Octagon jitters—it’s an infamous term. The first time a fighter steps into the UFC’s eight-sided cage, there will always be talk of whether the emotional rush and the nerves surrounding his debut will have a profound impact on his performance.

Pundits and fans making predictions on fights will cite the jitters as a reason to doubt a fighter’s chances. And in the aftermath of a defeat, these same jitters will take part of the blame for the fighter’s downfall.

So, following each UFC event, The MMA Corner will look at the fighters who made their Octagon debuts and provide impressions on their performances and their future potential under the UFC banner. In this edition, we focus on the two newcomers from UFC 160.

K.J. Noons — unanimous decision loss to Donald Cerrone

As a former EliteXC champion and a star under the Strikeforce banner, it made some sense that K.J. Noons would make his first appearance for the UFC on the main card of an event. However, unlike many of his Strikeforce brethren who made their Octagon debuts in recent months, Noons didn’t have much to celebrate when the closing bell sounded in his fight with Donald Cerrone. Cerrone dominated Noons for three rounds en route to a unanimous decision that has to leave Noons considering his place in the division.

Given Noons’ recent struggles in Strikeforce, the loss cannot actually be considered a huge surprise. The boxer’s best run came back in the EliteXC days when he notched wins over Nick Diaz, Yves Edwards and Edson Berto. During his first few fights in Strikeforce, Noones barely edged Conor Heun and benefited from a match-up against Jorge Gurgel, who was willing to stand with him despite an obvious disadvantage in the striking department. Since the win over Gurgel, however, Noons has gone just 1-5, including the UFC 160 loss to Cerrone. Nick Diaz was able to avenge his loss in their rematch, top contenders Josh Thomson and Jorge Masvidal took unanimous verdicts over Noons, and the former champ even came out on the wrong end of a split decision versus Ryan Couture.

At just 11-7, and with losses to the likes of Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett and Couture, Noons is far from being the elite lightweight that EliteXC once touted. Instead, Noons is a somewhat effective boxer and kickboxer whose best asset is his ability to survive the distance in his fights. What he cannot do is overcome anyone who is willing to use wrestling and submission attempts to outpoint him. And, as Cerrone proved, even a skilled kickboxer can get the better of Noons. Noons was unable to best Cerrone on the feet and often fell victim to Cerrone’s takedown attempts as well.

Noons faded down the stretch, and this isn’t exactly the first time his cardio has looked subpar. Still, he has a knack for making it to the final bell—five decision losses versus only two losses by stoppage—so he is capable of hanging in there, even against a top-10 caliber foe like Cerrone. But that doesn’t mean he won’t get dominated.

What the UFC has in Noons is a mid-card fighter who could benefit from a certain type of fight. He’s not a guy who will ever be a top contender, but he could provide for entertaining striking battles if matched against low- and mid-level opponents that prefer to stand. If the UFC continues to insist on giving Noons top lightweights, however, then the boxer is in for a rough time, and a short UFC tenure.

Potential: Medium

Estevan Payan — unanimous decision loss to Jeremy Stephens

Score it a 2-0 night for UFC veterans versus new Strikeforce imports. In addition to Cerrone’s dominance over Noons, fans were also treated to a slasher horror flick of a fight between the heavy-handed Jeremy Stephens and two-time Strikeforce combatant Estevan Payan. Stephens cut Payan open early in the fight, and the pools of blood left behind by the show-opening bout would be evident for the remainder of the night. The blood was far from the only factor in giving Stephens a lopsided unanimous decision win.

Payan looked as if he would be somewhat competitive in the early moments of the fight. He rocked Stephens with a punch and was able to stuff a takedown, but his success was short-lived. Stephens remained persistent in working the takedowns, and an elbow from his ground-and-pound attack was able to open a gusher of a cut on Payan’s face. Payan was repeatedly unable to avoid Stephens’ takedowns, but he was able to work his way back to his feet on several occasions. Unfortunately, he was also tagged by Stephens’ big strikes, and even a kick, when the two stood toe-to-toe.

Stephens was likely fighting for his roster spot in this fight. He had been on a three-fight skid entering the bout. That’s often been the story of Stephens’ UFC career—he’ll often win a couple fights, then lose a couple of fights. In other words, Payan wasn’t facing a top dog. Instead, he was up against the definition of a low-level UFC gatekeeper. Stephens has fought some of the best, accounting for many of his losses, and has even notched wins over Rafael dos Anjos and a declining Marcus Davis and Sam Stout.

Stephens wasn’t the only one fighting for his UFC career on Saturday. With Payan not considered a high-profile fighter under the Strikeforce banner, his match with Stephens was more of an audition than anything. In failing to hand Stephens a fourth straight loss, Payan likely sealed his own fate—a UFC pink slip. The Arizona Combat Sports fighter will have to earn his way back to the Octagon, though a stint in a promotion such as the World Series of Fighting or a return to Bellator might be in his future.

Potential: Low

Photo: K.J. Noons (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting

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