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 MMA.
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 know?"
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 Vegas-based fighter.
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 fighter's life.
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 demolish Melvin 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 life.
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 talents.
"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 to."
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 battle.
"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 rewards pending.