There is a handful of fighters whose ages are always a little lower than you’d expect. Max Holloway (29) and Jose Aldo (34) are prime examples. They’ve been around for so long, that it’s easy to assume they’re much older than they actually are. The same goes for Kevin Lee, who made his UFC debut in 2014 at the ripe age of 21. In total, Lee has fought under the UFC banner 17 times, including once for an interim lightweight belt.
Now, at 28 years old, coming off two major knee injuries, “The Motown Phenom” has his mind set on reminding people he is one of the elite fighters on the roster on August 28.
“The only fights that have really given me trouble are when I’ve had mental lapses in the game,” Lee told UFC.com. “People can see that. Nobody has ever just beat my ass. It’s always just been me more or less beating myself in certain spots, so when I overcome them, it’s going to show how much mental growth I’ve done over the last year.”
One portion of his growth is literal. Lee returns to welterweight at UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs Chikadze. He fought at 170 pounds once before, a fourth-round submission loss to Rafael Dos Anjos that Lee called more of a “one-off.” This fight, however, is his proper introduction to the division.
Lee spent his time away from competition lifting weights and acclimating his body to the division, and he feels like welterweight is now his home. He’s also a more mindful athlete when it comes to physical maintenance. After injuring his left knee in mid-2020, Lee injured his right knee shortly after that. The long recovery process afforded him some time he hadn’t had previously, and he’s much more mindful of his physical well-being.
“This is the first time in a long time I don’t feel injured at all,” Lee said. “If you’ve hurt anything, you kind of know. You stub your thumb, and you don’t really realize how important your thumb is to you until after it already is healed again and then you’re like, ‘Oh, OK. Let me take a little bit better care of it.’ So I feel like that’s what I’m finally doing with my body now.”
Those injuries now behind him, Lee was set to fight up-and-coming welterweight Sean Brady. However, when that fight fell through, Lee set his sights on Daniel Rodriguez. Initially, Lee admitted “D-Rod” wasn’t at the top of his list, but after studying the rising welterweight a little more, he was intrigued.
“People start calling me about him like, ‘Yo, you’re fighting D-Rod. Get on your s***,’” Lee said. “That kind of got me a little bit more up even though he isn’t as big of a name as some of these other people. He’s built a little bit of a reputation for himself, so at the end of the day, this is a street fight, and it got me in the mode for that.”
Rodriguez broke out in 2020 after racking up a 3-1 record in his “rookie season,” and in 2021, he built on that stellar year with a dominant win over Mike Perry in April and a first-round TKO win over Preston Parsons in July.
Lee said he tailored his camp for the last three-and-a-half weeks for Rodriguez, focusing on shutting down his striking game and figuring out where he can best impose himself.
Ultimately, Lee is just eager to fight again. The 532 days between fights is far too long for someone like him, but he did express some intentional patience when asked about his career trajectory. Having fought as much as he has in his young fighting life, he said he is going to “savor” the moments more, starting with Rodriguez on August 28.
“You just feel at home again. It’s such a different feeling when you’re actually in there versus watching other people do it and thinking about what it’s going to be like. It’s going to be way different on Saturday night. I can’t wait for it, man.”