Pivotal Moments: Cub Swanson vs Jeremy Stephens, part 1

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the first two rounds of Swanson vs Stephens, a fantastic tactical battle between two top featherweight power punchers.

As a fan of strategic fights (and Cub Swanson), the main event of UFC Fight Night 44 certainly lived up to expectations. What stands out most about this fight is the fact that Cub Swanson seemed to be fighting the best version of Jeremy Stephens yet, and vice versa. Both men showed an excellent ability to adapt to the other, in part because they were both so well-coached, and the action was replete with the momentum swings that define all great fights.

This one wasn't so much about the guts and glory, but it was a competitive bout between two of the best featherweights in the world (I won't doubt the 145-pound Jeremy Stephens any more after this) with plenty of back-and-forth action.

Today we will break down the key exchanges in rounds one and two, and then tomorrow we'll finish up with the final three rounds. If you're one of the truly hardcore fans who watched both UFC events over the weekend, then I encourage you to find and rewatch this one, absent the long preamble. It was a bout deserving of admiration, for both fighters.

This is Pivotal Moments: Swanson vs Stephens.

(Note: This is a two part article. You can find part two here.)

ROUND ONE

The first round was a tactical one. Both fighters spent the majority of the round potshotting one another--a battle that Cub Swanson can win against almost anybody. Swanson was very active, peppering his opponent with quick single punches and kicks to the legs and body. The variety of Swanson's attack rendered Stephens hesitant to return, particularly thanks to a very small but very effective series of jab counters from Cub (GIF).

Though Stephens had his moments, including a clubbing right that knocked Swanson off balance, the round looked to be heavily in Swanson's favor--that is, until he became confident enough to really open up.

(Click to enlarge)
Round_1_medium
GIF

1. Swanson presses forward as Stephens backs up.

2. A long jab blinds Stephens and allows Cub to take a huge step into range for...

3. ...a wide right that smashes Stephens in the neck.

4. Swanson continues to advance, full of confidence. His corner wisely calls for "up-down" attacks, and he launches into a kick as Stephens covers up high.

5. The kick connects with Stephens' body

6. Stephens counters with a short, straight right hand that drops Swanson to his back.

In frame 4, you can see that Stephens is expecting another overhand from his surging opponent, as he covers high with his left arm. Clearly, he had it in mind to block Swanson's right and respond with one of his own. Paulie Malignaggi calls this kind of counter "catch and shoot." The instructions of Swanson's corner are perfect for this situation, and he capitalizes well on Stephen's wariness of head shots by going to the body. The problem is that even when Cub lands, Stephens still has that counter right cocked and loaded.

True, this turns Stephens' catch and shoot into more of an "eat and shoot," but there's no doubt that Stephens emphatically won this exchange. With one leg suspended in the air at the time of the punch, there's no way for Swanson to absorb Stephens' punch, and it is a very short, very straight cross that lands clean on his chin. Enough to win Stephens the round? Probably not. Enough to swing the momentum in his favor for the next one?

Well...

ROUND TWO

Just as the first round was marked by a great deal of feinting from Swanson, so was the second filled with feints from Stephens. On the TV broadcast, the only corner advice we hear from Stephens' coach Eric Del Fierro is that he should kick whenever Swanson wants to box. I'm willing to bet, however, that Del Fierro also mentioned something to his pupil about throwing in combinations and pressuring Swanson with feints and footwork. Instead of backing up and waiting on his opponent to throw, Jeremy seized the initiative from the beginning of the round.

(Click to enlarge)
Round_2_medium
GIF

1. Stephens feints by dropping his weight and twitching his left arm. Swanson does nothing.

2. Immediately Stephens steps into a jab.

3. Swanson parries the jab and counters with a winging left hook, but Stephens ducks just under it.

4. Stephens takes another step forward with his left leg (not visible).

5. A short right from Stephens clips Cub on the temple as he tries in vain to pull away.

The key detail in this sequence is, unfortunately, the most difficult one to see from this angle. Note the forward movement of Stephens' between frames 3 and 4. When Stephens ducks under Swanson's hook in frame 3, he does so by shifting his weight to his right leg, bending his knees, and slightly lowering his head (that last one is dangerous). Whenever a fighter's weight is on his rear leg, he has an opportunity to step forward with his lead leg--in other words, the non-weighted leg is always able to move, so controlled forward movement is predicated on one's ability to shift weight to the right hip. In this way, Jeremy closes the distance while avoiding Cub's counter, putting himself in range to land a counter of his own.

Defense is Swanson's greatest weakness because he is almost always fast enough to get out of range before his opponent can counter. His attributes have allowed his defense to go underdeveloped. Rather than getting low and cutting angles when his opponent presses the attack, he leans away and backs up in a straight line. With that crucial forward step from Stephens, there is no way for Swanson to back up in time, and he eats the right hand as a result.

Another right hand followed soon after. With Swanson on the lookout for his punches, Stephens stepped up his feinting. Head moving from side to side, he walked Swanson down, flicking out throwaway punches to gauge Swanson's reactions (GIF).

(Click to enlarge)
Round_2b_medium
GIF

1. Swanson bounces on his toes, waiting for an opportunity to hop back and counter Stephens' next attack.

2. Stephens moves swiftly forward with a slapping left hook, which Cub deflects.

3. Almost simultaneously, he follows with a straight right that knocks Swanson off-balance and drives him back.

Of all the improvements that Jeremy Stephens has seen since coming to featherweight (and they are many), none are more noticeable than his set-ups. He has always packed a huge punch, but with the help of Eric Del Fierro he has gained a few tools to increase his chances of landing that one big blow. His success in this sequence is built entirely upon his ability to confuse Swanson's timing with an awkward, broken rhythm. To get the full effect, you really ought to watch the GIF.

After Stephens' busy feinting, Swanson basically stopped reacting to Stephens' initial movements. Every time that Stephens would pump his left hand, Cub had merely to step back a foot and find himself completely out of harm's way. He seemed to be expecting a big switch-up, or a feint followed by a huge punch. This may in fact be an instance of Greg Jackson and Mike Winkeljohn's teachings leading Swanson astray. It is well-known that Jackson teaches his fighters to "do everything in 2's," meaning that every attack should be coupled with another that capitalizes on it. You will see this a lot from Jackson-WInkeljohn fighters. Cub himself is very fond of mixing up potshots from his rear hand: his right hand to the body looks a lot like his right to the head, which looks a lot like his right kick to the leg, which looks a lot like his right kick to the body.

It seems that Cub expects this sort of switch-up from Stephens in this sequence. After a series of jab feints, Stephens lunges forward with a long left hook, which Swanson easily blocks. Unfortunately for him, the left hook was not the switch-up, but the set-up, and Stephens throws his right hand so quickly afterward that Cub has no time whatsoever to react. By putting nothing into his hook and keeping his weight loaded for the right hand, Stephens toyed with Swanson's expectations, and landed a terrific, clean punch.

That's all for today. Come back tomorrow for part two, wherein we'll see how Swanson was able to recapture this fight from his foe.

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