Sitting on his stool awaiting the second round on October 18th, 2017, the lights of the T-Mobile Arena must have seemed brighter than ever to the “Motown Phenom”, Kevin Lee (17-4 MMA, 10-4 UFC).
The opening five minutes of his interim title fight with Tony Ferguson could scarcely have gone better for him. The Detroit native, who was ranked #7 as of that fight week, had had his way with the perennial top-tier contender. But the exhaustive takedown and resulting ground and pound that marked the end of round one were not enough. Like the armies of Winterfell, from the popular “Game of Thrones”, Lee was faced with a re-animated foe he thought he’d already finished.
Nine minutes later, after vintage slash n’ bash from the offensive guard, Ferguson synched up a triangle choke, and Lee’s hopes for the interim title were dashed. His face, thoroughly decorated with cuts and bruises, wore an even greater emotional pain. Many wondered if Lee’s steady momentum had been crushed for good.
April of 2018 saw him face striking savant Edson Barboza at UFC Fight Night 128. Behind the scenes, concerns had been growing about his future at 155lbs since casting a sunken shadow at the weigh-ins before his tout with Ferguson. Weigh-in time arrived and sure enough, the scales tipped at 157lbs, and a move up to welterweight became a prominent talking point.
But Barboza accepted the fight offer, and Lee focused his mind on the task at hand, making a statement.
Building on the skills shown in his title challenge months prior, Lee succeeded in taking the Brazilian to ground and keeping him there under an unrelenting barrage of well-placed, heavy strikes. It was his finest performance to date, and he knew it, dancing with joy as Bruce Buffer made it official.
The win affirmed so much about Lee’s character, only some of which we as the public are privy to. Only a month after losing to Ferguson, Lee’s long-time coach and mentor, Robert Follis tragically committed suicide casting a pall over the MMA community.
“It took me a long time to understand why,” he previously said to MMA Junkie. “A part of you wants to blame yourself. Especially coming off that fight with Tony Ferguson. I’m like, ‘Man, if I had won that fight – is that the reason why?’”
Confusion, grief; all fuelled the fires during the Barboza camp and the results spoke for themselves.
“He guided me all the way through it, and the victory is for him,” said Lee.
Composure, logic, calculation; together, they formed an output that Barboza simply couldn’t match. It was a performance from Lee that showed maturity and patience befitting of a UFC veteran.
Unlike most fighters at 26, Kevin Lee is an experienced, tenured UFC vet. Since his debut in 2014, Lee has fought twelve times. But his first fight in the UFC would be his next, following the win over Barboza.
A cold, dark, February night in New Jersey, 2014, was the setting. It was UFC 169, and a young, hungry Lee was set for his first fight in the Octagon. His foe? Local boy, ‘Ragin’ Al Iaquinta. Despite glimpses of the skillset we see both on and off the feet today, Iaquinta handed Lee his first professional loss.
So, riding high after defeating Barboza, when the opportunity for revenge came in late 2018, Lee jumped at the chance. After all, his first crack at Iaquinta came on three weeks’ notice, and over the following twelve fights, “The Motown Phenom” had evolved considerably. In the murderers’ row that is the 155lb division, a win over the #4 ranked Iaquinta could secure a second shot at the belt.
Twenty-five minutes passed and the scorecards were tallied, totaling a unanimous decision win for Iaquinta. Examining the fight round by round, it seemed like déjà vu. Lee had his moments in every round but ‘Ragin’ Al’s persistence and ever-present will to come forward and trade had swung the judges. Again, Lee’s face bore the emotion; disbelief, frustration, and anger.
Had the game-plan turned sour? Was Iaquinta the kryptonite?
Speaking to The Body Lock, Lee considered these two outings as the most transformative of his career.
“My first fight with Al was a major turning point for me, but the second was an even bigger one. I see what my game needs now,” Lee told The Body Lock.
A tactical change was made to his corner line-up, and as a result, his training has never been better.
“Me and my team understand each other more; everyone is meshing better, and I’m going to show that in my next performance.”
A change is gonna come
As for that next performance, Kevin Lee will face former UFC lightweight champion and top welterweight contender Rafael dos Anjos at the upcoming UFC Rochester. It will be Lee’s first UFC bout at welterweight, something many have opined for, given Lee’s size and difficult weight cut.
Lee walks around between 185 and 190 lbs – lean – and his troubles making the 155 lbs limit were well-documented. He had discussed his brutal weight cut on several occasions, and even missing weight against Barboza, he looked drawn and diminished.
The UFC’s weight cutting problem is omnipresent amongst media and fans. Until more weight classes are introduced, however, many fighters face a Hobson’s choice; cut lower and jeopardize performance, or potentially face a heavier, stronger, and bigger opponent on fight night.
So, much to the delight of media and fans, in March of this year, Lee made his move and was booked as the welterweight main event at UFC on ESPN+ 10 on May 18th.
The decision again showed that Lee was mature beyond his years and marks another key point of progression in his career. The feeling is overwhelmingly positive, and he believes he is more than prepared for the bigger bodies that await him.
