Kevin Lee will make his first appearance of 2019 when he takes on former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Rafael dos Anjos in the UFC Fight Night 152 main event on Saturday at Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York. “The Motown Phenom” has lost two of his last three fights and finds himself in a desperate need of a victory, whether he decides to remain at 170 pounds permanently or elects to return to the lightweight division.
Lee’s exploits are under the microscope in this edition of The Film Room.
Lee is a grappling-based fighter who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the fight to the mat, even if he has to take some damage on the feet. Lee is a former NCAA Division II wrestler out of Grand Valley State University, coincidently the same wrestling program that produced Tony Ferguson. He does not 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 3.10 takedowns a fight and with 43 percent success rate. Lee lands a variety of takedowns. He can shoot for your standard takedowns from the center of the cage, can duck under opponents’ strikes for a counter takedown and can back opponents to the cage and use the fence for clinch takedowns.
Once the fight hits the ground, Lee is strictly looking to take full mount -- a tactic that more often than not ends with his taking the opponent’s back. To pass into mount, he simply grabs a headlock and uses chest-on-chest pressure to slide into full mount. Once in mount, Lee can effortlessly float his hips over opponents and take their backs when they attempt to escape.
Lee is content with posturing up in full mount and unloading with ground-and-pound, but at the end of the day, he really wants to take an opponent’s back and submit him. Four of his 10 UFC wins have come via rear-naked choke, and his wrestling background has helped him tremendously on the ground while he learns the ins and outs of jiu-jitsu and the art of submissions.
Lee mainly uses his ground-and-pound to open up submissions, but he has finished two UFC opponents with ground strikes. Some have criticized his punching power since only two of his 17 wins are by TKO, but he can grind out opponents with a steady pace of ground-and-pound while keeping control for long stretches.
Lee’s entire game revolves on getting the fight to the ground, and even his striking is based around his grappling. He intelligently does not take many chances on the feet and elects to walk down his opponents with one-twos before shooting for a takedown. In his fight with Edson Barboza, Lee’s jab looked much sharper than before, as he feinted into the punch to back down Barboza and was routinely taking inside and outside angles to land it anytime he wanted. He has also started to incorporate more kicks into his game. Most high kicks are thrown from the hips while keeping the torso upright. One of the kicks he uses is a rhythm-manipulating strike during which you lean far to the opposite side while throwing it, slightly delaying the speed at which the kick is coming and catching your opponent off-guard. Robert Whittaker and T.J. Dillashaw have had tremendous success with this same kick, and although he is not the most accomplished striker, it is nice to see Lee using a high-level technique like this to set up his grappling.
Lee has enjoyed a quick rise to the top and is one of the most promising young contenders in the sport, but his most recent fight with Al Iaquinta exposed his lack of striking skills and created the blueprint to defeat him. On the lead, Iaquinta pawed at Lee’s lead hand and landed jabs at will to set up his right straights down the middle. Lee keeps his rear hand quite low, and Iaquinta knew if he could take it away that Lee would have no defense for his right straights and hooks. As a result, he largely picked him apart for five rounds. Lee’s striking remains predictable, and Iaquinta quickly got a read on his reactions and landed some clean counter right hands. “Raging Al” proved that if you can defend Lee’s takedowns and bring fatigue into the equation, he will have no answers on the feet and spend his energy throwing one-twos down the middle with no setup. At only 26, Lee has plenty of time to round out his game. However, he has a lot of work to do on the feet, and dos Anjos is a good enough striker to exploit these same deficiencies if Lee failed to address them.