One of the sport’s top young fighters, Kevin Lee, will square off with a decorated former champion, Rafael dos Anjos, this Saturday (May 18, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 152 from inside Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York.
It’s easy to forget that despite Lee’s 14 fights inside the Octagon, four main event slots, and rise and fall from the Lightweight top five that Lee remains just 26 years old. There are still kinks to be worked out in Lee’s approach to combat, but Lee is already damn good at a few aspects and has plenty of time to work on the rest. This jump to 170 pounds is an effort to improve conditioning and pace, a pair of traits seemingly hampered by Lee’s extreme cuts to Lightweight. Whether a new weight class will prove an effective solution remains to be seen, but potentially becoming a contender in a second weight class is never a bad option even if it’s an imperfect fix.
Let’s take a closer look at Lee’s skill set:
Prior to Lee’s bout with Iaquinta, I was fairly sold on Lee’s kickboxing improvements, demonstrated against Edson Barboza and Tony Ferguson. At this point, however, it’s hard to tell exactly where his kickboxing stands.
As one should expect from a man with a 77 inch reach, Lee likes to flick 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.
Kicks are a major part of his offensive as well. Lee has gotten much better at setting up his kicks. Against Ferguson, who shifts stance constantly, 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.
Lee’s work against Barboza remains the best kickboxing showcase 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. Still painful, but not quite as devastating to 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).
Lee did some good work against Iaquinta too. The first round was razor-close, as Lee stuck Iaquinta with straight punches quite a bit, though he ate some hooks on the inside as well. As Lee’s conditioning failed him, however, Lee’s past issues reemerged. Head movement has never been a forte of the young athlete, which meant that once his feet slowed and those straights weren’t landing quite so often, Iaquinta was more easily able to club Lee with his right.
Lee’s wrestling has been incredibly dominant at 155 lbs., a great example of a fighter fully capitalizing on his physical tools (formidable strength and unique reach). Lee’s size and physicality at Lightweight was a huge factor in his success in the wrestling department, so it’ll be interesting to see if that carries over to 170 lbs.
Lee’s double-leg takedown is incredible. 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 big 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 short, there is very little chance to defend Lee’s double leg in the first couple rounds.
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.
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 opponent 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.
Another route to the back is through the gift wrap position, which we analyze in this week’s technique highlight.
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.
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 in his first title shot, 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 a remarkably talented fighter, but perhaps he stepped up to elite competition too early. Against Ferguson and Iaquinta, Lee showed both his talent and relative inexperience, and the latter was ultimately the deciding factor. Lee will take on another elite veteran in dos Anjos on Saturday, and that bout should determine whether Lee can continue to face the best or needs a couple fighters against a lower level of competition.
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.