Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Stevenson, Reborn at 155 pounds, looks for three in a row

By Thomas Gerbasi

A pro fighter since the age of 16, Joe Stevenson has seen it all when it comes to the world of mixed martial arts. Whether it was the good of winning the second season of ‘The Ultimate Fighter’, the bad of losing his first post-TUF fight to Josh Neer, or the ugly of the game that almost prompted him to abandon the sport before his career-reviving call from the UFC, there’s little you could throw at the 24-year old that would rattle him.

But being one half of only the second lightweight fight to headline a UFC card since Jens Pulver and BJ Penn did it at UFC 35 back in 2002 could be the one thing that could cause a few butterflies, right?

“No, it’s the same pressure that comes with any fight,” said Stevenson of his April 5th fight at the Palms in Las Vegas against Melvin Guillard (Spike TV 8pm ET/PT). “You want to win and keep going forward. The more pressure comes from winning the prior fight because now you have something you have to keep up with. I finished both guys I fought and I have to maintain that precedent. You don’t want to have a boring fight and you don’t want a decision. You want to try to finish the fight so that you have no doubt that you won the fight. Anyone that goes the distance with you, there’s always a chance that they can win the fight so you want to try to end that as fast as possible so there’s no question.”

After winning the welterweight division of TUF2 with wins over Marcus Davis, Jason Von Flue, and Luke Cummo and then dropping the close decision to Neer, Stevenson injected new life into his career with a drop to the reinstated lightweight division. Since making that decision, he pounded out a second round TKO win over Yves Edwards and submitted Japanese standout Dokonjonosuke Mishima in the first round. And though he’s been impressive at 155 pounds, he’s not satisfied yet.

“I always critique myself, and against Mishima, I wanted to stand,” said Stevenson (31-7). “Eventually I just tied up and kneed him, which wasn’t part of my gameplan at all, and we took it to the ground, when I didn’t train the ground at all for that fight except for standing up from my guard.”

You can’t turn down the opening when it presents itself though, right?

“You can’t turn down anything, especially getting your hand raised,” he laughs.

It is an odd phenomenon in this game to see fighters known primarily for one form of fighting switching to another to test themselves, and something you don’t see in other sports. You’ll never see Phillies slugger Ryan Howard laying down bunts on a consistent basis, or former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis taking all his runs to the outside. But Stevenson, one of the premier ground fighters in the division, wants to test his stand-up – a move that could be dangerous against the concussive punching Guillard. Is that the wisest course of action for Stevenson, if he indeed chooses to stand with his opponent next week?

“I think if you’re mature enough to do that, yeah,” he said. “And then you’re gonna learn, either from your mistakes, or you’ll learn something new about yourself and abilities you didn’t have prior.”

What it may come down to in the end, is that after fighting pro since 1999, you may need to throw a wrench in the works every now and then to keep yourself excited and to keep the game fresh.

“You’ve always been there and done that, and any situation that arises, you’re gonna be comfortable in,” he explains. “That can be bad in itself – being comfortable in a situation – because sometimes you need to explode, sometimes you need to be nervous. Running practices a little differently, changing them up, bringing new blood in there, people that are gonna push you and make practice fun.”

One new face in Stevenson’s camp is one that Guillard is very familiar with – welterweight contender Josh Burkman. Burkman’s decision to help prepare the California native for a fight against his friend has raised some eyebrows, but according to Stevenson it shouldn’t, since Burkman was already scheduled to be in camp with ‘Joe Daddy’ to work with him for an aborted fight against Caol Uno, and is just keeping his word for this fight.

“Josh is a real professional about this,” said Stevenson. “If anyone he fought said afterwards, ‘hey, do you want to go out and have a drink’ or something, he would because this is just work. It’s what we do, and we try to find the best people that will push us and help us improve ourselves and we go with them. And that’s what I’ve done with Josh and Josh has done with me.”

It does add a little fire to what was already a great matchup, but Stevenson isn’t concerned with such matters. All he cares about is getting the ‘W’ and getting back to his wife and three kids.

“It’s a hard life to be a family man in,” said Stevenson when asked if he’s enjoying the ride as an MMA star thus far. “That’s where the other side comes in. Training and being away at Big Bear for six weeks, flying out and doing things and missing my wife’s birthday and things like that, all take a toll. But other than that, the other perks and benefits are great. I definitely enjoy it and I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do what I like to do. There are not many people in this world that can say that.”

Very true, but Joe Stevenson’s one of them, and he’s not about to let that blessing slip away. Luckily, he can control whether it does or not.

“It’s all in my hands,” he said. “I continue on this road of success, and there’s bound to be nothing but cheering and happy fans.”

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