Kevin Lee entering proving grounds vs. ex-champ Rafael dos Anjos

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Kevin Lee participates in open workouts ahead of Saturday's main event matchup vs. Kevin Lee at UFC Rochester. (Getty Images)
Kevin Lee participates in open workouts ahead of Saturday's main event matchup vs. Kevin Lee at UFC Rochester. (Getty Images)

It is easy to forget that Kevin Lee is just 26 and only now coming into his athletic prime. He has been around the UFC for more than five years and has fought many of the lightweight division’s elite contenders.

He’s 1-2 in his past three fights, losing bouts to Tony Ferguson for the interim title and in a rematch to Al Iaquinta in his last outing. He was submitted by Ferguson and dropped a close decision to Iaquinta.

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Because of those losses, there’s a tendency to discount Lee as a championship contender. It’s the what-have-you-done-lately syndrome in full effect.

He’ll get kind of a reset on Saturday at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York, where he’ll makes his welterweight debut against former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos in the main event of a card streamed on ESPN+.

The fact that dos Anjos is a former champion is not lost on Lee. It will be a proving ground of sorts for him. He believes, after five years in the UFC and winning 10 of his 14 fights, that he is closer to capturing a UFC title than he ever has been.

And Lee believes dos Anjos provides a perfect measuring stick for him.

“I’m a lot more confident now, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I’ve always been [confident] and I’ve felt it was kind of a matter of time for me. Even now, it still is. Dos Anjos will be the first former world champion I’ve fought and it’s an opportunity to see where I am. He’s even held the title while I’ve been in the UFC.

“So I think this fight is really going to be one of the ones where I see where I’m at. I’ll see what I’m made of. He has that title by his name and of course, that does something for you. I don’t take that lightly. It’s an important and significant achievement and I give him the respect for it. Fighting him, it will give me the opportunity to see where I measure up.”

Kevin Lee punches Edson Barboza in their lightweight fight during UFC Fight Night at the Boardwalk Hall on April 21, 2018 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Getty Images)
Kevin Lee punches Edson Barboza in their lightweight fight during UFC Fight Night at the Boardwalk Hall on April 21, 2018 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Getty Images)

Lee’s nickname is “The Motown Phenom,” and he was a phenom of sorts when he entered the UFC as a 21-year-old on Feb. 8, 2014, at UFC 169 in a fight against Iaquinta. He was 7-0 outside of the UFC and then lost that fight, but he showed the athleticism, explosiveness and smarts that led many to believe he could go all the way in his division.

But for all of his success, Lee (17-4) is his own harshest critic, and he said he hasn’t been fully happy with any of his performances in the UFC, including his victories.

He has high expectations of himself and has left his fights believing there was another level to reach.

He said, “I don’t feel I’ve really fully shown what I’ve been able to do in there yet.” The move to welterweight, where he doesn’t have to deprive his body of vital nutrients in order to make weight, could be the answer to finally fighting the way he believes he can.

“I’ve been working toward that where I can say, ‘OK, this is who I believe I am,’ and what I am able to do,” Lee said. “I’m driving toward that and I’m still hoping for that. You need the right opponent to help bring that out of you, as well. I feel like RDA might be that guy.

“He’s a former world champion, even though he’s kind of in the same boat as me a little and probably feels his back is against the wall. When you corner a lion, you expect him to come out swinging, so I’m expecting a great fight out of him. It may be the way to bring the best out of me. I expect him to be in my face, pushing forward, and it’s going to play right into my game because I’m going to be doing the same to him. It might be the one that does it, but if it isn’t this one, it’s the next one.”

But Lee has an unyielding belief in himself that sooner or later, it’s not going to be just glimpses. He’ll show the whole package and open plenty of eyes.

Oddsmakers have it as essential a pick’em fight, which talks a large degree about Lee’s potential. The important thing to remember, though, is that Lee is only now hitting his athletic prime.

“Any serious athlete will tell you there’s a process of learning and growing and gaining experience that you have to go through to fully develop your potential, no matter what sport it is,” Lee said. “The experiences you go through along the way shape you and it’s how you deal with them and how much you learn from them that determines whether you can get to where you want to go. There are going to be bumps along the way. It’s inevitable. People have seen me grow up as a man and as an athlete in front of their eyes, and they’ve seen me deal with the good and deal with the bad.

“When you’re younger and you’re just starting out, you don’t understand as much what it takes. You think you do, but unless you’ve had those experiences and those ups and downs, it’s hard to understand it. I feel great about where I have been and how I have handled myself along the way and I feel very good about where I’m going to go.”

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