SAN ANTONIO — Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens don’t know each other. They aren’t friends; not even acquaintances. They’ve shaken hands exactly one time.
But talk to the two men who will meet Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night here at AT&T Center for a few minutes and you’ll hear a lot of the same things. You’ll hear about making choices, the difference between right and wrong and overcoming adversity.
Swanson and Stephens will try to take each other’s heads off Saturday night with a potential UFC featherweight title fight on the line. But in many ways, they share the same story.
Swanson, 30, grew up in a tough part of Palm Springs, Calif., with only his mother. He rebelled as a teenager and at age 17 ended up in a juvenile detention facility after being accused of robbery. Instead of his mother paying a lawyer to fight the charges, Swanson sucked it up and did his time — two years. He didn’t even break into the vehicle they said he did, but had done other things and wanted to own up to them.
"I had been doing stupid stuff," Swanson told FOX Sports. "We broke into cars just for fun and it was stupid. I paid the price for it just by being around it."
We broke into cars just for fun and it was stupid. I paid the price for it just by being around it
Stephens’ parents divorced when he was 8 years old and he describes his upbringing with his mother as "wild." Stephens doesn’t like to talk much about it, but he lived parts of his childhood in homeless shelters and even a car. He switched elementary schools 14 times. It wasn’t until his father gained custody of him when he was 14 years old that he got some stability.
"It’s a long story," Stephens bristles. "Been there, done that."
After the stint in juvie, a 19-year-old Swanson turned his life around. He got a job working with children who had cerebral palsy and then found martial arts. From then on, he stopped running with gangs and quit abusing drugs and alcohol.
I kind of fell in love with martial arts, because I needed some kind of discipline," Swanson said.
Today, he visits juvenile halls and talks to the kids there about structure. Stephens found his structure with wrestling, which was introduced to him by his grandfather, the same person who first sat down with him to watch the UFC. Not too long after, Stephens began training in MMA.
While Swanson had his low moment in his teens, Stephens’ came just two years ago. He was arrested on the same day he was supposed to fight in the UFC in October 2012 on felony assault charges stemming from an incident that came a year earlier.
Stephens spent 15 days in jail and it completely altered his sensibilities. When he returned home, which is now in San Diego, Stephens cut certain friends out of his life and ceased partying. He focused on training and being a father to his two daughters.
Last year, the felony assault charges were dropped and Stephens, who maintains his innocence, pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct. His sentence was time served and a fine.
It was a real eye-opening experience. It gave me lot of time to think about what was really going on.
-Jeremy Stephens on his jail time
"It was a real eye-opening experience," Stephens said. "It gave me lot of time to think about what was really going on."
Swanson has won five fights in a row and Stephens three straight. Both have reached the elite of the UFC’s featherweight division and one will be the No. 1 contender for a title shot after Saturday night (FOX Sports 1, 10 p.m.). It would have been easy for neither one of them to end up here. Many who dealt with their situations wouldn’t be.
"All I did was make a choice in my mind, because I was hardheaded and I was stubborn," Swanson said. "That stubbornness used to get me in trouble, but at some point I changed it to trying to achieve greatness and that pursuit of it. That stubbornness became not my weakness, it became my strength."
Added Stephens: "It’s all in your choices and your decisions. It’s how you go about it."
The two have never said a word to each other. But they have an incredible amount in common. Both are half Mexican. Both were mentored by longtime UFC veterans — Swanson by Joe Stevenson and Stephens by Josh Neer. The similarities are almost uncanny.
Saturday night’s main event might decide who fights for the featherweight title next, but it’s really about more than that. It’s about two kids who had it hard, but never made excuses and persevered when it would have been easy to take a different path.
Whoever wins, this bout is about overcoming adversity to reach your dreams.
"It’s always good to see people succeed out of negative situations," Stephens said. … "Credit to him for making the right decisions and choices and put himself on the map like that."
"If we could tell a story of where we came from and give people hope, then that’s awesome," Swanson added. "I’m happy for him and everything he’s done."
It sounds like the two might have plenty to talk about. After they try to beat each other up, of course.