UFC Fight Night 124 at the Scottrade Center is topped by a tantalizing featherweight fight between electrifying South Korean prospect Doo Ho Choi and rugged veteran puncher Jeremy Stephens. The co-feature of the UFC’s first card in St. Louis could be the last of another kind however, as 40-year-old Vitor Belfort has stated that his middleweight clash with Uriah Hall may be his last in the company. “The Phenom,” who made his UFC debut 21 years ago next month, will be making his 26th appearance in the Octagon, one of only 10 athletes to reach that mark.
If a 145-pound slobberknocker and potential Belfort farewell do not do it for you, well, Paige VanZant is back in an all-new weight class; and you better believe she will have rockets strapped to her dancing slippers, as the UFC tries to shoehorn her into a flyweight title shot against Nicco Montano.
Enough dancing around with bad puns and onto the odds and analysis for UFC Fight Night 124:
FeatherweightJeremy Stephens (26-14) vs. Doo Ho Choi (14-2)
ODDS: Choi (-160), Stephens (+140)
ANALYSIS: Given both fighters’ propensities for knockouts and the occasional electric brawl, we know this main event was lined up for excitement purposes. However, Stephens’ success in this fight likely hinges on how steadfastly he can deny his most bloodthirsty tendencies.
Over his last several years working with Eric del Fierro at Alliance MMA in San Diego, the 31-year-old Stephens has slowly and steadily tightened his skills, maturing into a much more polished version of a wrestle-boxer archetype, supplementing his boxing with a strong, ranged kicking attack while knowing how to put his imprint on a fight. His confidence may have been aided by the fact that he hobbled Gilbert Melendez almost instantly, but Stephens’ performance against “El Nino” in September was a good reflection of this development. After he did the damage with low kicks, he built an entire, steady offensive attack, landing his hooks, bringing the kicks up to the torso and head and then digging punches to the body. It was a vicious beatdown of a tough-as-nails veteran, and Stephens not only made it look easy but did so with style and smarts.
That is the good and learned Stephens. His other, more crude form comes out when frustrated, like when he could not keep Renato Carneiro off of his body. He then ate some kicks, got mad and lost himself the fight by throwing aimless haymakers late in the final round. What is stark is that Stephens’ frustration is literally visible; you can pinpoint precise moments that an opponent has annoyed him and watch him morph into a blind brawler.
This figures to be a big problem against Choi, whose game is predicated on frustration and assassination. Yes, he had three straight sub-three minute knockouts to start his UFC career, but “The Korean Superboy” is not necessarily a fast worker; he is simply an explosive one. When he is not launching flying knees to start fights, he is a stalking pressure fighter who relies on a laser-like jab and feints to make opponents go first. Rather than even have them swing and miss, Choi’s speed and reaction time are such that he can react to their movement and often drill them before they get off their own attack. He is aided by the fact that he has an amazing amount of versatility with his power right hand: The 26-year-old has a brilliant, lancing right cross, but he is adroit at arching his hooks over the lead-hand strikes and guard of his opponents.
Choi is a much better fighter than people even realize, likely pegging him a stereotypical brawler as a result of his wild and wooly December 2016 war with Cub Swanson or perhaps because his UFC fights have been so brief. However, the otherworldly toughness he displayed against Swanson is not what is truly impressive about his game. Even his top-position grappling and ground-and-pound appear sharp in the brief moments they do present themselves.
You cannot play games in the cage with Stephens, and if Choi seeks the sort of bout he had with Swanson, he may have a very short night courtesy of a right hook or that vicious uppercut. However, at range, Choi is liable to check Stephens’ low kicks while out-jabbing him -- a recipe for Stephens losing focus and starting to swing. “The Korean Superboy” is the wrong guy to start taking runs and swings at, as most of his knockouts are generated by his opponent making one false move. If Choi makes Stephens go backwards, the American is in constant threat of his varied right hands and stepping knees.
If Stephens keeps his cool, he could walk out of St. Louis with the biggest win of his career, but more likely, he is going to get put on ice instead. Choi wins by knockout in the first 15 minutes.
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