In the main event of UFC 216 on Oct. 7, Kevin Lee steps into the Octagon for the biggest fight of his career when he faces Tony Ferguson for the interim UFC lightweight title. If “The Motown Phenom” should walk away with gold next weekend, he will join 11 fighters who have won a UFC belt at the age of 25. That’s a good omen for Lee and a big responsibility to uphold, considering that the aforementioned 11 includes names like Penn, Ortiz, St-Pierre, Rousey, Shamrock, Holloway and Cruz.
In the meantime, we take a look at how Kevin Lee got here.
Michel Prazeres (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
Unbeaten as a pro when he got the call to the UFC, Lee dropped his first Octagon bout via decision to fellow 155-pound prospect Al Iaquinta in February 2014, but it was a back and forth battle and not anything for Lee to get discouraged about. He would bounce back with a pair of victories over Jesse Ronson and Jon Tuck, but it wasn’t until he vanquished Brazilian powerhouse Michel Prazeres that Lee began to establish himself in the sport’s toughest division. He wasn’t flashy in his decision win over Prazeres, but in staying out of the swarming clutches of the Brazilian, Lee showed the ability to adapt and use all his tools to get his hand raised.
James Moontasri (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
After four decisions in four UFC fights, Lee got to go home early for the first time in July 2015, as he submitted James Moontasri via rear naked choke. Making sure he nullified the striking attack of his opponent first, Lee rebounded from an eyepoke and took Moontasri to the mat, where he patiently got the back and then the tap. Kevin Lee was for real.
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Jake Matthews (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
Five months after Lee’s win over Moontasri, everything came crashing down when he was stopped by Leonardo Santos at UFC 194. He would come back in April 2016 with a decision win over Efrain Escudero, but that victory didn’t cause too many ripples in a crowded weight class. Next up would be Australian hot prospect Jake Matthews, who rebounded from his first pro loss to James Vick with back-to-back finishes of Akbarh Arreola and Johnny Case. A win over Lee had the potential to put him in the top 15, but Lee wasn’t having it, as he dominated the action and stopped Matthews in a little over four minutes.
Magomed Mustafaev (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
With momentum on his side after the Matthews fight, Lee fought in Europe for the first time in November 2016, as he battled Magomed Mustafaev in Belfast. Mustafaev, already 2-0 with two knockouts in the UFC, hadn’t lost since his second pro fight in 2011, and he gave Lee some trouble early. But in the second round, Lee put an end to the fight with a rear naked choke, picking up his first Performance of the Night bonus in the process.
Francisco Trinaldo (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
Lee kicked off the most important year of his fighting life with another road game, this one in Francisco Trinaldo’s Brazilian backyard. Once again, Lee had to shake off some rough moments early against Trinaldo, but just as in the Mustafaev fight, Lee showed the heart of a champion in coming back and finishing the fight in round two. A rear naked choke did the trick again, and it wouldn’t be the last we would hear of what was rapidly becoming a deadly finishing move for the Michigan native.
Michael Chiesa (Watch on UFC FIGHT PASS)
In Lee’s first UFC main event, he had to come up big, especially considering the bad blood that had been brewing between him and fellow lightweight contender Michael Chiesa. So with the lights shining brighter than ever, Lee stepped up, finishing Chiesa at 4:37 of the first round with – you guessed it – a rear naked choke. The win, Lee’s ninth in the Octagon, earned him another post-fight bonus and something even more valuable: a shot at the world title on Oct. 7.