“I’ve always moved around with 170 and 185 pounders anyway. Not having to worry about the extra 16 lbs will make the biggest difference – I’ll be able to refuel and recover properly after every session and push through to the next one.”
“No part of me is overlooking RDA”
Standing across from Kevin Lee on May 18th will be the former UFC lightweight champion, Rafael dos Anjos (28-11), who also made the move up after weight-cutting issues.
Despite looking incredible in his 170 lbs debut against Robbie Lawler, the Brazilian is coming off back-to-back five-round unanimous decision losses to the current divisional champion, Kamaru Usman, and the former interim champion, Colby Covington.
“No part of me is overlooking RDA” asserts Lee, “He’s a former world champion, so, if anything, it’s going to be a harder camp to make sure things go right on fight night.”
The match-up is an intriguing one. Usman and Covington’s ‘smother-grapple’ style neutralized RDA’s dynamic striking to earn decision wins, but accordingly to Lee, didn’t light anyone’s hair on fire.
“Guys at this weight class are very good, but they don’t take it to the next level in terms of transitioning to really dominant positions on the ground – hunting for submissions and lay[ing] down big ground and pound. You don’t really see too many fight-changing sequences.
I think that’s where my focus will be, and I will stand out doing that.”
His observation is correct. The welterweight division currently lacks a ‘brawl on the floor’ fighter, instead favoring distance exploiters (Darren Till, Stephen Thompson, Santiago Ponzinibbio) and dominant, if positional, wrestlers. Historically, Lee has demonstrated some of the UFC’s most powerful wrestling, coupled with vicious top control ground and pound. But he doesn’t want to be a one-trick pony, rather a sponge, absorbing everything he can from both victory and defeat.
“Since I’ve started this sport, my goal has always been to be the most well-rounded fighter – there’s so much more I can add to my game after every fight. You don’t understand the mistakes unless you make them, and I’ve never been one to shy away from defeat or a challenge. That is where you end up learning the most. This training camp is all about proving that to myself, the team, and the game.”
Talk, talk, talk
“The game”. Conor McGregor’s go-to noun for the fight business. From “I run this game” to that he “changed the game”, these are the phrases that dominate the Irishman’s narrative and encapsulate the sport’s controversial other half, trash-talk.
Kevin Lee is no stranger to this secondary martial art. Donned in snakeskin, he engaged pre-fight verbal jabs with Ferguson before UFC 216 and again before his rematch with Iaquinta, much to the latter’s amusement. An edgy ‘mom’ joke resulted in nearly coming to blows with former foe Michael Chiesa at the 2017 Summer Kick-Off press conference.
So, with characters like Jorge Masvidal, Till, and the sport’s biggest heel, Colby Covington, Lee’ll have no problem finding a dance partner in his new home, should he seek it. Indeed, it could prove a deciding factor for his success in the division. Shockingly, the fighting part of the game is still enough to skyrocket your stock (just ask Masvidal). But in a division as crowded as this one, rankings can easily get lost in the weeds. And love him or, more likely, hate him, Covington is living proof of the ‘those who shout loudest’ approach yielding results.
“Colby is just a bit of entertainment to me and everyone wants a piece of him. If we cross paths, that’s going to be fun, but he needs to win [the belt] first,” Lee laughs.
“Stuff like that does give me a little bit extra, but I’m not overly interested in it. I’m learning to pace myself and show myself in the best light; I’m out here chasing titles.”
And if his fists speak loud enough, the shot at gold could come sooner than we all think
“I think after this I’m two wins away from a title shot. It’s dependent on timing. Obviously, I’m chasing Usman.”
This is a fighter with an itch for greatness. Sure, most fighters say they’re on a mission for the strap, but Kevin Lee is a different beast. His losses to date have fundamentally contributed to his betterment.
Most significant perhaps are the ‘Ls’ to Iaquinta. The pre-fight circus promoted their 2nd meeting as a revenge bout for Lee against the New Yorker. Ostensibly, this was true, but realistically, they offered Lee redemption at himself. Win or lose, he vowed to emerge a better fighter.
Kevin Lee’s next chapter
UFC on ESPN+ 10 fight could be Lee’s welterweight coming-out party. His reduced presence on social media since November has been noticeable, taking stock to deal with some family issues. All the while, he’s been quietly grafting an improved version of himself.
“Now is the perfect time for me to fight,” Lee said. “Going through everything has given me more anger to get out and more of a reason to fight. A little more pop and purpose when I wake up in the morning.”
If the UFC’s 170 pounders aren’t worried, they probably should be. A natural performer under the bright lights blessed with talent and confidence; a former title challenger with a 10-4 UFC record, Kevin Lee has put in some serious mileage – all by the age of 26 – mileage that has earned him an extensive fanbase.
For them, and for those who are yet to get to know him, Kevin Lee has one final message:
“Casuals – you may know me. Hardcores – you know me well and have seen me grow inside the Octagon. I don’t feel I’ve had a barn-burner of a fight yet, but RDA might just give that to me. So, when he puts his chin down and tries to come forward, I’m going to do the same thing.”
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.