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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC on FOX 31’s Kevin Lee

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Dominating wrestler, Kevin Lee, will square off with clubbing boxer, Al Iaquinta, this Saturday (Dec. 15, 2018) at UFC on FOX 31 inside Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

You may or may not like “Motown Phenom,” but that doesn’t change the fact that he’s one of the world’s very best martial artists. The 26-year-old veteran has won six of his previous seven, the only loss a competitive title clash with Tony Ferguson. His already-formidable array of skills is still growing at a rapid pace, and each performance is better than the last. Beyond the technical side, Lee has a mean streak in the cage that is almost unmatched, and it makes him a particularly brutal fighter.

Now, Lee takes something of a step back to avenge an early career loss to Al Iaquinta. The match up is honestly a bit out of nowhere, but it does serve as a great chance to showcase Lee’s improvement.

Striking

The last two fights have easily featured the best kickboxing of Lee’s career, particularly his work against Barboza. As with every part of Lee’s game, his 77-inch reach must be mentioned, as it’s a unique physical gift that greatly aids him in all areas.

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. All that said, Lee still tends 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 his foe’s hands up.

Lee has gotten much better at setting up his kicks. Ferguson shifts stance constantly, and Lee switched and kept up with him pretty well. Whenever Ferguson would dance around between stances too much and ignore Lee’s offense, Lee would take the opposite stance of Ferguson and slam an opposite kick into the open side from whichever direction Ferguson circled towards. When Ferguson would set his feet and show off his head movement, Lee would again move to the opposite stance and kick the open side hard.

Lee is also rather good 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.

In a somewhat recent bout with Francisco Trinaldo, Lee faced a veteran Southpaw kickboxer and eventually came out on top of the striking battle. That’s not too say it was easy, but Lee showed definite smarts and good instincts. 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, caught the side of his head, initiating the finishing sequence.

As mentioned, Lee’s work against Barboza is the best kickboxing of his entire career, and he did it almost entirely as a Southpaw. First and foremost, switching Southpaw was a brilliant stylistic decision opposite Barboza. The Brazilian does his best work with the switch-kick, which is all but negated opposite a Southpaw foe. And while Barboza’s famously nasty low kick can land on any stance, firing at a Southpaw meant that low kick’s target was the inner thigh rather than the outside of thigh and knee. That still hurts quite a bit, but think back to all the serious low kick beatings in the past: it’s usually from outside low kicks that breakdown the quad or damage the knee.

Lee also made the wise decision of pushing the pace offensively. He did not allow the kicker time to work or think, keeping him on his back foot with hard straight punches and that damnable 77-inch reach. Furthermore, it’s just so easy to kick as a Southpaw. Lee didn’t have to do all that much to set up hard, damaging kicks, just flick out a jab or feint then slam his shin into Barboza’s mid-section or high guard (GIF).

Defensively, Lee occasionally forgets that his opponent can hit him, too, tending 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 down the Brazilian from a square stance, firing power punches in bunches, and neglecting to shoot takedowns were all pretty clear signs that Lee thought himself vastly the superior fighter. Unfortunately for “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 one-two combination straight down the middle ended his night. He’s improved since then, but there are still opportunities available for the few men good enough to stop his wrestling.

Wrestling

Lee is among the biggest fighters at Lightweight, a fighter with a longer reach than Nate Diaz who can still match the physical strength of anyone in the division. That combination of reach and strength plays a major role in his grappling and allows him surprise foes with his physicality.

Lee’s double-leg takedown 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. Even against another very strong grappler in Chiesa, Lee was able to connect his hands against the fence despite Chiesa having a decent underhook, which allowed him to slam “Maverick” regardless (GIF).

Opposite Jake Matthews, Lee was able to lift his opponent into the air and slam him from a double leg despite the fact that Matthews had double underhooks and his hands were not connected. That is not normal!

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. Even in a the worse case scenario, Lee can often manage to drive his foe to the fence and get back to work.

In addition, 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.

In his bout with Ferguson, Lee found consistent success with his double leg to clinch transition. Ferguson was often able to get his hips back enough to defend the initial shot, but that did little to prevent Lee’s long arms from climbing up the back and locking together. Once his hands were locked, Lee looked like a Greco-Roman wrestler, effortlessly lifting Ferguson into the air with his upper body or spinning 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.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Lee is a back control specialist. He’s scored four UFC victories via rear-naked choke, each of his submission finishes inside the Octagon. There’s not much to say here: Lee’s goal on the mat is to secure the back, beat his man up and sink in the choke.

First and foremost, a fighter has to get to the back. Once on top, Lee quickly opens up with top pressure and heavy ground strikes, motivating his opponent to move. Often, Lee will abuse his opponent until his guard opens up, at which point Lee will drop down to work a double-underhook pass and stack them up. Alternatively, his may move to sit up into an underhook, at which point Lee snaps them down and spins to the back quickly. From there, Lee will commonly reach across the back and control the far wrist, giving himself a chance to smack the head a few times. Lee hits too hard from these positions to wait around, so normally his opponents try to stand and end up giving the back up in the process.

Once in back control, Lee tends to secure the choke faster than most. Most high-level fighters are very difficult to finish from that position, but Lee does it with consistency, in large part due to how effective his ground strikes are. In addition, Lee does an excellent job of forcing the choking arm under the chin. If his opponent is keeping his chin tucked, Lee with wrap his arms over the mouth and secure a palm-to-palm grip. Once Lee begins arching into the body triangle, his opponent becomes extended, making it very difficult to keep the chin buried.

The arm usually slips under.

Something that is becoming a signature technique of Lee is the gift wrap position. If Lee’s opponent is not turning his back in an attempt to stand, Lee may wind up in mount rather than back mount. From there, Lee will immediately posture up and drop hammers. At the point, even the toughest fighter is forced to turn on his side and expose the back at least a bit in an attempt to recover guard. Usually, Lee will look to slide an arm under the chin the second it happens, and sometimes it works. If his opponent turns their back to the mat, however, Lee will often catch their hand, trapping his foe in the gift wrap position.

We know little of Lee’s bottom game given his excellent wrestling, but he did show off a nice transition opposite Chiesa. As Chiesa landed in top position from something of a slip, Lee used an underhook and butterfly hook to elevate his foe. It wasn’t enough to land a sweep, but it did allow Lee to get to his knees and drive into a double leg, which ultimately produced the same result.

Lee was submitted for the first time by Ferguson last time out, but it wasn’t really a technical flaw. In the first round, Lee defended Ferguson’s high guard smartly and passed around the legs when Ferguson attempted an armbar, showing off smart defensive Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Once Lee was seriously tired, however, he was far more vulnerable to Ferguson’s bottom game, and “El Cucuy” continued throwing up offense until the submission eventually landed.

Conclusion

Lee is a dangerous contender and stands out well above most in a division filled with dangerous contenders. He’s doing his best to assert his own name in the title picture, which is an immensely difficult task given that there are basically two men deserving to hold the belt as well as a clear-cut No. 1 contender. Nevertheless, when Lee brutalizes someone on the mat in short order, people take notice.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.