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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 170’s Kevin Lee

Dominating wrestler, Kevin Lee, will go to war with submission ace, Charles Oliveira, this Saturday (March 14, 2020) at UFC Fight Night 170 inside Ginasio Nilson Nelson in Brasilia, Brazil.

Lee is an immensely talented fighter, but he was forced to make a change. In consecutive losses to Al Iaquinta and Rafael dos Anjos, Lee was able to find early success before fading late. He attributed the first loss to his difficult weight cut, but the second took place at 170 pounds, where there was no such scapegoat. Since then, Lee relocated to Tristar Gym. He’s still just one win removed from his fight camp switch, but in that victory, Lee seemed more prepared to manage his energy and execute a specific gameplan. The result was a violent head kick knockout win (watch highlights), an encouraging sign that Lee was on the right path.

Let’s take a closer look at this skill set:


It’s still difficult to get a full read on Iaquinta’s kickboxing skill. In fights with men like Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza, and now Gregor Gillespie, Lee looked to be really improving and making the most of his insane reach. However, somewhere in the middle Lee found himself bewildered by Al Iaquinta’s right hand, which is less than ideal.

Lee’s 77-inch reach is so valuable. At distance, 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 a powerful round kick into the open side from whichever direction Ferguson circled toward. 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.

Against Gregor Gillespie, Lee executed a perfect counter combination to land with a devastating head kick. His set up is the subject of this week’s technique highlight:

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 opponents’ 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).

Even with improvements, Lee’s head movement has yet to become a strength. Prior to the inside slip counter that knocked Gillespie out, Lee was eating a lot of jabs. It’s promising that he was able to get the timing from them and land a great combination as a result, but there are better ways to gauge timing than absorbing a dozen punches.


Lee’s wrestling has been incredibly dominant at 155 pounds, a great example of a fighter fully capitalizing on his physical tools (formidable strength and unique reach).

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.

Defensively, Lee is not impervious to takedowns. He’s definitely solid in defensive wrestling exchanges and will take the back off a bad shot, but dos Anjos was able to take Lee down several times largely because his cardio carried him later into the rounds.

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 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 back-taking trick of Lee’s is the gift wrap position. After Lee takes mount or even just a dominant half guard, he’ll land strikes until his foe attempts to elbow escape by turning on his side and pushing on Lee’s knee. Lee will counter with chest pressure, keeping his opponent on his hip and allowing Lee to reach around the head and grab the wrist. With the gift wrap secured, his opponent most choose to be pummeled helplessly or give up the back.

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.

In a positive example of Lee’s bottom game, he managed to escape from beneath 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.

In both of Lee’s UFC submissions losses, it could be argued that conditioning was the biggest factor. In early rounds, Lee had no difficulties keeping up with the submission attempts of Ferguson and dos Anjos. Once dead-tired, however, those veteran black belts were able to wrap up his neck.

If his fight with Oliveira doesn’t end early, Lee’s ability to safely grapple while tired will be tested.


This is a really interesting test for Kevin Lee. On the feet, can his defense stand up to Oliveira’s increasingly volatile Muay Thai? Or does he choose to wrestle with Oliveira on the mat, where both men are incredibly dangerous? Perhaps equally important, both men have a history of folding after early success, so it may simply be a case of who can remain consistent as the fight wears on and fatigue builds.

Remember that will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 170 fight card this weekend right here, starting with the ESPN+“Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the main card portion that will also stream on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Night 170: “Lee vs. Oliviera” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.

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.

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