This Saturday’s UFC on Fox 28 bill may not end up being the “Event of the Year” for 2018, but we have all accepted the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s “new normal” when it comes to card construction and caliber; and this is still a strong card -- a quality blend of necessary bouts between top-10 contenders, featuring both entertaining veterans and emergent talent.
Honestly, at this point, that offers a bit of comfort and contentment. It would be vain and Pollyannaish to expect much more.
Topping this card from the Amway Center is a featherweight clash between sudden contender Josh Emmett and Jeremy Stephens, who with his 28th Octagon appearance will tie Jim Miller for the second-most UFC bouts in history, leaving him just one behind Michael Bisping’s 29. Meanwhile, the co-feature pits two of the very best strawweight women in the world, Jessica Andrade and Tecia Torres, against one another. On the line is a likely a title shot, with the winner being primed to face the victor in April’s Rose Namajunas-Joanna Jedrzejczyk rematch.
Hopefully, this event will be a reminder that there are more ways to have fun in Orlando, Florida, than going to Disney World. Without further ado, your odds and analysis of UFC on Fox 28:
FeatherweightJosh Emmett (13-1) vs. Jeremy Stephens (27-14)
ODDS: Stephens (-160), Emmett (+140)
ANALYSIS: Our main event smartly made and matched for this moment but certainly represents a contrast of circumstances. Stephens is 14-13 in the Octagon and is one of the longest-tenured fighters in the promotion, going on 11 years under UFC employ. Meanwhile, despite debuting in the UFC with an unbeaten 11-0 record, Emmett was not on the radar as a top-flight prospect upon entry. Since losing his first career bout to Desmond Green in April and cutting back down to 145 pounds, it is as if the Team Alpha Male fighter flicked a switch. First, he savagely bashed Felipe Arantes in October, knocking down “Sertanejo” four times in one round -- a single-fight UFC record. Then, at UFC on Fox 26 in December, he announced his arrival as a legitimate contender, absolutely nuking former title challenger Ricardo Lamas with a positively savage left hook that left Lamas stiff as a board.
For most of his lengthy UFC run, the 31-year-old Stephens presented as a generally fun but flawed brawler whose calling card seemingly forever was his November 2008 uppercut from hell on Rafael dos Anjos; the idea of his becoming a title threat at lightweight or featherweight seemed far-fetched. While he is still far from consistent -- he is 4-5 in his last nine bouts -- it is undeniable that his move to Alliance MMA in San Diego and working under coach Eric Del Fierro has retooled his game for the better. While Stephens’ DNA as a free-swinging brawler still crops up on occasion, he has largely transformed into a much more diligent boxer while richly supplementing his game with sound kicking offense, vastly improved distance management, patience and countering ability.
Emmett, 32, is still a developing prospect, but the general blueprint of his style seems to be set. A former wrestler at City College and Menlo College, the Team Alpha Male product has fleshed out his striking game with powerful switch-step boxing, steadily bobbing his head from side-to-side, shifting stances and launching nasty hooks with both hands, landing just over four significant strikes per minute. Beyond his bob-and-weave boxing, Emmett still manages to use his wrestling effectively, averaging two takedowns per 15 minutes and remaining sturdy in the clinch.
Stephens is no slouch in the clinch, either. Though he is normally in a defensive posture in close as he is fending off takedowns, Stephens is capable of landing big punches, elbows and knees in tight spaces when he can. Defending 64.7 percent of takedowns, Stephens’ takedown defense has improved as his overall MMA game has improved, and while he is at his weakest when on his back, he has also become better at getting back to his feet when planted on the canvas. If Emmett is going to implement his wrestling here, the emphasis will have to be on controlling Stephens and keeping him down, especially in a 25-minute affair.
Both men have wrestling chops and there will be moments of grappling here, but I think it is fair to imagine that most of this bout will be fought at medium range, with each man trying to feint the other into moving first, then launching his heaviest punches. Emmett’s best chance is to use movement and clever angles to stick and move on Stephens to frustrate him and bring out the old “Lil Heathen,” who is prone to getting agitated, abandoning reason and turning into a brawler. Emmett has shown a great vulnerability to the jab, as indicated by his fights with Desmond Green and Jon Tuck, but Stephens is not much of a jabber. However, Green and Tuck also managed to have their greatest success with well-timed leg and body kicks against Emmett, and Stephens’ evolution certainly has affords him that option.
Emmett has gone into the fifth round once in his career but has demonstrated a propensity to slow down in the second half of 15-minute bouts. Stephens does not lack for cardio, so if he can avoid turning into “the old Stephens” and maintain kicking distance, this is his fight to lose. Both men have the power to sleep one another with potent counterpunches, but in this close contest, Stephens’ fitness, distance management and kicking offense give him the edge. Stephens by competitive decision is the call.
Next Fight » Andrade vs. Torres