In January 2009, Jeremy Stephens got a call he had long awaited: His first shot at a main event in the UFC.
Sure, it was on short notice, but he wasn't about to say no to the opportunity. Why would he? The cocky lightweight prospect from Iowa, then 23-years-old, was the winner of three of his past four bouts and on his way to big things. A main event bout against Joe Lauzon would cement his status as a title contender.
"I thought I was ready back then," Stephens said. "I thought I had it all figured out. I thought I was untouchable. But looking back all it shows is how much I still had to learn."
Stephens lost to Lauzon in Tampa, Fla., falling prey to an armbar in the second round. And it would take him five and a half years to get another main-event look.
In the interim, Stephens has changed camps, shifted weight classes and been through a legal issue. But now, in his 19th UFC fight, Stephens is older, wiser, and back where he felt he belonged so many years ago: In the main-event spotlight.
Stephens meets Cub Swanson in the main event of a UFC Fight Night card in San Antonio on Saturday night. The winner is expected to get a shot at the featherweight title currently held by Jose Aldo.
"I appreciate where I am now," Stephens said. "Last time I didn't. Now I know how hard you have to work in the gym. Now I know what it's like to have a strong group of guys around me who will push me. My mentality's changed. I understand I can't just glide by on my gifts and I plan on making the most of my second chance."
It's not as if Stephens went into an immediate downward slide after the Lauzon loss, but he didn't regain his previous momentum, either. He'd win one and lose one, win two and lose two. Things came to a head when he was arrested in Minneapolis on the day of a scheduled fight in October 2012 on an Iowa warrant over an alleged assault the previous year. A loss in his next fight, to veteran Yves Edwards, was his third in a row.
"What it came down to is, I had to grow up," said Stephens, who didn't want to discuss the specifics of his arrest (charges were eventually dropped in July 2013). "I had to be responsible for my actions, and I had to mature and become the type of person I knew I could be."
That meant a full-time move to San Diego's Alliance MMA, where he had previously trained part-time. Working alongside the likes of former UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz, current light heavyweight contender Alexander Gustafsson, and Bellator standout Michael Chandler helped refine his game. A drop down to featherweight helped take care of the rest.
"I'm with a team that's been to the top, that knows what it takes to get there," Stephens said. "It's made all the difference."
Featherweight wins over Estevan Payan and Rony Jason got Stephens back on track. The real moment of arrival, though, came in Stephens' most recent bout against Darren Elkins.
Elkins had used a strong wrestling base to bully his way into the 145-pound title picture. The wise guys thought Stephens was still a kill-or-be-killed puncher and that Elkins would take him down with ease and keep him there.
Instead, Stephens opened eyes by out-wrestling the wrestler en route to a unanimous decision, proof positive of his progression.
"I had a chip on my shoulder when I came into that one, I'll admit it," Stephens said. "You try to tune out the naysayers and all the negativity, but I knew people thought I couldn't hang with him, that my only chance was to land a knockout. I was sick leading up to the fight, you can even see me coughing during the fight, but I didn't even want to get into a position to use that as an excuse."
But don't be mistaken: While he's become more well-rounded, Stephens still wields heavy leather, as does Swanson, which makes Saturday's main event such an appealing fight. Stephens has scored 15 of his 23 wins by knockout. Swanson is on a five-fight winning streak that includes four knockouts.
Swanson hasn't fought in nearly a year, and Stephens believes it's because Swanson was waiting for a title opportunity against Aldo.
"I just want to go out there and fight and work my way to the top," Stephens said. "I don't want to sit around for a year hoping for someone to hand out a shot at the belt.
"He can hit, no doubt. But let me tell you something: I hit harder. When Cub Swanson hits people, the ref stops the fight and they are right back on their feet. When I hit someone, they wake up and they ask, 'Who am I?' and 'Where am I?' That's the difference between getting hit by Cub Swanson and getting hit by Jeremy Stephens."
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA