At that moment, Joe
Stevenson was literally blood, sweat and tears.
Newly crowned lightweight champion B.J. Penn (Pictures) celebrated his victory by
slapping himself in the face and licking Stevenson's blood off his
gloves. Meanwhile, "Joe Daddy" was on his elbows and knees sporting
the type of crimson mask so complete it looked more Hollywood than
He openly wept.
Two rounds of being beaten, finding himself on the wrong side of
full mount and succumbing to a rear-naked choke that caused blood
to spurt into the air were flashing through his mind.
"First, I couldn't really see actually," says Stevenson of his
bloodied face. "Then [came] the realization that I lost. I put
everything into it. That all weighs on your shoulders, you
It's rare to see the toughest men on the planet break down and cry,
especially in the context of a fight. But anyone who knew Stevenson
as more than the winner of "The Ultimate Fighter 2" knew this was
more than the loss of a fight. The 155-pound title that eluded him
was all sacrifice, no reward.
Training to take on Penn had run through the holidays, cutting back
his chances of lazy days post-turkey and ham. Extra hours spent
preparing for a championship bout cut into time he could have spent
with his pregnant wife, Maia, who was carrying Joe's fourth son. He
even adjusted his sleep schedule in the United States so
transitioning to the time difference in London would be smooth.
Despite the pain he endured, he doesn't feel disappointed in his
performance. He believes the hurt would never cease if he hadn't
given his all. That's when it's impossible to feel good about life
and about fighting.
"I put everything I had into it, so it was OK," reveals the Las
Stevenson had only been home shortly when he watched the fight
again. Then he was reminded of it -- the anguish he felt -- again
when a barber clipped the cut "The Prodigy" had opened in the first
round. Now Stevenson has seen the clash upwards of 20 times.
It was the first time he tasted defeat in the division in his
career. It was only his second loss in the UFC, and it was for a
world title on an international stage. Winning the bout would have
been the perfect achievement at a critical time in the young
Stevenson started in the sport at 16. Fighting grown men on Native
American reservations, he looked to test the martial arts he had
studied -- judo, jiu-jitsu and wrestling -- in a real fight like
the early warriors of the UFC.
"The UFC had just started out. It looked pretty interesting, so I
gave it a go," he says in his consistent, no-big-deal tone. "As I
found out I was good at it, I continued because that was the only
reason to do it."
However, once he made a name for himself as a King of the Cage and
Gladiator Challenge champion, goals developed. It went from wanting
his hand raised to wanting to headline a card.
Yet Stevenson's success in the cage was not enough to keep him in
the sport. Divorce from his first wife left him dormant for nearly
two years. After driving a forklift at a tire plant and bouncing to
make his way, he eventually returned to fighting. Before he knew
it, he was in the featured contest on a UFC card that saw him
Guillard (Pictures) on national television. Stevenson
had his first shot at headlining a pay-per-view against Penn.
The small-town Californian went from unseen, middle-of-nowhere
fights to a prominent pay-per-view matchup emanating from one of
the world's most important cities. A win would have crowned him
lightweight king and slipped his name into pound-for-pound-best
talk. More importantly, he would have returned with gold to a happy
marriage, a soon-to-be-born son and a new gym -- the ideal home
He offers no excuses about the fight. A rematch is not on his mind.
Improvements need to be made, fights need to be won, then he can be
a contender again -- revenge can be exacted.
Being a champion is "not everything because I got family and a
wife, but it's pretty important," he says with a laugh.
The first step back into the lengthy line of contenders at 155
pounds is defeating premium grappler Gleison Tibau (Pictures) on Saturday at UFC 86. Tibau, a
powerhouse out of American Top Team, has also been fighting since
his teens -- he launched his fight career at 15 in Brazil.
Stevenson believes the Brazilian to be athletic, explosive,
powerful and fast. But working his ground game with celebrated
submission fighter Robert Drysdale, whom he describes as a
"thesaurus of jiu-jitsu," Stevenson has confidence in his
"Pain, lots of pain," he predicts for his opponent.
When fighters lose, life-shattering changes are often necessary. No
more of certain friends or weekend booze. Some pick up and start
over across the country. The 26-year-old Stevenson simply got back
into the gym and continued to learn. Evolving boxing and tighter
ground prowess will be needed against the black belt.
"Everywhere he's been, I've been with someone better, tougher, and
stronger and faster," Stevenson says. "So he's going to have a
tough time trying to make me shaky. I think I'm going to be able to
turn it on at certain points in the fight that he's not used
Tibau is coming off a loss too. He dropped a close three-round
decision in February to Tyson Griffin, but the
performance made fans take notice of the relatively unknown
fighter. He's dangerous, but with more than a decade of training to
fight and nearly a decade in the cage, Stevenson is at home in
"I think it's something I'm gonna do my whole life," says the
father of four. "Till the day I die. It's just fun. It's like a 3D
painful game of chess."
The heartbreak painted on Stevenson's face after losing to Penn
could be repeated one day. It could be worse. Or it could never
happen again. But the blood, sweat and tears will be there whether
or not they are seen in public -- the sacrifice ever-present, the
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