You know a UFC pay-per-view card is ridiculously talent-heavy when the opener is a crowd favorite matchup between roster staple Jeremy Stephens and streaking new prospect Zabit Magomedsharipov. Just a minute, that boy has six syllables in his damn name. Who has the time to say that many?
Meanwhile, does the script sound somewhat familiar at all? The UFC loves throwing potential stars under the bus. In a sort of profane baptism of fire, if a young buck takes on a high-ranking opponent and passes the test, he or she will likely go on to hunt down title glory, or at least die in the attempt.
Think back to Do Ho Choi getting beaned in a barn-burner against thorny old veteran Cub Swanson. What happened after that? Choi nose-dived, losing next to none other than Stephens, who fights this weekend. Then try Yair Rodriguez who, up until getting wrapped up in a body-bag and tossed into the harbor by Frankie ‘I look and sound like a mobster’ Edgar, was on track to fight for the featherweight belt. He almost got booted straight out of the promotion until he smoothed things over and stole a last-second win against the Korean Zombie. That’s right, I said it. Yair stole that fight and ran off with it. Then there’s Jason Knight’s ignominious and frankly rather painful fall from grace. After shooting through the rankings he was stopped cold by Ricardo Lamas and subsequently lost a bunch of fights, and then his place on the roster. Now he’s set to have his teeth knocked out in a bare-knuckle brawl with GOAT contender Artem Lobov. The lesson here is simple: if you call out a big-shot in your division after meeting with success lower down the ranks, be damn sure you win. If not, be prepared to have Artem visit your home and punch your teeth out, too.
There’s a theme here somewhere. Maybe it’s just that the featherweight division is cursed. In recent times there’s only been one fighter who made good on a huge step up in competition, and that’s Alex Volkanovski’s classic punch-o-thon against Chad Mendes. So, the question we must ask ourselves this weekend is: will rising star Magomedsharipov spin kick and suplex his way into the title-shot waiting room, or will Stephens eat him alive and relegate him to the ‘Well at least I tried my best’ pile.
Jeremy Stephens comes from the old school, where instead of going and playing on the monkey bars at recess, you went and punched kids in the face for fifteen minutes. And then stole their lunch money. And then at lunch you ate your food as fast as possible so you could maximize some more face-punching time before math class. Stephens, bless his aggressive little soul, doesn’t look the type of guy who looked forward to his classes as a kid. He’s a bully who sniffs out weaknesses and swarms on them like a pitbull. He’s tough, he’s nuggety and he hits harder than bad news on a nice day. In fact, it’s easy to see him in a different time and place, wearing a leather loin-cloth and a helmet with horns on it, swinging axes and drinking the blood of vanquished enemies out of their own hollowed-out skulls. He doesn’t win fights, he conquers villages, raids and burns ports, and swims through rivers of piled-up corpses. He would wade through them but he’s too short.
Though his approach is generally blunt and to-the-point, as most gore-soaked berserkers generally tend to be, his sheer punching-power can and has changed bad fights on a dime. Don’t let his recent setback against Jose Aldo fool you. Stephens is tough as old boot-leather and will take a bunch of shots to land his own. I’m not sure how he went down to Aldo’s body strikes, but perhaps he ate something bad before the fight. Maybe drinking the blood of his victims isn’t a very good way to re-hydrate after a weight cut, but who am I to judge? I don’t even like tomato juice. Anyway, under his fists of angry justice, all it takes is one punch. This could easily be the fight that puts him back into the pool of top contenders at 145-pounds, provided he navigates his way through the Russian cyclone of legs and arms that stands in front of him.
And that’s exactly what Zabit Magomedsharipov is, a gangly bearded hurricane. It’s not by accident that this guy’s popularity had soared since joining the UFC in September of 2017. He’s had four fights, three of them ending with submissions and one going the distance. Forgetting his striking, wrestling and submission pedigrees altogether, let’s just focus on how much he looks like Abraham Lincoln, or a trim-milk version of Khabib Nurmagomedov. He’s six foot and change, and thin as a nail. And about as hard to hit, too.
Coming from Dagestan, which seems to be a factory churning out world-class killers on a daily basis, Zabit’s wrestling is as relentless as Stephens’ aggression. He’s strong despite his wiry frame, and his top and wrist control has proven nearly impossible to break. It’s that confidence in his wrestling that allows Zabit to get creative with the rest of his game, too. His punches are crispy and come from nowhere, and due to his reach, he can cover distances in a blink. And his leg attacks? Suffice it to say he spins like a possessed helicopter. Switch kicks, spinning back kicks, Showtime kicks off the cage, you name it and Zabit’s rubber-legs can do it. It’ll come as no surprise if one day he ends up kicking himself in the face by accident.
Zabit simply has a much bigger arsenal of attacks heading into this fight, plus the confidence to use them all, but what he lacks here is experience. Especially going into a contest against a brick wall like Stephens, who will be undaunted by all of the Russian’s fancy tricks. And when I say a brick wall, I mean a small one, like a retaining wall. How will Zabit respond when Stephens simply bites down, gets angry and walks through all of his shots, swinging his own? It’s that fortitude that is truly tested when a surging young up-and-comer, flush from recent victories against lesser competition, insists on making huge leaps to face fighters further up the food-chain.
And we as fans eat that story-line alive. We want to see the new kid make good on his potential and blitz through the guys that the statistics say he shouldn’t. We want to be entertained, shocked, awed. Shocked and awed at the same time, if we’re George W. Everyone loves the underdog, right? This one is the tall against the short, flashy hype against stoic power, young against the old. We all know how tough Stephens is, and in this fight, we’ll get to see if Zabit has that same resilience to weather bad situations, or if he crumbles under the pressure like so many other hot prospects have done before.