing to abandon what he loves (facepunching) in service of what he can’t risk (not going for takedowns).
Phil: Stephen’s ability to knock people out has always been a little overstated. For someone who is constantly touted as that KO striker who finished Rafael dos Anjos, it’s notable that he doesn’t really knock people out all that often? And that he threw that RDA uppercut from so far back that his fist basically skimmed the floor. If you throw your entire body into a punch, there’s a solid chance that it’ll do some serious damage when it connects.
For all that, Stephens does hit hard, but it tends to be the kind of clubbing power which discourages and dizzies more than it slumps in a heap. His best attributes instead are likely his ability to predict where people are going to move under pressure and intercept them with a kick or a knee, and his excellent cardio. In recent fights, he’s shown surprising growth in his striking. While he’ll never be a great jabber, he’s been using it more, and has become far more of a Dutch stylist on the feet- using combinations of hooks to raise the guard then kicking away the leg.
David: Choi’s style is classic in a lot of ways; especially for Asian fighters who tend to generate strength from high impact straight line accuracy. I don’t know if it’s a geographical thing in the same way Russians wingers love to play on their offside, but whatever the case – Choi is mechanically violent. His right hand isn’t particularly well set up. It just seems to happen. I’m not even sure his punches travel a straight line. Hey Hollywood – maybe you can explain it (just so someone can rip the other guy off for explaining it).
Anyway, this isn’t a criticism per se. It’s just a typical top (“my right hand has bricks inside! I think I’ll use it over and over”) down (“if anything else happens it’s because of my right hand”) approach to fighting. As a result, he’s exceedingly good at hitting people, but the fight with Swanson revealed the lack of nuance and how that lack of nuance can turn ugly. Without a network of offense, he can’t rewire his attack into a different pattern, and so he either retreats or doubles down. Of course, that’s what makes brawlers so gosh darn dangerous. It’s not faith that drives their punches – it’s doubt; when you’re not sure your punches can kill, you have to be doubly sure.
Phil: Doo Ho Choi has that “opponent slumps in a heap”-type power. He lines the opponent up with the jab, then nails them with his right straight, and then they go to sleep. Most of the time. Problems have arisen when they haven’t, as in the Swanson fight. He’s a little reminiscent of Kelvin Gastelum, in that he’s a young fighter who has polished a single effective offensive tool to a mirror gleam, and has built a bunch of defensive tools around it (an underrated defensive wrestling, scrambling game, the odd counter knee)… but if he lands that weapon and it doesn’t immediately turn the tide, he’s left with no option but to go back to it again and again.
This is simultaneously a test of his ability to fight with a more varied approach, and to test his basic discipline and adaptability within a fight, because Stephens is not the kind of man to go away easily. In particular, Stephens’ leg kicks are one to watch for. Against Melendez he showed a taste for landing them on the counter, and Choi is very heavy on that lead leg.
Insight from past fights
Phil: I guess the closest analogue to Choi for Stephens is Renato Moicano, who used his jab and defensive footwork to stymie Stephens, but I find myself somewhat unconvinced that Choi wants to (or perhaps can) replicate that performance. Stephens’ biggest struggles have come from “all the way out or all the way in” fighters that have blitzed him or circled from the outside. Choi is a pressure power puncher, and I’m not sure that he can bring himself to stymie Stephens in quite the same clever but boring way that Moicano did.
David: Part of my issue with Choi’s chances is that his jab (which Moicano successfully used) is never its own weapon. It’s almost thrown in tanden with his right hand. Sometimes he’ll even lung with it, creating no real pattern. When he throws his right, he leans in, and once he’s in the pocket he enjoys overstaying his welcome. That sounds like bad news for Choi.
Phil: Choi’s time away has to be the main one. He’s tremendously talented and very young, so dramatic improvements are a major possibility.
David: I see what you did there – deliberately turning a well-worn soundbite typically indicating something negative into something positive.
Phil: I’m not sure that Choi can easily knock Stephens out, I’m not sure that he can keep up with Stephens’ pace, and I think his stance may be quite vulnerable to Stephens’ newfound love for combinations and low kicks. I would like to see him come out and really put on a disciplined performance, but I suspect Stephens may steadily slow him down with attritional damage after enduring a couple of early scares. Jeremy Stephens by unanimous decision.
David: I know all the reasons not to pick Choi: Stephens has become more technical, he has more options in the pocket, his power is more likely to sway the tide in proportion to each man’s respective chin, and Stephens seems more capable of mixing it up with offense on and off the feet whenever “s—t gets real”. The caveat there is that I believe Choi doesn’t need to show any improvement at all to have a chance; even a good one despite the stylistic problems (for all the talk of Stephens’ chin, Choi’s isn’t so bad either). However, I believe even minor improvements will make a big difference, and I expect at least one new wrinkle. Doo Ho Choi by TKO, round 2.