Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 | 1:13 p.m.
With every step Joe Stevenson takes towards a second shot at the UFC lightweight title, the more the pressure grows.
The 27-year-old fighter admitted recently he had dealt with an underlying feeling of stress throughout his latest training camp for this weekend's fight with George Sotiropoulos in UFC 110 in Sydney, Australia.
According to Stevenson (36-10), Sotiropoulos (11-2) is a dangerous opponent but relatively unknown to fans, meaning a win would only take him a small step up the UFC ladder while a loss would drop him significantly.
The stress may have never gone away had it not been for a talk with his wife before he left for Australia, reminding him that whether he ever wears the belt, he'll always be a great fighter.
"My wife is amazing," Stevenson said. "She told me, 'You look so stressed out,' and I was like, 'I am, because I have so much to lose and not much to gain. I feel like to gain anything I need a dominating performance.' She said, 'Honey, lose three fights in a row. It doesn't matter. You're a great fighter, and we'll always be OK.'
"That took a lot of the pressure off."
After spending a full six weeks away from his wife and four sons to train with Greg Jackson in Albuquerque, N.M., Stevenson made sure the last thing he did before getting on a flight to Sydney was remind himself why he was going.
Some fighters with kids say they purposefully don't see them right before a fight because it makes them soft, but Stevenson gave up on that strategy long ago.
"I got away from that whole thing," Stevenson said. "I'm going to kill with kindness now so I have everything to throw at my opponent. I hadn't seen them for six weeks so I brought them out from California and it was amazing. It's kind of good to remind yourself why you're fighting."
After back-to-back wins over Nate Diaz and Spencer Fisher in his last two fights, Stevenson quietly has reached the cusp of the top of the lightweight division.
He's already been there once, when he fought current champ B.J. Penn for the vacant UFC lightweight championship in 2008, losing by submission in the second round.
"He's definitely the toughest guy I've ever fought in the UFC," Sotiropoulos said. "He's one of the top lightweights in the division and the other guys I've fought weren't at that level. He's a very skilled opponent, he's fought a lot of big names and he has a long resume."
Stevenson says he's '100 percent sure' that a win over Sotiropoulos would put him very close to another shot at the title — and he knows that shot may not be against Penn.
Penn has to defend the belt against Frankie Edgar in April but has continued to express a desire to move up in weight and work towards a third meeting with welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.
UFC president Dana White has said he'll only agree to Penn moving up to 170 pounds if he "cleans out the lightweight division," something many believe Penn is close to doing after dominant wins over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez in 2009.
Since he's already lost to Penn before, Stevenson says that he understands the possibility Penn may abandon the weight class before he earns a title shot, but that he's not allowed himself to worry about it.
"This sport has so many ups and downs," Stevenson said. "The trick is to not ever allow yourself to be deterred by anything positive or negative that's not in your hands."
That's not to say Stevenson wouldn't be disappointed if Penn opted out of the division, much like he was when he heard news that Sanchez was moving up in weight after losing to Penn last December.
Sanchez defeated Stevenson by a close unanimous decision in February 2009 in a bout that won Fight of the Night honors at UFC 95.
Stevenson immediately expressed interest in facing him again, which now appears unlikely since Sanchez is expected to compete in the welterweight division in May.
"It didn't surprise me that he went back up, maybe he couldn't handle the weight cut," Stevenson said. "I really don't like losing a close decision to somebody and then have them move up because I want to avenge any loss."
One way to get the fights you want is to put a belt around your waist, which is why Stevenson is prepared to hand Sotiropoulos his first UFC loss this weekend.
"I am comfortable anywhere this fight goes," Stevenson said. "The trick is not to just be comfortable but to perform. What I've learned at Greg Jackson's is it's important to stay relaxed but still execute."