Every fight fan loves a spectacular finish, but some of the greatest fights in history have been tactical wars. Aside from the judges' decision, which is often a notable drama of its own, the narrative of a long, back-and-forth fight can be more compelling than even the most spectacular finish. With Cub Swanson vs Jeremy Stephens, we witnessed just such a story played out between two of the best fighters in the UFC's enthralling featherweight division.
In yesterday's installment (find that here if you missed it) we examined the key sequences from rounds 1 and 2. Today, we will follow the fight to its conclusion.
This is Part Two of Pivotal Moments: Swanson vs Stephens.
Despite keeping his head above water throughout, round two was the worst of Cub Swanson's career since beginning his comeback at the start of 2012. Stephens had clearly bested him, connecting with several hard punches. Unfortunately for Stephens, the second would be the last round he would clearly win, as an injured left hand and an incredibly adaptable Cub Swanson greeted him in round three.
From the start of the round, Swanson feinted. It had worked for him in round one, and much of Stephens' success in round two had been predicated on Cub waiting and trying to counter. This was becoming a battle of initiative, and so Swanson aimed to put Stephens on the back foot.
Swanson has always been at his best when he uses his jab liberally (we won't see much of that until round five), but he is still capable of applying immense pressure by way of positioning alone. Cub places his feet very well so that he is always in position to throw at his opponent. More importantly, he always looks like he is in position to throw. To an opponent, Swanson appears eminently threatening, and he enhances this threat by constantly changing the position of his upper body, suggesting different threats. This was how Cub set up the pivotal strike of round three.
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1. Swanson inches forward, shoulders squared. His body position suggests an impending left handed blow.
2. Instead, Swanson launches a "soft" right hand.
3. Stephens takes the punch, but also delivers a good counter right of his own, pushing Swanson back.
4. Undeterred, Swanson marches forward again.
5. Now Cub quickly turns his upper body and steps into southpaw to load a left kick.
6. As Swanson propels his body into the kick, Stephens is still worried about his hands.
7. He doesn't see the kick coming until it's too late, and Swanson's leg slips right under his guarding elbow and into his liver.
It's always edifying to watch a fighter's eyes during an exchange. Cub marks himself by being very active with his eyes. He will scan every inch of his opponent's body, both looking for openings and spying out incoming strikes. Jeremy Stephens, however, for all of his improvement, continues to have an unnerving habit of only watching his opponent's head and hands. Take a moment to watch the GIF of the sequence above, and you'll see why Cub's kick slipped through and landed so cleanly.
It all starts with that deceptive right hand. From the get-go, Stephens is concerned with which hand Swanson is going to throw at him. After two minutes of potshots and endless feinting from the Jackson-Winkeljohn/DIaz fighter, he has ceded the initiative and resorted to guessing at the next punch. Cub manipulates his expectations by loading up his left and then leading with the right, and though Stephens counters successfully, he knows he's found an opening to exploit when that right slips through. When Swanson resets, Stephens never even notices his switch into southpaw, because he's too concerned with the activity of Cub's upper body. He's watching Cub's head and shoulders, waiting for a punch even as the big kick is being released.
In the GIF, you can watch Stephens' eyes as he struggles to keep up with his dynamic foe. The wind-up of Swanson's arms occupies his vision until it's far too late to stop the kick. First he sees Cub's extended left hand, then looks to his outflung right, expecting an overhand, and only a split-second before impact does he attempt to reposition his arms to block the kick.
So yes, it would be excellent to see more jabs from Cub Swanson, and we will soon. But there are ways of pressuring an opponent before a single punch is thrown.
Despite hurting Stephens badly with the body kick, Swanson found the former lightweight too tough to finish, and Stephens managed to nullify him with some crafty cagework. As round four began, Stephens seemed to think he had hit upon something at the end of round three, and once again lifted the fight from Swanson's hands.
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1. Stephens steps forward behind a jab. Swanson spies his loaded right hand, and wisely backs away.
