Besides a recent promotional crossover between the UFC and the NBA’s Detroit Pistons, Motown’s mixed martial arts scene has eluded attention around the sport.
One of the most notable fighters to come out Detroit has been Daron “The Detroit Superstar” Cruickshank, who has struggled to bypass submissions throughout his promotional tenure in effort to land his explosive offense. He remains on the UFC lightweight roster, but has dropped two in a row on the heels of poor weight cutting and sluggish starts.
So you can imagine how significant the potential possessed by fellow Detroit lightweight Kevin “The Motown Phenom” Lee is entering the new year.
The current owner of a four-fight win streak, Lee has begun his ascension in one of the deepest and sought-after weight classes in all of MMA. But despite his head first dive into a carnivorous shark tank, the 23-year-old has emerged a predator.
Before is UFC debut, the accomplished NCAA Division II wrestler had compiled an undefeated 7-0 professional record, utilizing his takedown abilities to suffocate opponents on the ground and finish them by submission. Whether it was a standing guillotine, rear naked choke or armbar, Lee was able to do it all.
But it wasn’t until he encountered a red-hot Al Iaquinta at UFC 169 that he understood what it took to forge a successful trail on the big stage. Despite recovering from an early first-round knockdown and ankle lock attempt, as well as nearly choking the New Yorker out after riding his back for the majority of the second round, Lee lost via unanimous decision.
While most people scored the bout a split-decision at the very least, Iaquinta did enough to ward off the nose-to-nose pressure that Lee presented. But even against someone like “Raging” Al, whose grappling is consistently combed over by the infamous Matt Serra, the powerful wrestler was able to threaten on the mat.
It spoke levels of how efficient Lee’s ground game was, even at the age of 21.
Losing to Iaquinta, who has gone 4-1 since the victory, certainly could have served as a learning experience for Lee. He saw first-hand that his timely wrestling wasn’t going to get him where he needed to be, especially among the ranks at lightweight. The rest of his game, including his striking, footwork, conditioning and defense needed sharpening.
Well, after nearly two years and four Octagon victories, Lee finally looks like he’s putting it all together. His evolution as a more complete fighter has translated into immediate success, which can be associated to his time training with boxer Dewey Cooper at Mayweather Boxing Club. From out-striking opponents 194-to-117 during his current win streak to securing a total of 13 takedowns in just 10 rounds, Detroit’s finest has rendered himself worthy of an official breakout.
And with an important bout opposite the scintillating Leonardo Santos (3-0-1 UFC) scheduled for a front-and-center UFC 194 this December, Lee has a chance to put his name on the map before the start of 2016.
The crafty Brazilian is one of the very best submission experts at 155 pounds, so it should be interesting to see if Lee opts to utilize his wrestling or trust his new found striking. Either way, a victory would most certainly land the youngster inside the division’s top 15 before his 24th birthday.
There aren’t many names on the UFC roster who can attest to that.
While his ceiling at lightweight solely depends on his capability of adopting to different styles as he climbs the proverbial ladder, Kevin Lee is an athletic monster with the right building blocks already in place. Casual fight fans may not know who is he just yet, but he serves as a youthful injection for a weight class that has recently lost top names to either injury (Khabib Nurmagomedov, Bobby Green, T.J. Grant) or divisional departure (Benson Henderson, Myles Jury, Diego Sanchez, Jorge Masvidal, Josh Thomson).
Throwing his name into the MMA media bubble after calling out the UFC’s newest prodigal son doesn’t hurt his chances of garnering more recognition prior to Dec. 12.