One of Lightweight’s best prospects, Kevin Lee, will throw down with grappling ace, Michael Chiesa, this Sunday (June 25, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 112 inside Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Before he was a brash Russell Westbrook impersonator who threw punches at a press conference, Lee was an undefeated 21-year-old making his UFC debut. Despite being thrown to the wolves in his debut, Lee made a strong account for himself in a loss. He then went on to win four straight bouts, utilizing his strong wrestling to dominate most of his competition. His inexperience cost him in an upset loss to Leonardo Santos, but Lee responded by getting better. Since that defeat, Lee has won another four fights, this time finishing three opponents of increasingly high caliber.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Lee is not a bad striker by any means, though he suffers from some of the trademarks of an inexperienced kickboxer. He’s still young enough that this flaw is understandable, and his steady improvement in this area is definitely promising as well.
Offensively, Lee throws with enough heat that he must be respected. For the most part, he flicks out lots of jabs and one-two combinations, occasionally using the cross as a lead as well. He’s an active striker, commonly choosing to stay in range and try to counter with his lead hand rather than back away completely.
Like many fighters who are not entirely comfortable boxing, Lee likes to kick more than punch. He commonly flicks up quick kicks to the head and body with either leg, unafraid of his opponent’s potential takedown. In fact, those repeated high kicks often help his own takedowns, raising their hands up.
Speaking of, Lee has gotten better at incorporating level change feints into his offense. Bending his knees and/or reaching for the lead leg, Lee will get his opponent’s feet moving to defend the shot and instead throw some heavy punches. Since Lee’s style of wrestling enables him to shoot from far out and still drive through, these level change feints are especially effective.
Lee’s approach in that fight was simple but ultimately effective. From the outside, he used his long reach to shoot out quick crosses, slipping his head outside of Trinaldo’s jab. He also took quick outside steps and fired right kicks to the body and head repeatedly.
Eventually, one of those right kicks found its way over “Massaranduba’s” low left hand and initiated the finishing sequence.
Defensively, Lee occasionally forgets that his opponent can hit him too, as he tends to stand still and watch his work. In the sole knockout loss of his career, for example, Lee showed Leonardo Santos absolutely zero respect on the feet. Walking the Brazilian down from a square stance, firing power punches in bunches, and neglecting to shoot takedowns were all pretty clear signs that Lee thought himself vastly superior fighter. Unfortunately for “The Motown Phenom,” Santos is a veteran and happily circled, stabbing at Lee with sharp, accurate jabs. Those punches landed clean, but Lee was undeterred and kept pushing forward until a 1-2 straight down the middle ended his night.
Since then, Lee has clearly improved. Nevertheless, Trinaldo did land some very big shots, often because Lee was simply standing there or backing straight up without much concern for his opponent’s offense.
Lee is very likely one of the division’s biggest Lightweights, which will not be noticeable this weekend because Michael Chiesa is similarly large. Nevertheless, Lee’s 77-inch reach is remarkably effective in wrestling exchanges.
Most of the time, a fighter with the height and reach of Lee cutting to Lightweight would not be physically strong as well. Think of someone like Nate Diaz, who has a similar reach. That length generally comes at a cost, as Diaz is not the most buff fighter.
Lee’s arms are pretty damn strong.
Effectively, that means Lee’s double leg is a real weapon. Against the fence, Lee can be stretched out in what appears to be a bad position, but in fact he’s still able to lock his hands. That’s where that physical strength comes into play, as Lee is still able to suck in the hips and lift despite the less-than-ideal positioning.
In the center of the cage, Lee’s reach and wrestling allow him to drive through imperfect shots as well. So long as he’s able to get a hand on his opponent, Lee has a fair shot at dragging himself towards the hips and eventually landing the takedown.
Additionally, Lee’s transitional wrestling is pretty solid. He’ll grab a single leg just to move into the double, and his switch into the body lock is tight as well. In one slick example, Lee used to a double leg to drive Magomed Mustafaev into the fence, using the give of the cage to bounce his opponent back into the center. As Magomedov was off-balance and in poor position to defend, Lee switched to the body lock and spun him to the mat.
Defensively, Lee’s sprawl, scrambling, and general physicality make taking him down a difficult prospect. More often than not, anyone shooting on Lee is more likely to end up on their own back, as he’ll transition into his own double leg quickly.
Lee’s work on the mat is very solid. Like his opponent, Lee specializes in working from the back mount. Lee’s approach is definitely more grounded in wrestling than submission grappling, as Lee’s primary goal is to flatten and stretch out his foe with heavy hip pressure.
In this week’s technique highlight, we took a look at how Lee gets to the back mount.
Lee has proven himself a cut above most of his Lightweight peers, which is an astonishingly difficult task. Lightweight is the toughest division to make any real progress, but going 8-2 before his 25th birthday accomplished that task for Lee. Now that he’s established himself, Lee is receiving his chance to leap into the Top 10 and become a true contender.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.