2. Stephens delivers with the right, but only half-commits.
3. Stephens turns that extended right into a measuring stick, reaching out to touch Swanson's guard as he loads weight onto his left hip.
4. Now Stephens hop-steps forward with a left uppercut, and Cub backs up so far that he stumbles into the fence.
5. Stephens dives on Swanson's blunder, pinning him to the fence with a takedown attempt.
This is very uncharacteristic behavior from Jeremy Stephens, and an unmistakable sign of his growth as a martial artist. After a quick succession of feints--call it "combination feinting"--Stephens uses his wrestling to nullify Swanson after Swanson's best round of the fight. Once again, the round came down to feinting. Still a battle of shifting initiative, Stephens managed to steal much of the round from Swanson simply by threatening him. The fact that his feints came in the form of combinations, one punch after the other, served to convince Cub that he was better backing up than returning fire and risking another heavy blow like the ones that Stephens landed in round two.
Granted, it's not clear that Stephens won this round with his grappling control. In fact, only one of the three judges gave him anything but round two, and I myself am inclined to favor Swanson in this round based on his more damaging strikes. Regardless, this is Jeremy Stephens we're talking about--a man who was known to get picked apart by more technical strikers, more a brawler than a kickboxer--and this represents a level of gamesmanship that we've rarely seen from him in the past.
Finally, after four rounds of competitive fighting, Swanson revealed the true depth of tactical, technical boxing of which he is always capable. Two minutes into the round, Swanson sealed the fight with another kick to the liver, set up once again by his hands. The difference between this sequence and the one in the third round was the way the Cub followed up.
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1. From southpaw, Swanson launches a kick. Stephens reacts to his outstretched left hand, raising his right hand to parry what he thinks is a left cross.
2. Swanson's foot smashes into Stephens' liver, and he immediately begins to retreat.
3. Instead of chasing Stephens with ineffective right hands as he did in round three, Swanson immediately sticks two stiff jabs in Stephens' face.
4. Backing Stephens into the fence with his jabs, Cub feints another jab, gets Stephens to move his head to the right, and then meets him halfway with a right hand.
5. Stephens tries to circle out to his right and Cub traps him with a slapping left hook...
6. ...followed immediately by another jab to pin Stephens in place.
7. Another straight right crashes down on Stephens' neck.
Round five was a festival of jabs for Cub. After hurting Stephens, he kept him on edge and out of position with his quick left hand. The entire concept of a jab is not to finish the opponent, but to hurt and disorient him just enough that he will walk himself into a power shot. No weapon is more capable of preventing a hurt opponent from staging a combeback than the jab: it's faster than any other punch, and can be easily thrown in quick sequence, three or four jabs in a row. It also requires very little commitment to be effective, making it harder to counter than any other strike.
Cub not only uses the jab to set up his power shots, but to keep his opponent on the defensive after throwing those big punches. In the GIF above, you can see how Cub repositions himself while throwing the jab. After winging a right hand over the top, he pulls his head back with a jab, and then sticks Stephens with another to convince him not to counter. He even comes up jabbing after throwing a Saenchai-esque cartwheel kick. With his quick, accurate left hand, he is able to really commit to his fight-ending power shots with relative security. In short, the jab kills counters (GIF). Kills 'em dead.
As impressive as Swanson's round three onslaught was, his follow-up to the liver kick was a little disappointing. Stephens' visible signs of distress saw Cub losing composure and hunting recklessly for the finish. The exact same kick in round five gave Swanson the chance to redeem himself and show what he's truly capable of. And even then, Stephens landed a bevy of hard right hands in the last thirty seconds of the fight, as if to remind us that, even in defeat, we were still witnessing a very different Jeremy Stephens. In today's saturated MMA landscape, this bout probably won't get the recognition it deserves, but it truly was a special fight between two exceptional fighters.
For more analysis like this, as well as fighter and trainer interviews, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.