Kevin Lee, the odd man out in the UFC's lightweight division, ready to showcase his talent

Combat columnist
Yahoo Sports
Kevin Lee celebrates after his TKO victory over Edson Barboza of Brazil in their lightweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at the Boardwalk Hall in 2018. (Getty Images)
Kevin Lee celebrates after his TKO victory over Edson Barboza of Brazil in their lightweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at the Boardwalk Hall in 2018. (Getty Images)

Kevin Lee may be the lightweight division’s forgotten man. In the aftermath of featherweight champion Max Holloway’s dominating victory over Brian Ortega, talk turned toward Holloway competing at lightweight.

And all of the talk centered on fights with champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and ex-champions Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor.

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When a reporter mentioned Lee’s name in that mix during a question to Holloway, Holloway spoke of Nurmagomedov and Ferguson far more.

Lee vows there will be a different discussion by the end of this week.

He fights Al Iaquinta on Saturday in Milwaukee on a Fox-televised card that is a rematch of a terrific fight between them that Iaquinta won at UFC 169.

Lee has gone 10-2 since and has moved up to No. 4 in the rankings. A Holloway-Lee fight at lightweight would be compelling, and Lee insists he’ll remind people of his talent during the fight with Iaquinta.

“I’ve stayed kind of quiet in the media and I’ve even stayed quiet on social media,” Lee said. “I’ve been quiet just because on Saturday night, I’m really going to go out there and open up people’s eyes and kind of shock a lot of people. Yeah, I’m getting left out of certain conversations, but it don’t matter to me. After this one, everyone will know.”

Lee is an explosive athlete with size, speed and power. He’s 10-3 in the UFC and 16-4 overall in MMA since getting turned onto the sport by watching a fight between Georges St-Pierre and B.J. Penn.

As much success as he’s had, though, he hasn’t satisfied himself. He hasn’t lived up to what he thinks he could, or should, be. And yet, he has evolved greatly and gave a very good account of himself in a loss to Ferguson for the interim title last year. Without too much going differently, there was a path for Lee to win.

He insists he’s not the fighter he was then.

“I haven’t really had an overly great fight in the UFC yet,” Lee said. “ … I think of [how close I came to the title in the Ferguson fight] a little bit, but I know in my heart of hearts that I’ve learned a lot from that fight about myself. Honestly, I took it as a little bit of a positive because I learned so much from it. I grew so much from that fight.

“I learned not to overdo it and not putting too much on my plate and expecting to just push through it. I learned how to be more focused and you saw that in the Tony fight. I kind of lost it, and got drawn [mentally] out of it and it really wore my body down. But I feel that was a positive in a way because I’ve made the changes and made the adjustments and I’m better for it.”

Kevin Lee, punching Al Iaquinta (L) in their lightweight fight at the UFC 169 event in 2014, will have a rematch with Iaquinta on Saturday. (Getty Images)
Kevin Lee, punching Al Iaquinta (L) in their lightweight fight at the UFC 169 event in 2014, will have a rematch with Iaquinta on Saturday. (Getty Images)

If he avenges the loss to Iaquinta, Lee will be in a unique position. He’ll be highly ranked — presumably, if he wins Saturday he’ll be ranked no lower than fourth, which he is now — and that will put him in a position for a mega-fight, especially if Holloway moves to lightweight.

If Ferguson and Nurmagomedov fight for the belt — and we all know the troubled history of that match — that leaves quality opponents like McGregor, Holloway and Dustin Poirier potentially available for Lee.

Lee said Nurmagomedov would be the opponent who would most motivate him, but he is surprisingly not as interested in a McGregor fight despite the money that would bring.

“I’d really get up for Khabib because people see him as this Russian tank who is undefeated and unstoppable and all this,” Lee said. “I feel like I’m seeing something different. I feel like I could really, really beat that man and put his lights out, so that one interests me the most.

“I feel I’ve already fought the best Tony Ferguson. The redemption factor in that one is a little fun for me, but he looked a little frail versus [Anthony] Pettis to me. He didn’t look the same. He didn’t look like he was moving the same way, and he’s only getting older now. Whoever wins that fight between Tony and Khabib is definitely the one I’m going to chase.”

But then there is the McGregor factor. Despite his loss to Nurmagomedov, he remains the biggest name and brings the most attention and the most money.

Lee, though, isn’t inclined to go in that direction.

“Conor is kind of out of the equation,” Lee said. “Yeah, he’ll bring some attention to you and he’ll make you some money, but from a competitor’s standpoint, he just ain’t even up there. He’s really got to prove himself before I would be interested. Even if they offered me that fight now, I wouldn’t be too interested. He’d have to prove himself first.”

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