No. 4-ranked lightweight Kevin Lee returns Saturday looking for revenge against Al Iaquinta in the main event of UFC on Fox 31. Lee is one of the best prospects the Ultimate Fighting Championship has seen in quite some time, and now he gets the chance for revenge, all while making his case as the next title challenger.
Lee is a former NCAA Division II wrestler out of Grand Valley State University, coincidently the same wrestling program Tony Ferguson attended. Two years into his collegiate career, Lee dropped out to focus on MMA and now at only 26, he is one of the best grapplers in the division with a ceiling higher than most at his age. Lee doesn't have the flashiest takedowns and generally shoots for simple double legs, but his ability to cut off the cage and use the fence to secure takedowns is what allows him to land an average of 3.33 takedowns a fight with 42 percent success rate. Against Edson Barboza, who historically struggles with getting off the cage, Lee backed him to the fence with jabs and swinging left hooks before shooting for the double and using the cage to secure the takedown.
Once the fight hits the ground Lee is always looking to take the back and his liberal use of the tripod from full guard allows him to pass into full mount, where he can unleash ground-and-pound. If the tripod doesn't work, Lee will pass into half guard and use chest-on-chest pressure to immobilize the opponent's upper body and allow him to slide through their knee shield to take full mount. Once Lee has the back, he will look for the body triangle and then it’s only a matter of time before he locks up the rear-naked choke.
Unlike a lot of grappling-based fighters, Lee knows when to attempt to pass guard and improve position and when to posture up and unload. Often fighters will be too concerned with improving position and end up dealing little to no damage before the round ends or the referee stands them up. A good example of this is Kamaru Usman. Lee, on the other hand, will open up when needed and use it to fluster opponents and force them to give up their back.
Lee’s entire game revolves on getting the fight to the ground and even his striking is based around his grappling. He intelligently doesn't take many chances on the feet and elects to walk his opponents down with one-twos and the occasional head kick before shooting for the takedown. In his most recent fight, Lee’s jab looked much sharper than before as he was feinting into them to back Barboza down and was routinely taking inside and outside angles to land it anytime he wanted.
Early in his career, Lee would plod forward with no-purpose jabs and wild overhand rights; he struggled to get anything done on the feet. These days Lee has switched his striking stance to southpaw and stays light on his feet with a constant bounce in his stance as to quickly cover distance for a takedown or to retreat. As good of a grappler as Lee is, the most impressive aspect of his game has been his development as a striker in his four years with the UFC and he is quickly becoming one of the most well-rounded fighters in the division.