Can this man become the Floyd Mayweather of MMA?

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – In order to maximize earning potential, fighters need to not only win consistently, but also to find a way to get the ticket-buying public to become emotionally invested in their bouts.

The recently retired boxer Floyd Mayweather was a master at this. Half of the audience was desperate to see him win; the other half was praying that he’d lose. Either way, Mayweather won because he was able to trigger an emotion in the fan base and that made them want to see him compete.

Kevin Lee gets that. The UFC’s seventh-ranked lightweight has won five in a row and nine of 10, the kind of record that almost always guarantees a title shot. And, sure enough, Lee is headlining UFC 216 on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena, facing No. 2 Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight bout in the main event.

Lee is one of the great talkers in the sport. It would be easy to call him a trash talker, and he’s done plenty of that in the build-up to the fight with Ferguson. Lee, though, is so much more than a trash talker.

The 25-year-old is a thoughtful and intelligent man who has one semester remaining to complete a bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences.

And Lee is wise enough to know that while one gets attention in the fight game by talking, respect is earned by winning at the highest level. A first-round submission of the highly regarded Michael Chiesa in June spoke volumes, but Ferguson is another matter entirely.

He’s been one of the most spectacular fighters in the world over the last several years, and has won nine in a row and 11 of his 12 UFC bouts.

Kevin Lee has won nine of his last 10 UFC fights and has an opportunity to win the interim lightweight title Saturday. (Getty)
Kevin Lee has won nine of his last 10 UFC fights and has an opportunity to win the interim lightweight title Saturday. (Getty)

Though Lee has trash talked Ferguson incessantly, he also recognizes that a win over Ferguson is meaningful. It will earn him the respect he’s craved since he joined the UFC in 2014.

“I’ve said this from the beginning that Tony is the toughest fight out there for me,” Lee said. “He’s going to allow me to go out there and showcase my skills. This will definitely be the fight that helps me to get the respect I’ve been looking for, for a long time.”

Lee’s got a varied game and is equally comfortable on the ground or as a striker. But it’s nothing physical, he said, that separates him from Ferguson.

Lee is a three-year Las Vegas resident and has trained at the Mayweather Boxing Club, where he has had the chance to observe first-hand what has made Mayweather one of the best in boxing history.

To Lee, it’s all about approach and commitment. Martial arts, he said, is a lifetime of learning.

“I’m still learning, still studying the game and evolving as a fighter,” he said. “People were asking me if I was going to watch Justin [Gaethje] and Eddie [Alvarez on ‘The Ultimate Fighter’] and of course I have. It’s all about becoming smarter and understanding what you’re trying to accomplish.

“I watch all types of combat sports and I feel like I’m constantly evolving. That’s what I think is going to set me and Tony apart. I think his game has been stagnant. I think he’s going to go out there and he’s going to do that wild stuff and he’s going to do the crazy [expletive] that he’s been able to get away with with a lot of these other guys. But I don’t think he’s assessed his game too much. He’s the same guy.”

Lee’s approach is a systematic one. After each fight, he breaks down his performance, much like a football coach would. He finds areas he needs to work on, but he also knows he needs to refine his strengths.

So while he won’t say that he’s peaked as a fighter, he will concede that he’ll be better on Saturday against Ferguson than he was in June against Chiesa in what was the most impressive win of his career.

“There is nothing new under the sun in terms of fighting,” Lee said. “People have been fighting pretty much since man has been able to walk. It’s been around hundreds of thousands of years, so there is nothing new you’re going to think of or come up with. But it’s about refining what you do, making yourself sharper, and being able to adapt and change your style not only from fight to fight but from minute to minute, depending upon what is necessary.”

He’ll need to be at his best to get past Ferguson and get the belt, which would set him up for a mega-money fight with champion Conor McGregor.

Lee, perhaps predictably, doesn’t have much good to say about McGregor. While he said Ferguson “isn’t all that smart when it boils down to it because he makes the same mistakes,” he said in his view McGregor is more of a media creation than anything else.

If he wins the interim belt, he’d look forward to a fight with McGregor, if only for the financial rewards it would bring.

“Of course I think ahead, and I’ll be honest, I don’t know why people say they never do,” Lee said. “I don’t know where I’ll go after this one. I like the biggest challenges, which is why I took this fight with Tony. Do I consider McGregor the biggest challenge? Maybe in the media and the build-up and everything, that will be the biggest thing about that fight.

“But the actual fight itself, I don’t know. I don’t see it. To me, the man has lost three of his last four fights. I don’t consider him winning that second [Nate] Diaz fight. Maybe he should come back and fight Diaz and prove he is the No. 1 contender to this championship. He has to prove something to me. I don’t know why everybody’s saying he’s in control. When he comes back and proves he’s ready for a fight – as far as I’m concerned, he just got walked down by a man who’s 40 years old – I’ll think about it. But he needs to show something better than that.”