Kevin Lee was lost. He probably knew it, too, but fighters are the stubborn type, so the solution to a problem is often to march through it.
So, after the death of his longtime coach Robert Follis in late-2017, Lee marched on.
“A lot of people stepped up when Robert Follis passed away and I kept a lot of my same team,” he said. “But you can never replace a person and never replace that type of connection. Something was missing there.”
That didn’t stop Lee’s fighting career, though, for better or worse, often worse. The Michigan native scored a career-best win over Edson Barboza in early 2018, but that was followed by two defeats against Al Iaquinta and Rafael Dos Anjos, the latter loss coming in a brief visit to the welterweight division.
“I’m not working the same,” thought Lee, whose connection with Follis was why “The Motown Phenom” settled in Las Vegas several years ago.
“He was one of the main reasons I moved out to Las Vegas in 2014 in the first place,” said Lee. “Tragicially he passed away in 2017, and since then, it’s been a big hole in my life. He was more than a coach – he was a friend, he made me feel at home, and if you ever met him or knew him, when he spoke, you listened because he had such a big presence. I believed every word that he said. When he said I could be a world champion, I truly believed that and that’s what gave me that confidence and made me feel on top of the world.”
That confidence took Lee to an interim lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson in October 2017, and while he lost that bout, there was no question in anyone’s mind that he had the goods to get back to the top. Follis’ death produced some doubt at first, but then clarity. Lee would soldier on and make his coach’s boasts a reality.
“It (Follis’ death) made me question a lot of things,” he said. “It kind of reinforced a lot of things for me, too. It reinforced my heart and my will and desire to go on and it made me realize that when you have those things and you have a real reason to keep going, then you can do some extraordinary things. I think he was an extraordinary man. He taught me a lot.”
After the loss to Dos Anjos, Lee realized that he had to break out of familiar habits and surroundings. He took his show on the road, hitting the MMA Lab in Arizona, Factory X in California, and gyms in Los Angeles. Ultimately, he found his way to Montreal and the Tristar Gym.
He was home.
“When I came here and walked into Tristar, the energy…” said Lee. “I was here maybe two, three hours and I just knew. This was the spot.”
Clicking immediately with head coach Firas Zahabi, Lee knew that he was staying with the squad best known for its work with UFC icon Georges St-Pierre.
“Me and Firas’ connection is a lot different than with anybody else that I’ve had in my life, but it’s right,” said Lee. “Firas has a totally different style than what Robert had for me, but it’s a necessary one for me to complete my journey and keep going to the next level.”
Lee was so confident that his new team was the right one for him that in his first fight back at 155 pounds last November, he agreed to face unbeaten Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244. Less than three minutes into the fight, Lee had a Knockout of the Year candidate, a Performance of the Night bonus and a top ten rankings.
“I think the results speak for themselves and they will again in this fight,” he said.
“This fight” is Saturday’s UFC Fight Night main event in Brasilia against Charles Oliveira. It’s a tough matchup, especially with “Do Bronx” on a six-fight winning and finishing streak, but Lee has never shied away from a challenge.
“This fight is very dangerous,” he said. “Charles is on a big win streak, he’s hitting his stride right now and now it’s time to steal his momentum from him. It’s a dangerous fight but something that I’m ready for.”
There’s no reason to doubt him, because now he doesn’t doubt himself.
“I’m somebody who always had potential,” Lee said. “But now I’m starting to realize it. And now I’m starting to make it a reality.”
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