For Rony Jason (13-3), who won the inaugural season of TUF Brazil as a featherweight, life is all high-fives and good times. Beyond his TUF accolades, the 29-year-old Brazilian is undefeated in the Octagon after three turns, having shut down Sam Sicilia (2nd-round TKO) and Mike Wilkinson (1st-round triangle) since earning a decision over Godofredo Castro at UFC 147 to win the reality show.
While rising up on the Brazilian fight circuit, Jason has twice tasted UFC-caliber opposition in Felipe Arantes (1st-round triangle) and UFC interim bantamweight champion Renan Barao, who defeated him by split decision. While the latter was Jason's first career loss in only his third pro fight, battling to a split vote with the once-beaten Barao, who currently owns MMA's best win streak at 30 in a row, testifies to the depth of Jason's skill.
However, to say that Jason is taking a giant leap in competition this Saturday night is a bit of an understatement, as former UFC lightweight contender Jeremy Stephens (21-9) will meet him in the cage. "Lil' Heathen" might not have been amongst the most elite of lightweight contenders -- he was never able to string together more than two UFC wins -- but reputable wins over the likes of Rafael dos Anjos (3rd-round KO), Sam Stout (split decision) and Cole Miller (2nd-round TKO) dot his résumé.
While Jason has looked heartily impressive thus far, this will be his first UFC opponent outside of the TUF bubble. Sicilia lost a contentious decision early on TUF: Live and Wilkinson made a quick exit on TUF Smashes due to an eye injury. So it'd be on thing if Jason was just defeating other TUF champions, but these were guys who didn't make it too far on their respective reality show stints.
Additionally, this vast gap in experience and competition is important because Jeremy Stephens isn't the type of cat to let both hands swing down at his waist as Sicilia curiously did preceding his knockout loss, nor take Jason down and tap to a triangle 30 seconds later like Wilkinson. That's not a knock on either of those guys -- they have 24 fights spread between them and are new to the big stage, whereas Stephens has nearly the same number of career wins, many of which were contested in the UFC and against drastically more proven opposition.
Finally, the drop from 155 to 145 makes perfect sense for Stephens. As a vicious striker, his wrestling game was a tad behind the curve initially, but Stephens made noticeable strides in that department -- most memorably in a tight split-decision loss to current UFC lightweight champ Anthony Pettis. As a good-sized featherweight, Stephens' wrestling prowess and takedown defense should only become more effective.
Then again, size, experience and past competition don't matter much if you get jacked in the face with a heat-seeking missile of a punch, and both Jason and Stephens will certainly assail one another with that sort of incendiary striking.
Kicks are present but not prevalent in their arsenals -- both men prefer to duel almost exclusively with their hands. Jason is the more polished of the two: the technique of his punching, head movement, footwork and stance are just slightly cleaner or "more traditional" than Stephens', who compensates for it with unending doses of raw brutality and aggression. Stephens is more of a head-hunter, and for a guy who consistently engages in visceral stand-up wars, he's lost via strikes just once in his career -- which is pretty amazing, and the best proof of his chin durability.
Jason seems perfectly content to stand up and strike all night long until he's taken down, which is where his crafty submission game comes into play. He's active off his back, assertively pursuing submission attempts from the get-go and usually either securing them or making them close enough to allow an escape. Though rarely lauded for having any submission savvy, Stephens has lost via submission three times: in his fourth pro fight, in his UFC debut (Din Thomas) and to heralded limb-twister Joe Lauzon.
Overall, we have an unquestionably talented newcomer who's yet to swim in the deep end of the pool against a larger, more proven and more experienced shark who made his name by tangling in the deep end, and at a weight class higher. That's why I'm slightly befuddled that Jason is such a substantial favorite on the betting lines. Yes, the kid can strike and, yes, this fight in Brazil. And of course Jason has the skill and power to stop or simply out-point Stephens on the feet. Though I've been a little rigid in adhering to this stance in the past, I'll typically side with the more proven and experienced fighter, especially for prediction purposes.
My Prediction: Jeremy Stephens by late TKO or decision.