The Severe Spotlight: Stephen Erceg

In recent times, a lot has been made about the shifting of the UFC product. Cards being filled by unknown, unranked and under skilled fighters. There are conversations to be had surrounding those points and the validity of the arguments. One of the arguments specifically about quality, however, is that you know it when you see it. The way a fighter carries themselves in the opening beats of a contest tells you a lot about what they are.

This comes in a multitude of ways, but mostly it begins with the cadence of movement, the footwork, and the poise. Stephen Erceg travelled across the globe, on short notice to meet #10 ranked Flyweight David Dvořák – and shone in all three attributes.

If it hasn’t yet shown its gravity, to get the call up to the UFC is a deeply pivotal moment in any fighter’s career, for some it means the culmination of a life work is complete. To don the gloves and step into the hallowed Octagon. For others it’s the beginning of a run to things greater, but for all it’s a solid cornerstone of recognition in a sport that’s a vast black universe of uncertainty. Built on top of that is to get the call on short notice. Eight days’ notice. Eight days for your mind to wrap its head around the event, the opponent, the travel, and the weight cut.

So, Stephen packs a couple of bags and flies across the globe, makes weight and walks his way through the Rogers Arena to throw some bones at the #10 ranked flyweight in the world.

Immediately out of the gate there was a sense of belonging. Inside 10 seconds there is a huge tell of comfort; Dvořák begins in orthodox, and Erceg sets his footwork pattern to cut the centre space off well. Dvořák then switches to southpaw and right away begins to attempt to win the outside foot battle. Seamlessly Erceg switches his cadence and shuts the door by bouncing out the outside space immediately. This is a small nuance, but to recognise this right out of the gate with all the variables involved is very impressive.

Throughout the first round Erceg matched the stance switching of Dvořák with a multitude of offerings. The switch to southpaw was often met with a right high kick, his constant forward pressure allowed him to jam the Dvořák attacks, however the Czech fighter had plenty of success with his leg kicks. The leg kicks became a strong part of the Erceg game as the round wore on, he would step through with a right leg low kick after feinting a 1-2, or from a Dvořák retreat would help him out of the pocket with a lacerating low kick.

The opening stanza of the second round played out much like the first, though Erceg had begun to find the timing of the Dvořák footwork and was landing his straight shots at a higher frequency, the leaping left hook made an appearance as did the stabbing front kicks to the mid-section. The first grappling exchange we saw was a fantastic sprawl and head position reclaim by Dvořák with 2:22 left in the round. But that wasn’t to be the end of the story.

A clean left hook to the body followed by a straight right down the pipe was the reward for a very accurate cross step from Erceg. Dvořák, wobbled, retreated back with haste – Erceg did not panic and instead allowed Dvořák the space to make his own mistakes, which at 1:22 came with the Czech fighter planting his feet too early and looking for a big left hook swing. Erceg watched the sequence from the bleachers and had a right high kick coming before Dvořák had finished grinding the balls of his feet into the canvas. The right high kick glanced the top of the skull of Dvořák, combining with the enslaught of torque created by the left hook, dropping him. Unfortunately for Erceg the momentum of the high kick also caused him to fall. However due to winning the head height battle he rose first and immediately looked for a far tight waist. Dvořák got an underhook, preventing the back take, and so Erceg turned the corner to attack the front headlock position. He initially had a buddha grip configuration, but as Dvořák rolled he switched to a more traditional arm-in configuration.

The guillotine was very tight, and there were moments where Dvořák looked like he was thinking of tapping. A nice adjustment from Erceg came when he forced Dvořák more to the outside space with a butterfly hook off-balance, allowing Erceg to cut the angle on the crease of the head tighter. Eventually, Dvořák managed to square up his hips and bring his head centre chest, removing the threat of the guillotine. Here Erceg should have used that time to heist back to his feet or at least to a position where he could scramble, however Dvořák moved to top position and landed a couple of shots before Erceg wrestled up.

The third and final round once again saw Erceg show off his footwork, his striking arsenal and his timing. A pretty array of straight shots, fade away hooks, well timed low kicks, body shots and solid defensive movement. We also got to witness the counter grappling. With 3:35 on the clock Dvořák shoots to get a tight waist, wanting to step his right leg in front of Erceg and throw him to the mat. After completing the takedown, Erceg recognises first his ability to strip the underhook, and builds height, immediately inserting both hooks. Whilst in this instance he was too high to attack the back, on his own terms he removed himself from the position, wrestled back to the top position and landed the damaging shots on the break from the clinch.

The final counter grappling exchange to highlight comes at 2:03 left on the clock. Dvořák hits a traditional double here and lands Erceg on his back. Erceg uses the threat of the guillotine to thread a butterfly hook and as Dvořák begins to advance pummels both butterfly hooks in and with double underhooks looks to heist. Dvořák gives the right reaction, walking away from the hooks to make them weaker and then moving across to a smash pass position. Erceg works well to an underhook, and uses that to shrimp away, building his height back up – defending the single leg from Dvořák he immediately turns the position back to an offensive one for himself with a front headlock attack.

For a UFC debut, on such short notice against the calibre of opponent in Dvořák, this is certainly a fighter we need to keep our eyes on.

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