What’s next for Kevin Lee?

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)

Kevin Lee put everything he had toward becoming the UFC’s interim lightweight champion, jumping at an opportunity that originally appeared to come too soon for the 25-year-old rising talent. Those whispers grew into a cold reality for “The Motown Phenom,” who suffered a third-round submission defeat to Tony Ferguson in their competing quests for gold.

But as is often the case for most talented 25-year-olds in just about any sport, this isn’t the end of the line for Lee, who seems primed to have an extended stay near the top of the 155-pound ladder for the foreseeable future. With such few miles on the odometer, it’s entirely plausible to imagine Lee bringing his talents to another title fight over the next few years.

That, of course, won’t happen overnight. Watching his five-fight winning streak come to an end at the hands of a man who hasn’t lost in his last 10 tries, Lee’s got some work to do if he hopes to create another run of that nature.

The Michigan native will need to take some time off before jumping back into the mix at 155 pounds, but here’s a look at three matchups that could make sense for him once he’s ready to bounce back from this loss.

Michael Johnson 

The sort of verbal back-and-forth these two could create would certainly be something else. Two of the most vocal contenders in the 155-pound division, Lee vs. Michael Johnson would make for quality main event of a Fight Night event, though particularly one exclusive to UFC Fight Pass considering the lack of name value either man brings.

In truth, a bout against Johnson would have made far more sense than an interim title shot against arguably the best lightweight on the planet. Lee wasn’t quite outclassed as some expected, but he clearly showed holes in his game that were only ever going to be exposed by an elite talent in Ferguson. Now after realizing he wasn’t fit for the No. 1 contender in the class, perhaps a bout against the No. 9-ranked fighter makes more sense.

That would require both men remain a part of this division, though. With Johnson recently admitting to having an interest in moving down to the 145-pound ranks, and Lee struggling to make weight at UFC 216 last Saturday, there’s a chance at least one of these fighters will have packed his bags by the next time they suit up for battle.

Dustin Poirier vs. Anthony Pettis winner

Another contest that would make sense from a talent and rankings perspective, a bout with the winner of UFC Fight Night 120’s Dustin Poirier vs. Anthony Pettis could provide Lee with a quality opponent for his next outing — and quite possibly a former champion.

Having held the UFC’s lightweight crown as recently as March 2015, Pettis has taken a noteworthy tumble from his championship perch. He is 2-4 since last defending the title in 2014, with neither of those wins coming against top competition. But since last defeating Jim Miller to bounce back within the 155-pound ranks, Pettis now takes on a rising contender in Poirier, who previously made a name for himself at 145 pounds.

We’ve been eager to see Poirier back in the cage since dropping a controversial no-decision against Eddie Alvarez, with most pleased with the idea of a fight against Pettis.

A follow-up bout against Lee — whether it be Poirier or Pettis — would make a world of sense for both parties involved.

Eddie Alvarez vs. Justin Gaethje loser

All right, this one may take a bit of explanation.

Yes, we recently just argued that a fight against Tony Ferguson was too much, too soon for Lee, who hadn’t quite tested himself against top competition before jumping into the deepest waters of the 155-pound class. And if we’re being honest, facing either Eddie Alvarez or Justin Gaethje wouldn’t be all that much of a step back for Lee.

So what gives? Either A) the UFC may want to keep him facing top contenders after giving him a golden opportunity earlier this month, or B) Lee may be eager to keep his name in the spotlight with a premier matchup against one of the true killers of the lightweight class.

Either way, it wouldn’t come as much of a shock to see the UFC give Lee a chance to face one of these top-5 fighters, providing him with somewhat of a fast pass back to the top of the ladder with a potential win.

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