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Unfortunately for Kevin Lee, his welterweight debut at UFC Fight Night 152 on Saturday in Rochester, New York, fit a familiar pattern for the proud Michigan fighter. As usual, Lee was dangerous in the early going. His wrestling kept the pressure on Rafael dos Anjos, and Lee’s striking was crisp. He clearly took the first round. As the fight progressed, Lee continued to threaten with his wrestling, and he scored takedowns in every round but the fourth. The problem? Dos Anjos’ continued resistance against Lee’s takedown attempts tired out “The Motown Phenom.” The ending was fitting: An exhausted Lee pressed for a takedown and resigned to bottom position when he could not secure it, setting up dos Anjos’ finishing arm-triangle choke.
This is nothing new for Lee. His first Ultimate Fighting Championship defeat against Al Iaquinta was decided on all three cards by “Raging Al” winning the final round. Lee also took the first round from Tony Ferguson before “El Cucuy” took over as the fight progressed. In the rematch with Iaquinta, Lee would have been declared the winner after three rounds but lost because the Serra-Longo Fight Team rep took the final two frames according to all three judges. Lee has excellent skills but has a propensity to tire and fade. In this regard, Lee reflects a broader trend in the sport. Lee comes from a standout amateur wrestling background, just like so many other successful fighters. Wrestling remains the most important building block for MMA. However, over time, there has been a change in the way those elite wrestlers choose to fight. In contrast to the likes of Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr, who fought mostly on the ground, so many of today’s former wrestlers compete principally on their feet.
Jon Jones is happy to use his wrestling against opponents who can’t defend takedowns well, but he will strike with those who put up resistance to his takedown attempts. Daniel Cormier has over time gravitated more and more towards striking. Khabib Nurmagomedov is more grappling-oriented than the vast majority of fighters, but he too has relied on his striking against strikers like Iaquinta and Conor McGregor.
This trend is no accident, and it goes deeper than all fighters simply working to be well-rounded. In the earlier days of the sport, fighters weren’t nearly as good at defending takedowns and getting back up once taken down. Great wrestlers still have a marked advantage in being able to secure a takedown or block a takedown, but it’s clear that increasingly many of them calculate the effort isn’t worth the reward. It’s much easier to modulate the energy needed to strike than to wrestle offensively, and fighters have gotten good at blocking takedowns while preserving their stamina. Wrestlers are as successful as ever, but wrestlers that press unrelentingly for takedowns are in severe decline.
Lee fits the older template for MMA wrestlers. His striking isn’t a liability, but he consistently goes into fights planning to take down opponents and win the fights there. That works against lesser opponents, but against top opposition, he ends up spending huge amounts of energy -- a decision that bites him later in the fight. Like an old-fashioned rim-protecting big man in the NBA, his style of fighting isn’t particularly well-adapted to the 2019 model for fighters with wrestling backgrounds.
Some are now writing off Lee as a championship-level fighter, and that’s a mistake. Despite all of his high-level experience, he is still only 26 years old and he has plenty of talent. However, switching weight classes didn’t prove to make any difference when it came to fixing the issues that plagued Lee previously in his biggest bouts. He may need to make more fundamental changes in the way he fights in order to get over that hump in the future.
On the other hand, there are fighters who have managed to buck the trend of striking more, even amongst fighters with ground-oriented backgrounds. The champion who stands out the most in that regard is Kamaru Usman. The welterweight champion has risen to the top by relentlessly taking down one opponent after another. Even more impressively, he has done it despite knee issues that have limited his ability to do certain types of cardio training. With so many different styles, MMA is always going to have fighters forging disparate paths to the top. Usman is a throwback to a different sort of MMA wrestler, and he shows the upside to that approach.
As for Lee, going 1-3 in his last 4 fights after going 16-2 in his first 18 is sure to lead to some soul searching. If these losses were coming in different ways, it would be harder to figure out what to do. Given that they have come under similar circumstances, there is at least a basic outline for what needs to be corrected. That’s the good news. The bad news is the diagnosis at this point would seem to call for fundamental change rather than incremental adjustments.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.