When former UFC bantamweight champion Renan Barao makes his debut as a featherweight, he will have the hard-hitting Jeremy Stephens there to greet him.
Stephens wasn’t put in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night to make Barao look good; this is a litmus test to see where both fighters are at in their respective careers. In a way, this could be a do-or-die bout for both fighters.
Stephens is coming off his third loss in four fights after dropping a decision to Max Holloway at UFC 194. If he wants to be a contender at 145 pounds, sticking it to the Brazilian is a necessity. As for Barao, after a torrid run through the bantamweight division -- where he amassed a 32 fight unbeaten streak -- the Nova Uniao fighter’s invincibility came crashing down when he lost a pair of fights by knockout to T.J. Dillashaw. Now, Barao will venture north to see if his fortunes will change.
Stephens hopes that we see the best that Barao has to offer, but he isn’t quite sure about the Brazilian’s mindset.
“A guy who doesn’t hit hard has knocked him out twice in these last few fights,” Stevens said of Barao in a recent interview with Sherdog.com. “You got knocked out twice by a little guy. Now, you’re moving up in weight against a bigger guy who came down from 155 pounds and a knockout artist.”
However, Stephens doesn’t think it’s about the weight. He believes that Barao’s problems are deeper than physical ability.
“Mentally, I think he’s kind of broken,” said Stephens.
It’s interesting what happens to some fighters who suffer a loss after spending a majority of their career winning. The previously unbeaten fighter’s formidable castle can turn into a house of cards once they take a fall. For many of these seemingly invincible fighters, it has nothing to do with their physical limitations. Instead, it’s something about the mind that isn’t right. Stephens believes that Barao may be going through the same thing.
“I knew something was wrong and could see it in his eyes when he backed out of the Dillashaw fight,” Stephens said, referring to Barao’s hospital visit following a strenuous weight cut.
“Whether that was the weight cut, I don’t know. But normally, when you take away my food and water, I’m pissed and I’m ready to kill you. He looked like he didn’t want to be there. In his eyes I saw a broken man. And then he came back and was knocked out again when he was healthy.”
Although Stephens wants the best version of Barao, “Lil’ Heathen” promises to be a “meaner” version of himself on Sunday night. After being outpointed by Holloway, Stephens is looking for his pint of blood and hopes to take it out of Barao in the co-main event. After that, he wants the world to recognize that he’s deserving of being called one of the most dangerous fighters in the division.
“No matter what, I’m always a fight away from that number one contender spot. I don’t really change to much to my game. I’m a savage and if I show up with that mindset of swinging for the fences, I know good things are going to happen.”