Kevin Lee reclaimed his place among the lightweight elite at UFC Atlantic City when he stopped Edson Barboza with a devastating fifth-round assault.
It was a well-rounded performance for Lee — he outstruck Barboza by an overwhelming margin of 223-64 and secured four takedowns to Barboza’s zero — but it was also an impressive display of heart from Barboza, who pushed through adversity and showcased extreme grit to survive until the doctors intervened. So it’s not surprising that Lee walked away from their bout with even more respect for Barboza than he had before.
“He was one of the strongest dudes that I think I’ve ever faced,” Lee said Monday on The MMA Hour. “It’s just that, it’s a different type of explosiveness, and it’s something that I admire a little bit in him. It’s something that I was trying to sit back and watch and see how I could pick up things to steal from him, because even when he’s dead tired, he’s very, very dangerous. You’ve got to stay on your Ps and Qs.
“He did his thing. He showed up to fight. I gave respect to Barboza all the way through this, but I give him even more respect afterward, because that man showed up to fight.”
Although Lee wrapped things up with a fifth-round TKO stoppage, the first 10 minutes of the fight were where “The Motown Phenom” really set the tone.
In two of the most dominant opening rounds in recent memory, Lee wrestled Barboza to the floor and oustruck the Brazilian by a ridiculous margin of 136-13 to begin the bout, earning elusive 10-8 scores on both the first and second rounds of each judge’s scorecards. The lopsided outing mirrored Barboza’s previous recent loss — a grueling, wrestling-heavy mauling at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is now the UFC lightweight champion — and Lee admitted afterward that he almost felt bad for Barboza as the fight went on.
“He took a whooping, and I kinda took it a little bit easy on him too after that,” Lee said. “It was like during the second round, I could see he was taking a whooping and I didn’t want to keep hitting that man like that. He’s a nice guy, I wish him nothing but the best. Yeah, he’s taken a whooping these last few fights, but he’s going to come back and he’s going to knock some dudes clean out. I mean, Barboza’s still one of the toughest guys in this division, hands down. I think if anything, this is just going to make him tougher.
“Once his body heals up, he’s still only like 31, 32, so the man still has a lot of years left if he wants them. He’s just going to heal up, he’s going to come back stronger, and he’s a couple more knockouts away — and you never know, you might see him up there again.”
Lee said UFC Atlantic City marked the first time he felt bad for an opponent mid-fight since his amateur MMA days.
“One other time when I was an amateur, one or two other times,” Lee said. “But that was just me kinda growing up and getting more used to it. But yeah, nah, that was about the first one at this level, for sure. He was a sweet dude, I couldn’t really say much bad about him.”
Still, that’s not to suggest UFC Atlantic City was completely smooth sailing for Lee.
Despite being exhausted and badly beaten up, Barboza nearly snatched victory from the jaws in defeat in the third round when he landed a dramatic spinning heel kick that instantly put Lee on shaky legs. Lee gathered himself enough to take Barboza down to the canvas and ride out any danger, but the 25-year-old contender admitted Monday that the kick was a close enough call.
“I’m still feeling it,” Lee said. “I mean, he kicked the sh*t outta me, I ain’t gonna lie. Barboza’s explosive. I was setting up my knockout shot and I took my focus off of him for a half-a-second, and at this level, especially with a guy like that — that’s been one of the things that my coaches have been saying to me for a long time, and that’s one of the things that I even had to keep reminding myself of during the actual fight. A reporter asked me, he was like, ‘It sounded like you were in there talking.’ I wasn’t talking to Barboza, I was talking to myself. I was reminding myself of those things, to stay sharp and not get caught with something. But, for that split-second, I looked away and yeah, he rang me.”
The matchup against Barboza was Lee’s first fight since the death of his longtime coach Robert Follis. Lee said the former Xtreme Couture and Team Quest leader was still with him in spirit, and the memory of Follis’ voice actually helped guide Lee through difficult moments at UFC Atlantic City.
“It was more surreal,” Lee said. “Like I said, I did a lot of talking to myself even before, during, and after [the fight], and a lot of that was in his voice. When I got hit with that kick even, the crowd and everybody else screamed and went wild, but it was kinda his calming tone that kinda kept me in there and made sure that I kept my eyes on [Barboza], no matter how bad my legs wobbled or my body wanted to shake.
“So he guided me all the way through it, and the victory is still for him. And I truly felt that way going into it, and I think that showed during my performance.”
Moving forward, Lee’s biggest desire is no secret. He called out Nurmagomedov after UFC Atlantic City, just as he’s called out Nurmagomedov countless times over the past several years. Lee can’t quite put a finger on why he’s so confident in a matchup against the unbeaten Dagestani champion — he just has a feeling that he’d succeed where 26 other martial artists have failed so spectacularly in the past.
“I just know it,” Lee said. “I can see him. I don’t know, I just know it. It’s just something. You can call it a vision, you can call it whatever you want to. I just think that’s going to be a big fight, it’s going to be a big fight in my career, and I want to be the one to take away that ‘0.’
“There’s been a couple guys that I’ve had my eye on for a long time, that, I see them going through it and I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, that one right there, that’s going to be the case.’ And Khabib has been that for a while, and he’s avoided me a lot up until this point. But now it’s getting to the point where it’s unavoidable, and I think it’s scaring his whole team, really.”