Jose Aldo versus Jeremy Stephens is a match up that was unthinkable two years ago. Stephens has always been a gatekeeper, almost the perfect embodiment of the term. He is dangerous enough that even the best fighters in the world must prove their ability to adapt and fight to a gameplan to get by him, but his tactical and technical flaws are reliable enough that he has never managed to mount a successful run at a title shot. Stephens has almost always been within the top ten of his division, never the top five. For years there have been hints of a smarter, slicker Stephens peeking through in occasional performances such as against Renan Barao, but then a disciplined all-rounder like Renato Moicano will come along and show up just the same flaws. Yet this year, for one reason or another, all the parts seem to be coming together. The planets have aligned for Stephens and he has managed three of the most impressive performances of his lengthy UFC career, battering Gilbert Melendez, Dooho Choi and Josh Emmett back-to-back.
Meanwhile Jose Aldo, who had previously only faced the absolute cream of the crop, is no longer above slumming it with the rest of the top ten. After a catastrophic error in judgement and running straight onto Conor McGregor’s fist, Aldo looked like his old self against Frankie Edgar to reclaim his featherweight crown. Unfortunately the brilliant Max Holloway turned up and handed Aldo two devastating beatings back-to-back.
Speculation abounds over Aldo and what remains inside him after the heartbreak of Holloway and McGregor: embers or ashes? Stephens is trying to overcome his reputation as a man of interesting spurts and more of a test that needs to be passed than a true title contender. There hasn’t been a featherweight who can beat Stephens without being in top condition and willing to swallow their pride and concede his power on the feet. It’s a fascinating match up so let us jump in on the details.
The Constants of Jeremy Stephens
One of Stephens’s main problems is his strange punching form. Everything is a home run swing or a very obvious nothing punch to “hide” that swing. The load up on Stephens’s blows is considerable and the “cool down” seems just as significant as he drops his hands and leaves his chin up in the air after a strike. Take for instance the fight against Josh Emmett, wherein Stephens stepped in to swing a gut-wrenching right, then stood completely static with his hands by his sides and totally out of position for the short counter hook that dropped him.
But most of the time Stephens isn’t using nice circular blows like the wide right and the left hook, he’s throwing what we call "loopy straights": punches that fly like a straight but slightly arced, rather than cutting across the body with a whirl of the hips. These are the punches that allow straights to come back up the center. Renato Moicano was able to thread the needle dozens of times in his fight with Stephens.
Moreover Stephens’s right hand is often the haymaker that Bas Rutten often preaches against. A straight-ish blow that comes across the body and can be easily defused with a drop-away or a retreat. Time and time again Stephens seemed to have Moicano along the fence and still fall short on his punches somehow.
Watching Stephens bout with Josh Emmett, his big shot came on the counter—something he is quite good at but doesn’t do enough—yet was a straight arm swing that only just caught Emmett on the extreme end. Jack Dempsey famously cautioned that a fighter should throw the swing in the slop bucket, but used them himself in his wilder fights. The difference between a hook and a swing is the bend in the arm; a swing is easily stopped by anything put in the path of it and is easily ducked. Where swings can catch fighters out is that they can come in from the side—as a hook will—but from the extent of the opponent’s reach.
You won’t see form like this taught in a boxing class.
All of Stephen’s flaws in the mechanics would be fine if he didn’t have so much trouble with his feet. He is either moving or he is swinging, he cannot do both effectively and spends most of a fight sprinting, planting his feet to swing, and then leaning out desperately to try and reach his opponent.
What Remains of Aldo
For many fans this fight comes down to one question: “Is Jose Aldo shot?” That is a fair thing to ask, but if Aldo’s skill set looks as sharp as ever there are quirks that just might not match up well with Stephens. For a start, fighters like Moicano and Emmett (though he lost) have shown very recently that Stephens struggles to catch up with fighters even once he’s got them by the fence. On the on hand that sounds great because Aldo cut lovely angles against Frankie Edgar and Chan Sung Jung to sneak out the side door. Except Moicano and Emmett were abandoning their stance to side skip and glide. Aldo is very much a traditionalist and will do most of his angling out from within his stance—hence his love of the pivot.
This pivoting around the lead leg is very susceptible to the right low kick: Frankie Edgar threw a dozen during this exact scenario over two fights and never missed one, and you can bet that Stephens kicks a lot harder. But furthermore this is the kind of slick cutesy move that Stephens’s straight-armed clothesline might just smash right through, cracking Aldo with a wrist bone over the back of the head where a nice straight right would have missed.
Something else which Max Holloway demonstrated beautifully is that Aldo likes to work at his own pace. Similar to Yoel Romero, he is tremendous explosive and works on a hair trigger, but he will then behave lackadaisically and measure himself for a period after a spectacular flurry. This is made more severe by the fact that Aldo doesn’t move his head as a boxer will—always in motion—but reacts to punches and slips from a dead stop. This allowed Max Holloway to keep Aldo making big motions to get away from small feints and work up the pace with less effort on his end. This habit of standing like a statue and then attempting to use slick head movement was also exploited in Michael Chandler by Eddie Alvarez in their jab-heavy second fight.
