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By October of 2017, Kevin Lee looked to be on the verge of becoming the next UFC superstar, or biggest heel at a minimum. Riding a five-fight winning streak and days away from fighting for the interim lightweight belt against Tony Ferguson, people clung onto the Lee words like a corrupt politician. Fans and critics alike trying to decide if he believed what he was saying or was trying to make headlines. Love or hate him; he was becoming one of the most exciting personalities in the UFC.
The Michigan native attended Grand Valley State University as a Biomedical major, where he joined the club wrestling team and began training mixed martial arts at a local gym. Unable to afford a dorm room, Lee’s MMA trainer allowed him to live at the gym. Homeless and with a chip on his shoulder, Lee used his raw talent to gather a wrestling record of 37-0 as a sophomore. He then dropped out of school and pursued MMA full time.
In 2014, the UFC signed the then-21-year-old to the promotion. Knowing he would need to train with stronger competitors if he were to excel at this sport, Lee moved away from his hometown in Michigan to train in Las Vegas.
Lee used his wrestling background, complemented by a well-rounded striking ability and a big mouth to make a name for himself around the UFC. As much as he denies it, he wanted to be the next Conor McGregor. He would wear high-end clothes to interviews, excessively trash-talk everyone in sight, and present with extreme self-confidence — for better or worse. The peak spectacle may have been when Lee punched his opponent Michael Chiesa during a news conference promoting their fight.
Things got heated between Michael Chiesa and Kevin Lee at UFC Summer Kickoff Press Conference. Check it out: pic.twitter.com/z3MmyG9Rs1— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) May 12, 2017
Like McGregor, Lee only wanted to fight the best and was proving his doubters wrong.
When Lee made his walk to the Octagon for his interim championship fight, it was clear something was not right. A nasty staph infection covered his left pec. Many attributed it to the weight cut to 155 pounds that Lee struggled with in the past. But it did not matter. The infection, which causes fatigue and fever, would affect his performance. A strong start was spoiled when his body failed him and his gas tank ran out. Ferguson finished him in the third round.
The loss did not hurt the young fighter’s stock, however, and his attitude didn’t waver. He had his sights set on UFC gold. He still challenged every top fighter in the crowded lightweight division. Unfortunately, Lee would lose two of his next three, including a failed attempt at the welterweight division, which he entered to avoid the extreme weight cut that hurt his chance at the title. His reputation quickly shifted from young prospect to potential gatekeeper.
Two years after his failed title attempt, Lee had what may have been his most crucial fight yet. On Nov. 2 at UFC 244 in New York, he took on an undefeated and dangerous fighter in Gregor Gillespie. A loss would put Lee in a hole that not many can say they crawled out of, three losses in a row in the UFC. But Lee never wanted to take a step backward. Armed with a new training camp and a fresh, focused attitude, he welcomed the challenge.
Thinking back just two years prior, he was on the cusp of accomplishing his MMA dream. Now he was fighting for his UFC life. During media week in New York, Lee told Yahoo Sports he “never looks back at what could have been and doesn’t question his ability despite his current string of tough losses.” Looking Lee in the eye, it was evident he believed it. A feeling headlines could never capture.
On the night of the fight, Lee proved there was never a doubt when he finished Gillespie with a spectacular head-kick knockout, earning himself a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus.
Saturday at UFC Brasilia, with no fans in attendance, Lee faces another difficult test. He takes on a sneaky veteran in Charles Oliveira with 26 finishes in 28 wins and boasting a six-fight win streak.
With 23 pro fights under his belt and six years in the UFC, people forget Kevin Lee is just 27 years old. If you speak to Lee or his coaches, they will tell you he has not hit his peak. They feel he has much left to learn and has yet to enter his physical prime.
Unfortunately for Lee and his supporters, his weight cut issues have continued as he once again missed weight by 2.5 pounds on Friday. Maybe he will chalk it up to the uncertainty of the event going off due to the coronavirus that has led to the suspension of most major sporting events. Still, it’s hard to make big fights with someone who consistently has difficulty making weight.
While only time will tell what his future holds, a win would show “The Motown Phenom” has another run at the belt in his tank.
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