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Kevin Lee: How the “Mo Town Phenom” earned his shot at the UFC interim lightweight title at UFC 216

The "Mo Town Phenom" Kevin Lee is set to square off against Tony Ferguson at UFC 216 in Las Vegas, Nevada on October 7th.


It is undeniable that Michigan’s own Kevin Lee is one of the fastest rising stars in the world of mixed martial arts today. In under a year, the lightweight competitor has consistently climbed the rankings to take himself from fighting on the prelims to headlining UFC Fight Night’s and pay-per-views.

It is hard to argue that Lee is out of place in his new-found slot on the card, with the #7 ranked contender creating large amounts of interest in yet another interim title fight. However, he has stated that his upcoming bout with Ferguson is for the “real belt”, as he does not believe that current champion Conor McGregor will return to the octagon to face the winner of UFC 216’s main event. If that is true, then it makes Lee’s accomplishment of slotting himself into the title picture so quickly an even more remarkable feat. Yet, there are many who feel that Lee did not truly earn his chance at even an interim title fight, so I feel that it is necessary to go through the events that led up to the UFC’s decision to bestow such an opportunity upon the ‘Mo Town Phenom’.

The situation at lightweight

Almost seven months ago, MMA fans around the world were left with broken hearts when “The Eagle” Khabib Nurmagomedov was forced to withdraw from UFC 209 due to issues with his weight cut that left him hospitalized and unfit to compete. To everyone’s dismay, Tony Ferguson was left without a dance partner for the event, and the interim title, alongside the UFC lightweight division, was put on hold once again.

Unaware of the severity of Nurmagomedov’s problems, many of us assumed the fight would be rescheduled for the summer of 2017. However, no progress was made, and the weight class was left with a giant question mark beside it. The UFC needed someone to step up to the plate and move the division along  – Ferguson had cemented himself as the top contender, but with the champion away from the sport entirely, he had no one to face off against to prove himself in this calendar year.

Khabib was out indefinitely, Alvarez and Poirier were stuck in the fallout of their controversial no contest at UFC 211, and ‘El Cucuy’ had already defeated Edson Barboza in a brutal encounter in December of 2015. With Nate Diaz sat on the sidelines awaiting a better offer from the UFC and Justin Gaethje yet to debut, there were few options available. It would not do to allow the stacked lightweight division lose its prestige through a lack of action, so the promotion began to consider which contender would be suitable for an interim championship fight.

Lee steps up to the plate

This is where Kevin Lee entered the picture.

Catching eyes with his elaborate wardrobe at the summer kick-off press conference, his fight with Michael Chiesa grew even further when the pair engaged in a brief scuffle at the event. 

Kevin called his shot, pointing out that Chiesa loves to work from the back, and that he would use his own form of offense against him. Many picked against Lee coming into the fight, but he came out victorious, no matter how disputable the ending was. He earned himself 'Performance of the Night' accolades, and finished Chiesa with a rear-naked-choke at the end of the first round, which is the same submission that he used to beat Francisco Trinaldo in March. In fact, four of Lee's nine wins inside of the octagon have been from this method, making it somewhat of a signature move. 

The Detroit native also finished promising talent Jake Matthews via TKO in July of 2016. Such finishes are amongst the reasons why fans began to call for the 25-year-old, who is constantly improving and is renowned for his high-level wrestling skill, to get his opportunity to fight for UFC gold in 2017. 

Another one of these is the much-publicised bad blood between Ferguson and Lee. Following his victory in June, Kevin joined the Fox Sports team for a brief interview on the post-fight show. Coincidentally, Ferguson sat in the pundit's desk on that night, and the pair inevitably began to quarrel. In a heated exchange, the two fighters practically booked their upcoming showdown themselves. It was the perfect storm - a wide open division, a hungry young contender and genuine heat between two lightweights with tons of momentum behind them. 

Power of the microphone

Those who say that Lee talked his way into this fight are not entirely wrong - his many interviews, including one on Chael Sonnen's podcast, convinced a large amount of the fanbase that he deserved to face Ferguson. Kevin was very smart in how he went about creating hype for the fight; he used the biggest platforms available to make himself into an irresistible talent and left us wondering what would happen if he was to face the elite at 155 pounds. He is not afraid to speak his mind and even called out fighters such as Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is amongst the most feared fighters in the sport today. Such brashness has earned him the respect of many, and it really did not make sense for the UFC to ignore such a buzz around one of their talents.

Lee has proved just how powerful the microphone is - had he sat back and stayed quiet, we may have been seeing him fighting someone outside of the top ten at lightweight on the undercard of an event such as UFC 216. However, he put his name next to those at the top of the ladder and is now getting the opportunity to prove his worth. Should he come out victorious in his upcoming bout, Lee will be catapulted into the upper echelon of stardom in mixed martial arts, and will surely be rewarded with huge fights in the future. He has followed the blueprint set out by many fighters who have come before him - place yourself in the headlines on a regular basis and set yourself apart from all others. It is hard to guess what makes a competitor who the fans want to see, but Lee certainly is one, and we will find out just how good he is when he steps into the cage with Tony Ferguson in October. 

What awaits Kevin Lee

Although I am not here to analyze the fight, it is impossible to mention Lee and Ferguson without talking about how great this fight is. In one corner, we have the quickly rising Lee, who has a very high level of grappling skill and remarkable conditioning to match it. In the other stands 'El Cucuy', who is as ruthless as he is talented. Ferguson is incredibly well-rounded; his standup is unorthodox and extremely difficult to prepare for, his chin is made of steel and he possesses some of the best grappling skills in MMA. He is not a man that you can afford to be ill-prepared against, so I truly hope that Lee is ready to step up and deliver. If he does, this showdown should be one of the fights of the year, and I personally cannot wait to see how it all unfolds. 

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David Murphy

David is an aspiring writer and combat sports enthusiast. He posts both informative and opinionated pieces on the subjects all MMA fans should read about, and seeks to spread the word and celebrate the skills of the many talented athletes who compete in mixed martial arts.

Kevin Lee: How the “Mo Town Phenom” earned his shot at the UFC interim lightweight title at UFC 216

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