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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 216’s Kevin Lee

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Dominant wrestler, Kevin Lee, will face off with one of the division’s most exciting athletes, Tony Ferguson, for an interim Lightweight strap this Saturday (Oct. 7, 2017) at UFC 216 inside T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The road to the top has been surprisingly quick for Lee, who debuted just four years ago at the age of 21. He lost that fight in a nonetheless strong showing opposite Al Iaquinta, and since then Lee has tasted defeat just once in nine fights. That’s an impressive accomplishment regardless of the competition level, but Lee has proven himself in that degree as well, recently finishing then-Top 10-ranked fighter Michael Chiesa in the first round.

Still, the question remains: Is Lee ready for the true 155-pound elite? We’re all about to find out when he attempts to end Ferguson’s nine-fight win streak.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

The best way to describe Lee is as a developing striker. He occasionally suffers from the usual mistakes that most up-and-comers face, but he’s also come a long way in a short time and shown some real promise.

Plus, that 77-inch reach definitely helps out.

Offensively, Lee throws with enough heat that he must be respected. For the most part, he flicks out lots of jabs and one-two combinations, occasionally using the cross as a lead as well. He’s an active striker, commonly choosing to stay in range and try to counter with his lead hand rather than back away completely.

Like many fighters who are not entirely comfortable boxing, Lee likes to kick more than punch. He commonly flicks up quick kicks to the head and body with either leg, unafraid of his opponent’s potential takedown. In fact, those repeated high kicks often help his own takedowns, raising their hands up. Speaking of, Lee has gotten better at incorporating level change feints into his offense. Bending his knees and/or reaching for the lead leg, Lee will get his opponent’s feet moving to defend the shot and instead throw some heavy punches. Since Lee’s style of wrestling enables him to shoot from far out and still drive through, these level change feints are especially effective.

In a recent bout with Francisco Trinaldo, Lee faced a veteran Southpaw kickboxer and eventually came out on top of the striking battle. That’s not too say it was easy, but Lee showed perhaps the smartest kickboxing of his career against a tough test. Lee’s approach in that fight was simple but ultimately effective. From the outside, he used his long reach to shoot out quick crosses, slipping his head outside of Trinaldo’s jab. He also took quick outside steps and fired right kicks to the body and head repeatedly.

Eventually, one of those right kicks found its way over “Massaranduba’s” low left hand, caught the side of his head, and initiated the finishing sequence. For whatever it’s worth, Lee moved and kicked well for the first minute of his bout with Chiesa as well.

Defensively, Lee occasionally forgets that his opponent can hit him too, as he tends to stand still and watch his work. In the sole knockout loss of his career, for example, Lee showed Leonardo Santos absolutely zero respect on the feet. Walking the Brazilian down from a square stance, firing power punches in bunches, and neglecting to shoot takedowns were all pretty clear signs that Lee thought himself vastly superior fighter. Unfortunately for “The Motown Phenom,” Santos is a veteran and happily circled, stabbing at Lee with sharp, accurate jabs. Those punches landed clean, but Lee was undeterred and kept pushing forward until a one-two combination straight down the middle ended his night.

Since then, Lee has clearly improved. Nevertheless, Trinaldo did land some very big shots, often because Lee was simply standing there or backing straight up without much concern for his opponent’s offense.

Wrestling

In a division filled with men that seem to get bigger every year — would Gleison Tibau even stand out anymore? — Lee is amongst the biggest. Not only does he have a longer reach than Nate Diaz, but Lee is damn strong and built thick. That plays a major role in his grappling and allows him surprise foes with his physicality.

Effectively, that means Lee’s double leg is a real weapon. Against the fence, Lee can be stretched out in what appears to be a bad position, but in fact he’s still able to lock his hands. That’s where that physical strength comes into play, as Lee is still able to suck in the hips and lift despite the less-than-ideal positioning. Even in his last fight, Lee was able to connect his hands against the fence despite Chiesa having a decent underhook, which allowed him to slam “Maverick” regardless (GIF).

In the center of the cage, Lee’s reach and wrestling allow him to drive through imperfect shots as well. So long as he’s able to get a hand on his opponent, Lee has a fair shot at dragging himself towards the hips and eventually landing the takedown. Even in a the worse case scenario, Lee can often manage to drive his foe to the fence and get back to work.

Additionally, Lee’s transitional wrestling is pretty solid. He’ll grab a single leg just to move into the double, and his switch into the body lock is tight as well. In one slick example, Lee used to a double leg to drive Magomed Mustafaev into the fence, using the give of the cage to bounce his opponent back into the center. As Magomedov was off-balance and in poor position to defend, Lee switched to the body lock and spun him to the mat.

Defensively, Lee’s sprawl, scrambling, and general physicality make taking him down a difficult prospect. More often than not, anyone shooting on Lee is more likely to end up on their own back, as he’ll transition into his own double leg quickly.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Lee is a back control specialist. He’s scored four UFC victories via rear-naked choke, including his last three wins. That pretty much covers it: Lee’s goal on the mat is to secure the back, beat his man up and sink in the choke.

Indeed, Lee is a excellent at taking the back. Once on top, Lee quickly opens up with top pressure and heavy ground strikes, motivating his opponent to move. When his foe goes to turtle up and sit up into an underhook, Lee snaps them down and spins to the back quickly. Once there, Lee uses his length to lock in a body triangle.

Finishing the rear-naked choke against elite competition is difficult. The best fighters in the world understand that the back is perhaps the most dangerous position in the sport and are skilled at defending the choke. Nevertheless, Lee is able to sink in the choke with surprising consistency, and some of the reasons are explained in this week’s technique highlight.

Since Lee is rarely taken down, not much of his bottom game is known. That said, last time out he briefly used the butterfly guard very well. As Chiesa landed in top position from something of a slip, Lee used an underhook and butterfly hook to elevate his foe. It wasn’t enough to land a sweep, but it did allow Lee to get to his knees and drive into a double leg, which ultimately produced the same result.

Conclusion

This is a pretty significant step up in competition for Lee, but it’s also a major opportunity. Lee is already a top contender despite being rather young in the sport, which says huge things about his potential. If he does win here, it sets him up for a bout with Conor McGregor, which is quite simply the biggest opportunity in UFC right now.

*****

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.


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