When a fighter strings together a couple of notable wins – it’s only natural that a title opportunity will present itself in the not too distant future. But, when a fighter can back up those wins with some antics outside the Octagon or increase fan interest through a persona – these title tilts become possible far too soon, often to the challenger’s detriment in many cases.
Case in point – ‘The Mo’Town Phenom’ Kevin Lee. There’s no denying Lee is destined to achieve champion status in the UFC, eventually, and even less doubt surrounding his natural ability. When The Michigan born wrestler was pitted with the longtime number-one contender, Tony Ferguson, with interim gold up for grabs, he was just 24-years-old. Sure, the competition he beat to earn the title shot weren’t walks in the park by any stretch of the imagination – but it was a case of too much too soon for the now 27-year-old.
Lee had bested Magomed Mustafaev, Francisco Trinaldo, and Michael Chiesa, controversially, of note, and even caused Ferguson some worry in the opening round with his wrestling ability, but was plagued with a noticeable staph infection ahead of the fight. Since his triangle defeat to ‘El Cucuy’, Lee has faced some major adversity. He’s dropped two defeats to former-foe, Al Iaquinta, and then Rafael dos Anjos in a welterweight affair. Outside of the Octagon, Lee also faced adversity on a personal level, following the death of his head coach, Xtreme Couture’s, Robert Follis. These adversity’s both on a personal and professional level have shaped Lee majorly it seems.
Written off by many following his loss to former lightweight best, dos Anjos – Lee decided to switch up his approach in the training room. Under the renowned, Firas Zahabi of Tristar in Canada – the 27-year-old has returned to winning-ways, in quite dramatic fashion as well. Zahabi – the longtime head coach of the iconic Georges St-Pierre, and recent PFL signee, Rory MacDonald, has been known to mould a fighter into championship material, so a move to ‘The Great White North’ for Lee, makes total sense.
Pitted against fellow wrestling ace, Gregor Gillespie at Madison Square Garden for UFC 244 – many within the community struggled to imagine how a seemingly sliding Lee would mitigate the offensive approach from Gillespie early. Almost three minutes inside the opening round, we had a firm answer. Striking with a right hook, Lee then flowed through with a left high-kick, sending the then-undefeated prospect to the Octagon fence, unconscious. Lee didn’t wheel away in celebration, or even call for a matchup with the champion, Khabib Nurmagomedov like he had tried before – but instead insisted he needed a couple more victories first.
All that brings us to this weekend’s UFC Fight Night Brasília headliner in enemy territory, against Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu phenom, Charles Oliveira. Conceivably, both men can take a huge leap toward the division’s top five with a triumph – but Lee has his sights set on a particular opponent next – Russia’s Islam Makhachev. The American Kickboxing Academy trainee is matched with Alexander Hernandez for UFC 249 next month – with all roads leading to a meeting with Lee in his home country later this year, if both men emerge victorious.
Matching up with the most successful submission artist in the Octagon – is something Lee does surprisingly well. Given his recent exploits at 170-pounds, Lee naturally is the larger of the two, giving him the edge should he have to muscle out of any dicey predicaments. As mentioned yesterday, his past stoppages of Michael Chiesa and Francisco Trinaldo offer some comfort also. We’ve certainly seen Charles Oliveira make leaps and bounds in his striking arsenal in recent wins over Jared Gordan and Nik Lentz – but in terms of natural ability on the feet, I’d lean toward Lee.