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The most bittersweet article I've written, The Lion's Den and the Greatest that Never Were, highlighted three fighters from the pioneering camp who should have gone down as all-time legends, but for a variety of capricious, random reasons — many beyond their control — they didn't. On one hand, it was fascinating to speculate about how differently their careers could have gone, especially if they had trained at a better gym. On the other hand, it was sad to reflect on talented fighters never reaching their full potential, for which MMA as a whole is poorer.
But what about the modern day? Are there current martial artists who are spoiling greatness? The clearest, most obvious example is Kevin Lee, whose career hit a nadir with his loss to Daniel Rodriguez last month at UFC on ESPN 30. Even for someone like myself who habitually doubted Lee, picking both Rafael dos Anjos and Charles Oliveira to defeat him — both were underdogs at the time, hard as that may be to believe — the Rodriguez fight was shocking. And unlike those earlier mixed martial artists, Lee's struggles are more clear and self-inflicted. How did he arrive at this point?
In terms of talent and skills, Lee should be a can't-miss superstar. He is an outstanding, athletic, and overpowering wrestler with a lightning-quick shot. Once on top, he is an absolute terror, with brutal, devastating ground-and-pound and fantastic Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He is so good that he even defeated Michael Chiesa via rear-naked choke in the first round, despite Chiesa being one of the best overall grapplers in the sport himself.
If an opponent manages to stay standing, that offers little comfort. Lee has very good boxing with textbook form and a variety of solid punches in his arsenal, including the all-important jab and left hook. And the danger isn't confined to his hands, either. His kicks to the legs and body are excellent, and he is able to go upstairs with his foot beautifully, as Gregor Gillespie found out.
As recently as 2018, he was considered the biggest threat to Khabib Nurmagomedov, representing a supposedly bad stylistic match-up, and even as late as last March, he was a favorite against current UFC lightweight champion Oliveira.
Yet despite all this talent, Lee has lost four of his last five fights. What gives? Lee has two fatal flaws which have only become worse over his years as a fighter, not better. First, his defense is porous. He can be caught coming in, and his evasion from opponent blows is flawed, thus missing punches whether going forwards or backwards. While he circles on the outside, he does so robotically, in a manner where he can be timed by a skilled striker. He severely lacks head movement, a sense of distance and defensive reactions.
However, Lee’s defense is a relatively minor weakness compared to his main one: cardio. In Round 1, Kevin Lee may be the best lightweight fighter in the world, even decimating a prime Tony Ferguson in that period. However, once a fighter survives that stanza, Lee becomes a far lesser foe. By about Round 3, Lee transforms from a world-beating titan into a hapless man trying to catch his breath, with a fraction of the abilities he had going into the contest. A fighter whom Lee had outgrappled with ease in Round 1 can throw Lee around and submit him in later rounds, while one he had outstruck can pick him apart in the stand-up after Round 2.
All this was on display in Lee's loss to Rodriguez. Rodriguez is a good, tough fighter with nice striking and solid grappling whom I've written positively about before. Yet there is nothing exceptional or amazing about the 34-year-old. I don't see what threat he can present a Top 10 contender who is on his game, but Rodriguez's toughness was enough to overcome Lee, dropping Round 1 but then taking the next two stanzas to win the decision. Not only was Lee very easy to hit, not only did he fade horribly after Round 1 despite fighting at a very slow, conservative pace, but he looked dreadful at 170 pounds, showcasing the worst elements of moving up in weight with none of its advantages. On the one hand, his strength and punching power clearly didn't translate to that higher weight class. On the flip side, his speed, which should have troubled natural welterweights, had decreased, and his cardio, which should have improved, was as bad as ever. There is a science to moving up or down a weight class, and Lee has failed the exam as badly as any fighter has. Rodriguez, a determined warrior who refused to go away, beat the far more talented, seemingly can't-miss superstar.
Why is it that Lee’s defense and cardio haven’t improved but only become worse? That, I'm afraid, falls squarely on Lee's shoulders. A fighter as athletically gifted and otherwise technical as Lee, with reflexes that fast, has all the tools to develop good defense. However, Lee hasn't, whether because defense is less glamorous and he didn't put the same time and dedication to mastering it, or he didn't find it to be important enough to focus on at all, trusting that his offense would overwhelm any opponent.
Cardio is another very improvable area. Yes, it's challenging for guys who cut a lot of weight and possess large amounts of muscle like Lee, but it can absolutely be done. Kamaru Usman is a fine example, having wonderful cardio despite his overwhelming size and strength for 170 pounds. And there are fighters who started out with worse cardio than Lee did who improved it tremendously over the years, at least to the point of being average. Volkan Oezdemir, Darren Stewart and even Amanda Nunes come to mind. Figuring out the optimal balance of size and muscle, anaerobic and aerobic exercise isn't easy, however, and it's an equation neither Lee nor any of his coaches have ever balanced. Additionally, cardio exercise is highly monotonous and grueling. Did Lee neglect it as a result? We can only speculate, but his cardio is only getting worse, not better.
Can Lee turn his career around and become the great fighter he should be? Certainly, although I would argue that it's very difficult now. He just turned 29 and has 25 professional fights under his belt. He is no longer a young prospect and has a fair amount of wear and tear on his body from weight cuts and cage battles alike. Moreover, he has years of bad habits to unlearn when training movement and defense, making it more difficult than for a newer fighter improving those areas.
Most challenging to overcome, though, may be Lee's mindset. When a fighter fails to fix weaknesses over multiple years and more than a dozen fights, they’re usually there to stay. It's very rare for them to suddenly figure it out after such a long period of stagnation. And speculating based on Lee's public reaction to his losses, it appears even less likely. Consider his Instagram post after his loss to Rodriguez. It reads like Lee trying to justify himself and his training methods, claiming everything is fine (it's not) and then directing his anger and disappointment outwards at doubters instead of using it internally to motivate himself. The evidence for this speculation is Lee's own recent defeats.
Despite all that I've written, I would love to be proven wrong. I would love for Kevin Lee to fulfill as much of his potential as possible and have a tremendous, Hall of Fame-worthy career. Unrealized greatness is always a loss for a sport and its fans.
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