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Jeremy Stephens has been a member of the UFC roster since May 2007. He’s made 18 appearances inside the octagon to date, but only now has his time as a title contender arrived.

“Lil’ Heathen” has experienced numerous ups and downs during his UFC tenure; however, a drop to the featherweight division a year ago sparked his most impressive run to date. Now he’s in a position where he’s just one fight away from vying for UFC gold.

Company president Dana White recently confirmed with MMAjunkie that the winner of Stephens (23-9 MMA, 10-8 UFC) and Cub Swanson (20-5 MMA, 5-1 UFC), his opponent in Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 44 headliner at San Antonio’s AT&T Center, is “probably” going to receive the next title shot at 145 pounds.

Stephens said he’s been told as much by UFC officials, but he also knows title shots are never guaranteed in the UFC. With that in mind, the 28-year-old plans to not just win, but win in unforgettable fashion so there’s no question who should be next.

“I’ve been told that (the winner gets a title shot), but nothing’s ever for sure,” Stephens told MMAjunkie. “It’s all based on performance, but with this fight matchup, I don’t think performance is going to be much of a disappointment.

“I think this fight just screams ‘Performance’ and ‘Fight of the Night’ and probably ‘Fight of the Year’ all over it. I think both of our styles match up in that particular manner. We’re going to go in there, and we’re going to slug it out.”

In a little more than one year competing at featherweight, Stephens has proven to be formidable in all areas. His divisional debut saw him batter Estevan Payan for three rounds. That was followed by a 40-second head-kick knockout of “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” winner Rony Jason. And finally, in perhaps his most telling fight to date, Stephens shut down notorious grinder Darren Elkins en route to a decision victory.

Prior to his drop to featherweight, Stephens had lost three consecutive fights in the lightweight division. While it would be easy to point to the change in weight classes as the lone source of his newfound success, Stephens said that’s only a half-truth.

“It’s not just the weight cut,” he said. “It’s all the hard work and dedication and persistence that I’ve been putting in. Even in my down time in the rough couple outings I had at 155, there was a lot of progress in the gym, and I just kind of carried that through and really believed in myself.

“I made the changes, made the cut and reset goals for myself at 145 pounds.”

The UFC featherweight division is among the organization’s most stacked in terms of viable title contenders. Some fighters have put together five or six wins in a row and aren’t in immediate championship discussions, but Stephens is right there after just three appearances in the division.

It took Swanson five consecutive victories to reach the same position as Stephens, and arguably against more difficult competition. Swanson recently stated he wasn’t necessarily pleased to fight Stephens, due to his current ranking, and had grander matchups in mind. Stephens, on the other hand, thinks this is the perfect pairing at the perfect time. Additionally, like Swanson, he believes it’ll be a crowd-pleaser.

“I was expecting to fight a top guy,” Stephens said. “I feel like I’m right there, especially dominating the guys I’ve been dominating at 145 pounds. I’ve been beating them pretty easily, as you could say. I don’t want to brag or anything, but I’ve had pretty good, dominant performances.

“I would say based on my performance that I deserve to fight one of the top guys, and I think if you go down through the list and you go to match me up, why not put this fight on? This fight’s definitely a fan favorite, and it’s definitely two guys that are incredible athletes, very explosive athletes and very hardworking, dedicated people that are very good at their craft. It’s a perfect style matchup.”

If Stephens’ plan goes accordingly, he’ll emerge victorious on Saturday and move on the face the winner of UFC 176’s main event between featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo and current No. 1 contender Chad Mendes.

Stephens believes Aldo vs. Mendes is a relatively even matchup and that either fighter could walk away with the belt. And while he isn’t looking past Swanson, Stephens admits he would prefer to fight Aldo because he wants to be the one to dethrone the only featherweight champion the UFC has ever seen.

“I would like to face Aldo because he has been that dominant champion,” Stephens said. “He has been that guy that people look up to and want to take it from, and they just haven’t been able to do it. It would mean a little bit more to me if he did keep that belt and then I went in there and beat or knocked him out and be the guy to do it. It would mean a little bit more to me, but in the long run, it’s out of my control.

“ … Best of luck to both of them guys. The best man will win, and I’ll just go ahead and face that winner.”

For more on UFC Fight Night 44, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.

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