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Kevin Lee's Other Level


Kevin Lee has a lot of regrets about how the final few months of 2017 played out, both inside and outside the cage.

He’s disappointed with his performance at UFC 216, where he squared off with Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title and tapped out to a triangle choke late in the third round, halting his five-fight winning streak and leaving him short of his goal.

A few months later, his long-time coach, Robert Follis, took his own life.

But while the closing stretch of last year proved incredibly challenging, the 26-year-old contender knows that the difficulties he endured during that stretch have made him a better man and a better fighter as he readies for his second main event assignment of 2018.

“I feel like if I had won that fight against Tony Ferguson for the title, he would probably still be here,” Lee said of Follis, revealing a weight that he’s been carrying on his shoulders for the past year. “There are things like that that keep me up still, but it gives me more fuel because now I really have to do it. Now I really have to put on for him.

“The last half of last year was probably one of the lowest that I’ve had in my life with losing the title and Robert passing away, but it’s a yin and yang. The last half of last year was so bad in order to make the last half of this year so damn good.”

Part of what has helped Lee rebound from one of the roughest stretches of his personal and professional life is that he’s found a deeper connection with Follis.

“As crazy as it sounds, I actually think I’ve learned more from him this year than I did in the four years we spent together,” he said. “Now I’m really trying to listen to the things that he would tell me, because they’re still all up there in my head — I have to do that talking for him, but it’s still the same message.

“(About six months ago), I realized I probably wouldn’t find somebody to replace that and I have to really use what I’ve already got. I think the talent is there and I just have to put it all together. Robert was that person that put it all together for me and I just have to do that for him now.”

Lee tapped into those teachings filed away in his memory in the middle of his main event assignment against Edson Barboza earlier this year in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

A minute into the third round, the Brazilian whirled around in a flash and grazed the top of Lee’s head with a spinning hook kick that immediately turned his legs into jelly.

“Right before he landed the kick, I got a little too eager; I wanted to get him out of there,” admitted Lee, reflecting on the mid-April matchup. “The first two rounds were pretty dominant and I thought, ‘Let me go ahead and shut this man’s lights out,’ and I looked for that too much. I didn’t see him as that big of a threat and I’ll be damned — he stepped back and spun on me.

“Right when he hit me, I was like, ‘Let’s get back on the game plan, get back to being smart;’ a lot of the things Robert used to tell me. Those were the things going through my head — being smart, sticking to the game plan and not being dumb.”

Lee was able to clear his head and avoid any further punishment in the middle frame before getting back to the game plan and eventually collecting a fifth-round stoppage to get back into the win column. This weekend, he looks to make it two in a row as he finally gets the opportunity to run it back with Al Iaquinta in the main event of Saturday’s UFC on FOX event in Milwaukee.

The first time they squared off at UFC 169, Iaquinta was an emerging contender in the lightweight division, a former TUF finalist on a two-fight winning streak, while Lee was a promotional newcomer with a 7-0 record, taking the fight on three weeks’ notice. The Serra-Longo Fight Team member scored a unanimous decision victory, handing Lee the first loss of his career.

For the longest time, it was a rematch Lee desperately wanted, but while he’s still eager to step into the cage and slug it out with Iaquinta this weekend at the Fiserv Forum, the young contender sees Saturday’s main event as much more than a chance to exact some revenge against his initial UFC opponent.

“I don’t ever chase one man. I don’t put too much emphasis in that,” Lee said when asked about the matchup with Iaquinta. “I don’t like him, he don’t like me, so that helps a little bit. We come from two different walks of life, so all that adds up and makes it more fun, makes it more interesting, but really, I’m using a man to send a message.

“His last fight, he showed some holes in Khabib’s game,” he said of Iaquinta’s last-minute title bout with reigning champ Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223. “He went five rounds with a guy everybody sees as being unstoppable and being this berserker, so I’m going to get him up out of there, send a message and let the entire world know that I’m on another level.

“That part intrigues me more than getting a little bit of redemption.”

That’s a serious change of tune from the frequent challenges he fired off towards Iaquinta in previous years and a deeper focus than on the big picture than Lee has showed in the past.

It’s a departure from the flamboyant, brash persona he displayed last year in the preamble to his breakthrough bout against Michael Chiesa last summer in Oklahoma, which started as another matchup between talented lightweights on the brink of contention and morphed into a heated feud after words and punches were exchanged at a press event hyping the summer schedule.

Lee dominated the action to run his winning streak to five and then set his sights on challenging for the title, declaring himself the best grappler in the division along the way.

This time around, there are no bold proclamations, no insults directed towards his opponent or anyone else in the division and none of the Russell Westbrook-inspired outfits. There is just a more contemplative fighter, eager to let his performance on Saturday night speak for him.

“I’ve been laying low these last couple months — not really doing too much social media, not really doing too much big media out there — because I want people to sleep on me a little bit,” admitted Lee. “You hear certain conversations being had (about the lightweight title picture) and I’m (overlooked) in them, but my job next week is to shut all that up.

“I’m approaching it like this is for a championship. It’s five rounds and I’ll show everybody. I’ll let the politics and all that sort itself out, but there is nothing but a huge fight after this one.”

But don’t get it twisted: Lee is still as confident as ever before.

“I’m going to humiliate Al,” he forecasted. “I’m going to show that I’m on another level than Al. I’m gonna show something different.

“I have always been one of the best athletes in the division. I’ve always had more talent than a lot of guys, but the thing that tripped me up when I fought Tony Ferguson was the mental side of it, so this fight will be a great test of that more than anything.

“Skill-for-skill, I outshine Al in every area, but we’ll see how everything goes on fight night and that’s the part I’m most excited about,” he added. “People are going to see something that they’re not expecting. They’re going to see a different me, a different approach to the game and a little bit of the future.”





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