Growing up in Michigan made Kevin Lee no stranger to the stark and sometimes brutal winters that come with living in the Midwest. While some of the cold seasons pass with minimal misery, even those milder winters harden those who grow up in such conditions. There is a survival instinct that initiates between December and April and one the Grand Rapids native is all too familiar with.
Or that was the case for the 22-year-old prospect, because the quest for better things led him west and it’s an environment that certainly agrees with him.
“It’s nice driving with the top down on my car in February,” Lee laughed. “I know there is a ton of snow back home and they are getting blizzards in Michigan, but it’s 70 degrees here in Las Vegas right now. I don’t think it gets any better than this.”
While “The Motown Phenom” initially honed his talents fighting in Canada and various states throughout the Midwest, a loss to Al Iaquinta in his official UFC debut forced him to rethink his career path. A cerebral fighter and mature for his age, Lee used the setback to spark a change in direction and used the first loss of his professional career as the catalyst for personal evolution.
Following his loss to the Serra-Longo product at UFC 169, Lee relocated to the fight capital of the world in order to elevate his training and push himself to improve.
“After the loss to Iaquinta I knew I had to take a different route,” Lee said. “I knew it was time for me to take things in a different direction and become more professional. I was kind of doing my own thing in Michigan and it was time for to put myself in a professional situation. Plus, it’s just better living all around for me and my family out here. I am a totally different person.”
Where Las Vegas was once considered the training center for athletes in the fight game, the number of fighters training there dwindled over recent years. Once prominent gyms faded to the background of the sport as other cities like Albuquerque and Boca Raton began to flourish. That said, the tides have changed as of late as more young fighters like Lee have settled into the Las Vegas scene and established veterans are once again calling it home.
“I’ve only been here since last March and I can already tell how much it’s growing,” Lee said. “The gym I’m at, Xtreme Couture, has gotten more high profile guys and even the older guys are coming back. I haven’t been here for very long but I can already see it.
“I was doing an interview a few months back and on the interview they had Dana White talking about it too and he was saying how hard it is for young guys to stay focused in Vegas. That’s been no problem for me. I’m here for business. If I was like a normal dude it may be hard, but I’m a professional athlete. It’s not hard at all because I’m here to better myself and my fighting career. You have to have a different mindset here and I had that even before I made the move.
The results of his choice to relocate produced quick results as Lee found victory in his next two outings over Jesse Ronson and Jon Tuck respectively, and he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. The talented young lightweight will get the next opportunity to showcase his ever-improving skill set once more when he squares off with Michel Prazeres at UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Thatch on February 14 in Broomfield, Colorado.
Lee is excited to put the work he’s invested on display and will be looking to gain more traction in the deep ranks of the 155-pound fold with a win over the Brazilian submission artist.
“Not only do I know I belong in the UFC, but this is my division now,” Lee said. “I’m ready to take it over. I’m gaining more confidence in myself each day…especially as I grow older. I’m starting to learn who I am and I’m learning the game a little better. I’m a totally different athlete now than when I made my debut back in February of last year. Now is the perfect time for me to make my breakthrough and I’m ready to show people what I’m about.
“I think this is a great showcase matchup for me and I’m going to use it as that. I couldn’t be more confident and I believe I’m better in every area. I don’t think he’s fought an American before and I definitely don’t think he’s fought an American wrestler like me before. I think I’ll be able to shut down his jiu-jitsu game very well. I think I showed my ability to do that in my last fight against [Jon] Tuck and I got the rounds in too. I’ve got the rounds in now and I’m going to start putting guys away.”
With momentum on his side and a bright future ahead, Lee believes the time has arrived for him to make his name at the highest level of the sport. His confidence has never been higher and, more importantly, the bright lights of the Octagon that have shook many young fighters before him are starting to feel comfortable on fight night.
Lee understands every fight provides an education and he’s ready to show how much progress he’s made between his last outing and his showdown with Prazeres on Saturday night.
“I’ve learned from the one loss I’ve had as well as the wins,” Lee said. “I’ve had the chance to get rounds in and become more comfortable in there. Now it’s time for me to go out there and do what I do.”