Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) interim Lightweight title challenger, Kevin Lee, will throw down with one of the sport’s nastiest kickboxers, Edson Barboza, this Saturday (April 21, 2018) at UFC Fight Night 128 inside Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
The strength of an excellent win streak and the good luck of all the ranked fighters above him already being booked allowed Kevin Lee to jump in line for a title shot in Oct. 2017. The result was a back-and-forth battle with Tony Ferguson, and while Lee did come up short, he proved his place among the best Lightweights in the world in the process. Now, there’s a new champion and weird dynamic at 155 pounds overall. Anything can happen, so there’s no better time to get back into the win column, particularly since Lee has been calling out resident roost ruler, Khabib Nurmagomedov, for literal years now.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
In his loss to Ferguson, Lee showed better kickboxing than at any point previous. He’s been steadily improving since his UFC debut, but Lee looked quite composed in the first round of that fight against an excellent striker. With every part of Lee’s game, his 77-inch reach must be mentioned, as it really aids his efforts.
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 their 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. 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.
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.
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. Since then, Lee has clearly improved. Fatigue brought out some past issues opposite “El Cucuy,” but Lee was defensively tight and stayed within his stance while fresh.
Lee is among the biggest fighters at Lightweight, a fighter with a longer reach than Nate Diaz while still being very built. 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.
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.
Opposite 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.
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.
He’s excellent at all three parts, and we’ve previously done technique highlights on two of the three already. Only one to go!
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. When his foe goes to turtle up and sit up into an underhook, 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.
Lee does real damage from the mount and back mount. Much of that is because of his build, but this week’s technique highlight took a look at the leverage involved and some small techniques that Lee uses to make his ground striking so effective.
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 because of 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.
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.
Lee is one of the division’s most impressive athletes, and he’s found major success at just 25 years of age. At the same time, he’s facing a long-time veteran with a very dangerous skill set, which is the reality of fighting the best Lightweight has to offer. There will be no more easy fights for Lee, so it’s time to see if he’s really ready to be an elite 155-pound athlete.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is a professional fighter and former amateur champion 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.