More than a few lightweights reacted with surprise when the UFC announced that Kevin Lee would challenge Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight title at UFC 216. Many of those fighters critical of the decision pointed towards Lee’s lack of experience competing against the best the division has to offer, wondering how a win over a single ranked contender propelled the 25-year-old into a shot at gold.
That inexperience at the top is a question that continues to surround Lee as UFC 216 approaches, and it’s one that Ferguson himself hasn’t been afraid to bring up as well. Ferguson did so again on Thursday, declaring on a joint media conference call that he “ran out of asses to kick” among the lightweight elite so he “had to settle for a f*cking No. 7,” effectively mocking Lee’s current standing in the UFC’s official rankings, which are voted on by an obscure collection of media figures.
But regardless of the number that sits beside his name, Lee still has put in his time inside the Octagon, racking up a sterling 9-1 record over his last 10 UFC fights, and “The Motown Phenom” has no doubt where he stacks up among the division’s best.
“I don’t see why even other fighters are putting [stock in the rankings],” Lee said. “Them rankings, they don’t matter. Y’all make the rankings. I don’t give a f*ck about them rankings. The only thing everybody above us in this division got on me is some years, is some time. That’s it. So, when you look at the rankings, they don’t really matter. You look at some of these dudes who are in the top 25, top 30, they’re tough enough, they would beat any of the guys in the top five.
“They got Nate Diaz, who’s got 10, 11 losses, in the top five. It don’t make sense. They’ve got Justin Gaethje, who’s only got one fight against — apparently beating Mike Johnson in this game is really something, because you’ve got Khabib (Nurmagomedov) up there at No. 1 and [he doesn’t] fight, you’ve got Gaethje with one fight up above me. The rankings don’t even mean sh*t. So you can say I’m No. 7. You can say whatever you want to say. I say I’m No. 1 and it’s going to be proven on Oct. 7.”
That defiant nature has helped Lee stick out among a crowded roster at 155 pounds. On his way to the top, Lee called out everyone from Mickey Gall to Khabib Nurmagomedov, taking advantage of every opportunity available to him to land a fight against a name opponent. The strategy eventually worked, as Lee was able to convince UFC matchmakers to pair him up against perennial contender Michael Chiesa this past summer, and Lee capitalized, drawing Chiesa into a memorable scuffle at the UFC’s Summer Kickoff press conference, then dispatching Chiesa with a first-round rear-naked choke at UFC OKC.
Lee reiterated his callout of Nurmagomedov after the Chiesa win, and although he wound up securing a fight that is just as good against Ferguson instead, he still has eyes on ending the Dagestani’s undefeated run.
“I’ve been wanting to fight Khabib just because he would’ve been an easy fight,” Lee said. “That’s the name of the game, the most amount of money for the easiest fights. I’ve been calling his ass out for over a year, he’s going to keep downplaying me. All these dudes are going to keep downplaying me. That’s how the whole thing started with me and Tony.
“But I’m going to talk my way into the next fight too, and if it works, I’m going to say yes. When they call me and they want me to fight, I’m going to say yes, and I’m going to say yes to the toughest challenges. If that’s Khabib — a lot of people think that he’s the No. 1 contender for some reason — I’d like that challenge. I’d like to go out there and shut him down, especially if he’s still undefeated.”
Unsurprisingly, Lee’s confidence was in no shortage on Thursday’s media conference call. He and Ferguson erupted several times into fiery back-and-forths, often overshadowing UFC 216’s other championship pairing, Demetrious Johnson and Ray Borg.
Ferguson repeatedly promised to test Lee’s “porcelain chin” while also belittling Lee for his first-round TKO defeat to jiu-jitsu specialist Leonardo Santos in 2015. And those comments did not sit well for Lee.
“We’re going to see,” Lee said to Ferguson. “You’re talking about some sh*t from three years ago, like two or three years ago, and you think I’m the same man? Especially when I was only 22 or 23 at the time? I mean, if you think that I’m the same person, then go ahead, man. You’re in for a big surprise.”
Lee also dismissed the connection he and Ferguson may have shared as alumni of Grand Valley State University, the college where both fighters wrestled and Ferguson became a two-time All-American.
“We didn’t really have much of a relationship,” Lee said. “I just knew about the guy.
“That’s where our styles differ in the first place — I was already fighting [while] I was wrestling at the same time. I was fighting as an amateur, I was fighting as a pro my sophomore year, and then I stopped after that because I had bigger goals and bigger dreams than just being 24 and being a national champ of a bum-ass school like him, or whatever he wants to say.
“And like I said, I always gave him respect even before, early on, and then he doesn’t want to [reciprocate] it,” Lee continued. “So I’m going to get my respect when I knock him down, when I hurt him. Then after the fight, he’s going to shake my hand and he’s going to give me the respect.”