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Kevin Lee: The “Motown Phenom” is at a crossroads before UFC 216

Kevin Lee is ready to breakthrough as the sport's next big star. He's going to have to walk through hell to get there, though.


There are certain fighters that when they enter the octagon, you know they will be special. These fighters win with exclamation points. They dominate their opposition to the point that you wonder how their opponents are even sanctioned to be in the same cage as them. When Georges St-Pierre made his UFC debut back at UFC 46 against Karo Parisyan and won a unanimous decision, you felt that he was a kid who would break out. He was built like an action figure and had the athleticism of an NBA point guard. He came back in his next fight against tough guy striker Jay Hieron and blasted him out in one round. He was so impressive that you couldn’t even question his next fight being a title shot for the vacant welterweight belt. 

Kevin Lee is that kind of talent. From the moment that the “Motown Phenom” made his debut, he has had a truckload of hype hitched to his wagon. He had the unfortunate experience of making his debut at the tender age of 22 against Al Iaquinta and suffered his first career defeat via decision. Knowing what we know about Iaquinta now, there is no shame in that loss and nobody will claim the UFC is protecting you when they pit you against a fighter of that caliber in your debut. Despite a hiccup against Leonardo Santos at UFC 194, Lee has been on a roll in the lightweight division and his time in the spotlight begins this weekend. 

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Some things you can’t teach

The UFC is always evolving, and not always for the better. One of the biggest differences between the era we are in now compared to the era of yesteryear is the emphasis on charisma. Being charismatic on the microphone will take you farther in the UFC than it used to. One of the first examples of this was Chael Sonnen, who used a brash, sometimes offensive, verbal assault on Anderson Silva when he arrived after the folding of the WEC. A fighter who had the most rudimentary of striking skills, wasn’t ridiculously athletic and relied on a smothering wrestling game that was fueled off pure Dad strength, was now fighting a guy who had dominated the middleweight division with an iron fist. We know how it played out with Sonnen winning 4.5 rounds of one fight only to stick his head right into a triangle choke and then being run over the second time around. 

Conor McGregor is the most recent example of how having WWE-like charisma can get you where you want to be. He put together a nice winning streak against decent opposition like Dennis Siver and Dustin Poirier and then talked his way into a fight with division kingpin Jose Aldo. He used that charisma to throw Aldo completely off his game, and the champion paid for it with his consciousness just 13 seconds into their fight. McGregor’s press conferences have become almost more fun than his fights, and his verbal sparring with his press conference antithesis, Nate Diaz, is comedy gold. The UFC has turned their marketing away from the quietest, violent types, (sorry Chuck Liddell), and have instead turned it towards their most entertaining fighters who produce the best sound bytes. 

Kevin Lee is both violent and charismatic, just like the man he is ultimately gunning for in McGregor. However, his antics don’t seem to be nearly as fun. Michael Chiesa found this out firsthand when he got in Lee’s face following a remark Lee made about his mother at a press conference. Press conference altercations are nothing new to hot head fighters, however, this one went a little sideways. The usual up-in-your-face shoving match never happened as Lee didn’t hesitate and cracked Chiesa in the face the moment he got close. For fans of Lee, you shook your head and thought, “What did you expect running up on a guy from Detroit?”. For people who don’t like Lee, it gave them all the ammunition they would need to hate the guy even worse for what could be called a “sucker punch” (although approaching a fighter aggressively will likely get you punched in the face). 

Lee doesn’t have press conference etiquette, and he doesn’t have post-fight interview etiquette either as he ruined poor Tony Ferguson’s audition as a desk guy for Fox Sports One. Ferguson just wanted to show his commentator skills and instead, Lee went right for him. Instead, Ferguson tried to be as eloquent as he could but ended up feeding right back into Lee’s poking of the bear. After the interview hit MMA pages everywhere, we had no choice but to be where we are now, and that is watching a guy put his #1 contender spot on the line against a guy six spots below him, but knows how to push the right buttons for the fight he wants. 

Be careful what you wish for

If you’ve been watching the lightweight division long enough, you know Tony Ferguson is a monster. It started on the Ultimate Fighter when he quickly became the most unpopular fighter in the house when he berated fellow cast mate Charlie Rader for having his child taken away. He refused to apologize and the legend of Tony Ferguson began. This is a sport where you have to be cold to be successful. You have hurt someone to the point that their body shuts off in front of all their friends and family. It takes a special kind of person to do this without remorse, and that special kind of person is personified in Tony Ferguson. 

He savagely knocked out Ramsey Nijem to win the Ultimate Fighter. He didn’t stop there with the stoppages either as he took his D’arce choke and proceeded to use it on a who’s who of lightweight contenders. Mike Rio, Lando Vannata, and Edson Barboza all fell into the vice-like grip of Ferguson’s D’arce, and Abel Trujillo and Gleison Tibau also found themselves on the wrong end of submission losses. Ferguson ate a ton of firepower from Barboza in their fight and then dispatched Edson the moment he showed the slightest hint of fatigue in what was a special performance. It was the kind of performance that makes one say “who wants a piece of that guy?” Tony Ferguson will be no easy task for the young lion in Kevin Lee, and one mistake will knock him right down the ladder he climbed very quickly in the UFC. 

His rapid ascent came from impressive victories over the ageless war horse, Francisco Trinaldo. And Michael Chiesa, a guy known as one of the toughest outs in the division. The Chiesa victory was especially impressive in how lethal Lee’s top game was once he got Michael to the ground. He absolutely dominated every moment of floor time and would have put Chiesa to sleep had the referee not jumped in a fraction early. While those are both impressive victories, the fact is that Lee has all the charisma you need to make yourself front and center in today’s UFC. Everything he does has a fire to it, and his youthful energy fuels his torrid pace in the cage. 

The question will be: is Tony Ferguson too much, too soon?

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Zach Miller

My name is Zach Miller and I am based out of Omaha, Nebraska. I have been a life long sports fan, and have followed sports since I was a kid. Boxing was an early favorite of mine since I was big enough to sit in the chair with my Dad and watch Saturday night boxing on HBO. I have been a big follower of MMA since the brutal days of UFC 1. I graduated from The University Of Nebraska at Kearney with a degree in Political Science and spend most of my free time with my family or watching whatever season it is in the sporting world. If you have a topic you would like discussed, feel free to contact me anytime and I will gladly get back to you.

Kevin Lee: The “Motown Phenom” is at a crossroads before UFC 216

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