For nearly 15 years, Jeremy Stephens has been a staple of the UFC roster, competing more than 30 times for the promotion and facing a who's who of both the lightweight and featherweight divisions.
On Wednesday, "Lil' Heathen" makes his debut for the Professional Fighters League, headlining the promotion's debut event of 2022 in a bout that airs on ESPN from Esports Arena in Arlington, Texas. Stephens (28-19) takes on fellow UFC vet and professional boxer Clay Collard (20-9) in the night's main event.
Stephens admits he didn't necessarily expect to be in a main event in his first contest for his new employer but certainly didn't object when he was given the assignment.
"I didn't really expect anything," Stephens told MMA Underground. "No expectations coming in, but I've been a top-tier athlete for two decades in the sport, and I've been putting it down a long time – multiple different knockouts and one of the most entertaining, exciting guys in the world, so yeah, why the f--- not?"
Once inside the cage, Stephens will certainly feel at home, regardless of the promotion. After all, he's been engaging in both legally sanctioned and also less scrupulous fighting contests since he was a teenager. But there's much more to do with the responsibilities of a fight week than simply stepping on to the competition surface.
But as Stephens maneuvered through his fight week responsibilities, he said he is enjoying the new environment as he prepares to compete for the first time in nine months.
"I'm a Gemini, man, so we like new things, and coming around here and meeting new faces and the PFL family, it's been incredible," Stephens said. "Smiles on their faces. Things are a lot more relaxed. You can just kind of focus on the fight and don't have to worry about too much, and they make it easy for you. It's exciting.
"It's a long time coming. I can't wait to go in there and do my thing."
Different from other major MMA promotions, the PFL utilizes a league format, where athletes earn points based on their performance in a regular season before advancing to a playoff bracket and, ultimately, a championship worth $1 million.
Stephens and Collard are both fan-friendly fighters who prefer to do their work in the standup game. According to the oddsmakers, it's essentially a pick 'em contest, with the man who lands clean first likely to win.
Collard was a semifinalist in the PFL's 2021 campaign, and Stephens knows he's not getting any easy assignments in his new promotion.
"That's a great matchup," Stephens said. "I feel like he's the No. 1 guy, honestly. I feel like he probably could have won that (last) tournament, and that's a great matchup. He ain't going to be running around. He's going to be right there for me, so hey, that's what we want."
Just 35, Stephens still has plenty of time in his career to continue adding accolades to a career that has seen him compete against the likes of former UFC champs Jose Aldo, Renan Barao, Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway, and Anthony Pettis, as well as current UFC lightweight titleholder Charles Oliveira, to name just a few.
Will the PFL provide the popular veteran an opportunity to win his first world title? Time will tell, but an impressive performance on Wednesday would be an important first step toward that goal. The PFL's format provides a unique challenge, but Stephens believes he's up to the test – even if he's not exactly sure how to best approach it.
"I'm like The Joker, bro – I have no plan," Stephens said. "The way I do things is very violent, very destructive and in-your-face. Vicious cardio and action-packed, and people are going to tune in to that. That's just my style."
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