Kevin Lee mastering the game on all fronts

Al Iaquinta, left, and Kevin Lee exchange blows during the third round of a UFC 169 lightweight mixed martial arts bout in Newark, N.J., Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014. Iaquinta won by unanimous decision. (AP Photo/Tim Larsen)
(AP Photo/Tim Larsen)

On the doorstep of the biggest fight of his professional career, Kevin Lee is as close as he’s ever been to becoming a well-known name outside of the inner mixed martial arts community.

With 11 UFC contests featured on his resume, Lee would be hard-pressed to find somebody who would stop him for an autograph outside of Las Vegas or his hometown in Grand Rapids, Mich. He’s undoubtedly a talented fighter, but talent alone has rarely proved to be enough for those seeking widespread fame and the financial stability that often comes with it.

He’s done much to change that over the past 12 months, seizing every opportunity afforded to him as he tries to propel himself into a recognizable fighter inside a division led by the biggest name in the sport.

It started with a press conference in early May — a media event that, at the time, had more focus on a rivalry between Daniel Cormier and Jon Jones than it did on a  Lee matchup with Michael Chiesa. Initially cordial with each other, the lightweight pairing stole the show after Lee’s comments about Chiesa’s mother exploded into an on-stage brawl for all of the MMA world to see.

Lee went on to defeat Chiesa in their scheduled bout in June, submitting the elite submission artist in the opening round of their main event at UFC Fight Night 112.

A man who never lets his eyes wander from the ultimate prize, Lee once again seized the moment to secure himself an even bigger fight down the line. Interviewed by the UFC’s FOX Sports crew shortly after his victory over Chiesa, Lee took it upon himself to drop several shots against top-ranked contender Tony Ferguson, who coincidentally happened to be operating as a desk analyst during the broadcast.

The entertaining verbal exchange paved the way for an interim championship contest between Ferguson and Lee, scheduled as UFC 216’s main event this Saturday in Las Vegas. Lee managed to leapfrog past five other contenders ranked ahead of him. His words made the difference.

It’ll serve as the greatest stage of Lee’s career, headlining an event for just the second time as a member of the UFC roster, the first of which is of pay-per-view variety. A victory, however, would potentially set the stage for easily the biggest fight around: a dance with Conor McGregor.

Lee certainly has his hands full with Ferguson, who has lost just once inside the Octagon and has had his hand raised nine consecutive times dating to October 2013. That, however, hasn’t stopped the brash 25-year-old Michigan native from looking at the greener pastures that lie ahead in a potential fight with Ireland’s best.

“He’s got to prove to me he’s ready to fight,” Lee told the media about fighting McGregor (via MMA Fighting). “As far as I’m concerned, the man has lost three of his last four fights. I don’t even think he beat Nate Diaz the second time. I like a big challenge, so he’s gotta show me a little bit. He’s a small dude, too, he’s 145. He was getting out-wrestled by a dude who’s 40 years old and a boxer. He was getting him in the clinches and out-wrestling him. I mean, he was, he’s gotta show a little bit more than that to me. So after this one, maybe I might give him a shot at the title. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see how he kind of reacts. Maybe he should fight Nate again and prove that he can fight me.”

Though his words point one way, it’s expected that his true desires point another. Lee undoubtedly understands what’s at stake here, realizing that he’s got to do anything to convince McGregor, MMA’s golden goose, that he’s worthy of a spot on the marquee. Insulting the champion, ultimately questioning whether McGregor should be granted the opportunity to fight Lee, could potentially inspire excitement from the Irishman, who at this point has numerous options available to him.

That’s the primary concern at the moment for Lee, despite how deserving he’d be following a potential win Saturday night. While most interim champions can rest easy knowing they’ll be next for the returning titleholder, Lee (or Ferguson) won’t have that luxury; not while Diaz remains an active competitor and the apple of McGregor’s eye upon his return. There isn’t much of a discussion to be had to determine who the bigger draw would be between the three. Following two blockbuster events in 2016 that reportedly amounted to nearly 3 million PPV buys, it’s clear Diaz is the man who’d be at the front of the line to punch his ticket first.

McGregor has admitted, however, that he’ll be making his decision after Ferguson and Lee lock horns, opening the door — even if ever so slightly — for the interim champion to, you know, actually be next.

Lee, using his talents as both a fighter and wordsmith, is looking to kick the door wide open.


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