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Will Stevenson's fresh approach pay off?

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – The hopes and dreams of millions of people around the world fizzled when the global economy essentially blew up late last year and in the early part of 2009.

Many were financially ruined and had lost all or most of their retirement savings. Joe "Daddy" Stevenson, the Ultimate Fighting Championship's engaging lightweight contender, is among those who saw his life savings dwindle away in 2008. Stevenson's financial meltdown, though, was of his own doing.

He spent every penny of savings he had – more than $17,000 – to prepare himself for a lightweight title shot against B.J. Penn at UFC 80 in Newcastle, England, on Jan. 19, 2008.

Penn opened a nasty gash on Stevenson's forehead that had blood literally squirting out of it and eventually submitted him with a guillotine choke.

That loss was the beginning of the lowest period of his professional life. He rebounded from the Penn loss to submit Gleison Tibau at UFC 86, but then suffered back-to-back losses to Kenny Florian at UFC 91 and Diego Sanchez at UFC 95.

Despite the one-sided loss to Penn and the money he scrupulously saved to help his growing young family, Stevenson said he'd do it again in the same circumstances. "I trained my heart out and gave my soul to it," Stevenson, who fights Spencer Fisher on Saturday at the Staples Center on the main card of UFC 104, said of his preparations for the title shot. "I spent my life savings on that because I'm here to win. I'd love another shot (at Penn).

"I did all of that. I spent $17,000 on that camp, paying training partners, renting a place. Everything in my life savings. That's a lot to me. It's a lot to anyone. I told my wife, 'Baby, I need it. I've got to do this.' What would have happened if I lost the fight barely. I'd be, 'Did I really try my hardest?' I know I tried my hardest in that fight. I'm confident I put everything into it."

Because he's confident he's always put everything he can into preparations, he's normally calm, almost carefree, in the days leading up to a fight.

But coming off back-to-back losses and three defeats in four bouts heading into his bout with Nate Diaz on June 20 in Las Vegas, Stevenson was visibly tense. He was keenly aware of the implications of another loss.

"It was poop or get off the pot, and that's just the truth," Stevenson said, chuckling. "I'm sure I would have gotten another fight right after that one and jumped up. We're only as good as we are off a loss. Who wants to take such a step back and continue? Yeah, the pressure gets to you.

"And if you lose three in a row, then, why are you doing this? That's what goes on in the head of someone who wants to be the best."

Stevenson won the fight with Diaz, pulling out a unanimous decision. It was his first fight working with Greg Jackson, the "Mr. Positive" of mixed martial arts coaches. Stevenson found he fit comfortably on Jackson's high-powered team, which includes the likes of welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre and former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans.

The positive reinforcement he received at the Jackson camp suited his easy-going nature more than the tough love he received from his previous coach, Irvin Bounds. The difference, he said, is simple.

"I'm happy," he said, shrugging his shoulders.

Stevenson has never been one who's needed to be told to work hard. When he was in construction, he remembers working at a hard, steady pace all the time and seeing most of his co-workers slack off and take breaks until the supervisor appeared.

But Stevenson said he doesn't react well to negative reinforcement.

"There was negative push," Stevenson said. "It was, 'Come on, what are you doing this for? Go harder.' At Jackson's, not only is he, but everyone else there is on Cloud 9 all the time. It's more, 'You can do it because you can, and you want to, and you will,' rather than 'You'll do it or he'll beat you and you're going to suck,' and all that.

"That alone, waking up and feeling that admiration toward yourself and your teammates, that respect, not only do you say, 'Yeah, I'll die for someone,' but you'd go kill yourself happily because (there is such a bond)."

Stevenson had doubts run through his mind after the loss to Sanchez about whether he was in fact good enough to fight at the highest level. He still wants to make another run at the championship and he's convinced that, despite the past, he can do it.

He knows he's a long way away, but he also knows that a win over the heavy-handed Fisher would vault him up the ladder and closer to the top rung of the lightweight division.

The last thing he wants to be is a steppingstone others use on their way to the top. After losing back-to-back to Florian and Sanchez, he wondered whether he might not be as good as he once thought.

"A little bit, of course," Stevenson said. "As anyone in any career crossroads, you get to that point and you think, 'Well, I'm not good enough. What do I do?' It's not like WWF, WWE, whatever. It's not like I want to be this guy in the spotlight all the time. "I want to make a run for it. I want to win the belt. I want to do my very best and get out. I want to spend time with my kids. I want to be in and out."