But Aldo has been in for plenty of long fights and never tired out as he did against Holloway. One of the reasons is that even if his opponent drove up the pace, he would grab clinches and catch breathers. Holloway went in prepared for this and each time had his head posted underneath Aldo’s, wormed his arms free, and immediately smacked Aldo with a left hook or elbow on the break to keep him working.
If there is one thing that consistently impresses in Jeremy Stephens’s fights, it is that he can keep walking down opponents and throwing as hard as he is able to, without slowing down considerably. Where he used to have Dan Henderson-esque tunnel vision and give up easy takedowns and clinches as he swung wildly, he has been great in recent years at pummeling through and shucking off clinches as soon as his opponents grab them. Stephens might get boxed up on the way there, but tying him up long enough to take breathers could be beyond the abilities of Aldo.
Of course the upshot of not being the main event, nor the title holder, is that the fight is only three rounds. That’s only three rounds that Aldo needs to jab and move, and Stephens will either need to connect on a big swing or actually fight smart to make the most of that time. Aldo’s jab has always been solid, it even gave trouble to Holloway, who perhaps has the best jab in the sport right now. While Stephens’s feet have looked much smoother since after the Barao fight, he is still guilty of simply following his opponents around the Octagon. There is none of that Matt Brown style brilliance: using a round kick or a long hook just to keep the opponent in place and then follow up with flurries of hurting blows. It’s a march around the cage with a swing or two every five seconds and no real sustained pressure aside from the pace and the knowledge that after you circle out he will run over to try again.
For Aldo, the jab should be used to break Stephens’s flurries and hurt him. Before pressing in along the fence, Stephens will always show an unconvincing fake double jab, or a right straight which he steps into a southpaw stance to make a jab, then the big swing will come. Hammering him with a jab as he is performing this shuffle to close the distance, and then ducking out or circling off worked perfectly for Moicano and others. If Stephens hasn’t fixed it, why not simply do what has been shown to work time and time again?
If Stephens could use the wide right to the body as he showed against Emmett to cut the cage and actually continue boxing after it, rather than stand still for a counter, he could be wilting men inside two rounds. The wide right is the power-punching ring-cutter’s best friend and the fact that he hasn’t been using it effectively already is very strange. There seems to be some concern between fans and pundits over the idea of Stephens kicking with Aldo. Stephens’s stumpy but powerful low kick has been something of a revolution in his last three fights but Aldo is known as a tremendous low kicker because of his wickedly fast thigh-pounders in WEC and his early UFC career. The truth is, of course, that having a great low kick doesn’t make you invulnerable to low kicks yourself and the utility of the low kick as a range closer, a way of slowing the opponent down, and a means of stopping the opponent’s movement in the current exchange, makes it seem like Stephens would be losing out on a heap of benefits if he didn’t throw it with frequency in this fight.
Renan Barao had a great right low kick just like his teammate Jose Aldo, and Stephens kicked with him with no trouble at all. Hell, Jose Aldo has barely thrown a low kick since he fought Ricardo Lamas anyway, the former champion is in love with his slip-and-rip counter boxing and that sort of head movement actually makes a fighter more vulnerable to low kicks as he anchors himself to the mat in order to move the weight of his noggin around.
That especially low kick that Stephens uses is great because even if the opponent raises his leg to check, he is taking a kick on the low part of the shin or ankle, rather than the top of the shin and knee—where those gnarly injuries happen. Most importantly, if Aldo is picking his foot up to check, he isn’t moving.
Stephens’s own jab is quick and stinging, but he will often eat his opponent’s when he commits to it because he carries his right hand down by his chest. Aldo could exploit this by jabbing with Stephens or jabbing into a dip and coming up with the left hook. Rather than pursue Aldo around the ring and throw jabs at him, it might be more productive for Stephens to simply try to crowd Aldo and play catch-and-pitch with counter punches. Against Choi and Emmett, Stephens’s best blows came as he covered and swung back. It nicely addresses the problem of his feet not being quick enough to carry him in for his strikes because as soon as he feels Aldo’s fist against his forearms or head, he will know he is close enough to swing back.
There is something very pleasing about Stephens’s current career resurgence and the idea of him finally reaching the potential that his physical ability promises. Unfortunately in his last two big wins, we only really got confirmation that yes, he still hits hard. The usual problems were still there. While Aldo could genuinely be shot, and Stephens could win this fight without improving any of the stuff that has been letting him down for years, it seems more likely that Stephens will have to do something special against a fighter of Aldo’s quality. For Aldo, this is a strange fight: it will likely decide whether fans write him off and push him to the mid-card in their minds the way they have with Renan Barao.
Aldo and Stephens are set to clash tomorrow night amid a card full of great match ups like Eddie Alvarez vs. Dustin Poirier and Alexander Hernandez vs. Olivier Aubin-Mercier. If anything interesting happens, get back here Monday and we’ll discuss it at length.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.