It’s been over three years since Ultimate Fighter season 2 winner Joe ‘Daddy’ Stevenson was competing in the Octagon. On the first day he entered the reality show competition, Stevenson already had a huge resume of experience after turning pro when he was 16. He had a successful career making it all the way to a UFC lightweight title shot in 2008, but fell short in his bid to capture the belt when he faced champion B.J. Penn.
Following that loss, Stevenson never quite made it back to the top of the ranks although he did pick up some big wins over names like Gleison Tibau and Nate Diaz. His UFC career came to a close after a disappointing four fight losing streak and after one more fight outside the promotion, Stevenson hung up his gloves and decided to focus on coaching and commentating instead.
So for the past two plus years, Stevenson has faded from the public spotlight in the national MMA circuit while built the fighters in his gym while picking up the microphone to work with King of the Cage, which was one of the first homes he had as a fighter all the way back in 1999.
Stevenson hadn’t officially retired although his mind wandered far away from the sport as he sunk into depression because fighting was the only thing he’s ever known. When a promoter came calling asking for his services, Stevenson was ready to jump back into the cage until his phone rang again and a familiar friend had an interesting opportunity for him instead.
"I went through some depression because I had to figure out if I was fighting or not. I had to figure out what I was going to do. My body was hurt and I contemplated taking a fight in Switzerland. I got a text from Greg Jackson the moment I was about to take the fight. He said ‘can we talk?’ so I called him and he told me about wanting to do a two week intensive camp for these actors with this show that’s about MMA," Stevenson told FOX Sports.
Life is crazy. It made me fall in love with fighting again. I quit drinking, I’ve been sober for two years here in October and it’s changed my life. If I wouldn’t have quit drinking, I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at now
— Joe Stevenson
The show was a new drama from DirecTV called ‘Kingdom’ starring Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Matt Lauria (Friday Night Lights), Nick Jonas and Jonathan Tucker centered around a family owned mixed martial arts gym in California and the real life struggles of the fighters trying to make it to the big show.
When Stevenson was hired for the project, he was just brought on board to teach the actors the most rudimentary functions of fighting so when the cameras started rolling, they would be able to make the fights on the show look as real as possible.
"These guys did like an MMA super camp — 10 days, super intensive. We finished in eight days fast," Stevenson said. "They were just a talented group of guys that were able to take the basics and fundamentals and just run with it."
The actors and producers behind the show liked working with Stevenson so much in preparation to film that it didn’t take long for him to get another offer that he never expected to happen. ‘Kingdom’ wanted Stevenson to be their full time fight coordinator and choreographer and with a show based in the world of MMA, he was really the perfect choice.
The unexpected job offer wowed Stevenson, who thought he was just coming in to help the actors look and behave like real fighters. Now he was actually going to make sure the fights that took place over the 10-episode first season were going to be as real as possible for the TV audience at home.
"I got to write all the fight scenes," Stevenson explained. "So the writers wrote what they wanted and the feel and they told me the points that they wanted, points of contact and the things they wanted to happen and my job was to put the moves and the positioning. It’s not too far of a step from what we already do.
"Like if you were trying to peak for a fight, you would do fight coordination. You would do scenario drills. I put the actors in positions where they can actually go live. It looks real because it is real."
Stevenson worked with the actors as well as other fighters like former UFC welterweight Jay Hieron, who makes an appearance on the first season of the show that debuts on DirecTV Wednesday night. He choreographed the fight scenes and made sure that everything looked authentic.
The cast of Kingdom
Fighting for the better part of 15 years can take a lot out of an athlete and it was no different for Stevenson. It didn’t just take a toll on his body, but also on his mind. As Stevenson would readily admit, it didn’t help matters much that whenever he was out at a fight he would party and drink until all hours and then get up and do it all over again the next day.
Finally two years ago, Stevenson realized what nearly 50 professional fights, drinking and partying was doing to him and at that moment he gave it all up. Once Stevenson quit alcohol, he started concentrating more on the other aspects of his life and then the call came in to join ‘Kingdom’ and it revitalized him yet again.
"Life is crazy. It made me fall in love with fighting again. I quit drinking, I’ve been sober for two years here in October and it’s changed my life. If I wouldn’t have quit drinking, I definitely wouldn’t be where I’m at now," Stevenson said.
"I got lucky. I got really lucky that Greg Jackson was able to give me a call to do this. I got lucky for this to happen. I got lucky that I was ready for this to happen and I was ready for it. That’s what fighting is all about. A guy gets hurt and you’re ready to fight and if he doesn’t get hurt you never would have got this shot. That’s kind of what happened to me. I happened to be ready."
If there was one aspect of his old life helped him with it was bringing a real fighter’s story to the set of ‘Kingdom’ where the show focuses in on gym life in MMA and bouts that often take place in the local circuit with dozens of fans in attendance instead of thousands and a winner’s purse that provides gas money more than rent money.
From reading the scripts to his actual participation on the show, Stevenson believes ‘Kingdom’ is the real behind the scenes story for anyone who wants to know what actually happens in MMA from the gym to the cage and home again.
"It’s so good. You’ve got a dysfunctional fight family and it’s so real. At points my wife was like ‘have you been telling them some stuff?’. It’s so authentic at times I have to ask the writer are you sure you didn’t fight?" Stevenson joked.
"Everything that happens in MMA — whether it’s good or bad, happy or sad, with the ups and downs, it all happens in Kingdom."
As far as his own fight career, Stevenson is coy about whether or not he’ll ever return to the cage. He’s got a fight team he’s building in California and a gym where the enrollment seems to grow each and every day.
Coaching seems to be Stevenson’s biggest passion right now, but with ‘Kingdom’ he’s also found a second job that he’s not only good at but loves doing everyday. It’s given him yet another reason to fall back in love with MMA all over again.
"I’m so blessed and just wait. MMA people are going to love this show, but everyday people are going to fall in love with MMA because of this show. I took it upon myself to use this as a way to introduce MMA to new people. I put everything in this," Stevenson said.
"I just can’t wait for everyone to watch it. I want everyone to be proud."