The Rebuilding of Kevin Lee
In late 2017, Kevin Lee seemed poised to become an unstoppable force in the UFC’s lightweight division. A five-fight winning streak saw Lee earn an interim title shot against Tony Ferguson. The stage was set for Lee to capture the belt and challenge superstar Conor McGregor in a title unification bout. However, despite some early success, Lee was ultimately submitted in the third round by one of the consensus all-time lightweight greats in Ferguson. Lee was visibly devastated, but it seemed he was headed back to the drawing board with his team.
Tragically, the team that propelled Lee to greatness was suddenly shattered. Lee’s close friend, head coach, and mentor, Robert Follis, took his own life. The beloved coach was a guiding figure to the young Lee, and the MMA community greatly empathized with him. In subsequent media interviews, Lee openly expressed feelings of confusion, guilt, devastation, and fear. Not only did he no longer have a coach, but a pivotal figure in his personal growth and development was gone. The MMA community was rife with questions regarding Lee’s fighting future. Where would he train? How will this affect his confidence? Will he ever be the same? Lee bounced around quite a bit after his loss to Ferguson, spending a significant amount of time at the UFC’s Performance Institute. He rebounded from the loss to Ferguson with a dominant beatdown of perennial contender Edson Barboza. However, he then dropped his next two fights, losing a lopsided decision to Al Iaquinta and getting submitted by Rafael Dos Anjos in his welterweight debut. It became abundantly clear that being the captain, cook, and watch leader of his own ship was no longer a viable option.
Lee soon admitted that he was in need of a bond fide training camp and revealed that he was visiting numerous gyms to see where he fit best. In an interview with Submission Radio in July, Lee noted “I haven’t had that guy to really guide me and show me the correct way of what to do, and I’ve just been kind of trying to listen to myself and figure I got it enough. But it’s been a real growing process for me to understand I gotta listen to other people sometimes”
Later that month, he announced that he would be training in Montreal at Tristar Academy under the tutelage of renowned strategist Firas Zahabi, thereby making former Welterweight and Middleweight champion Georges St. Pierre (GSP) a main training partner.
Lee had long called for a fight with GSP, but now, he would be working alongside him to improve his game. In fact, St. Pierre has been vocal regarding his praise for “the Motown Phenom.” In a recent Schmo and the Pro interview, St. Pierre noted that “Kevin Lee doesn’t know how good he is.”
Lee’s most recent fight would be a return to the lightweight division at UFC 244 against undefeated prospect Gregor Gillespie. Many pundits questioned the decision, as Gillespie is widely regarded as a red-hot prospect and future champion. Lee has repeatedly referred to the bout with Gillespie as “the most dangerous” fight he’s ever accepted.
Finally, it was time to see what progress Lee has made at Tristar. Most analysts would’ve likely predicted a grappling heavy affair, but in a recent interview with Luke Thomas, Zahabi noted that the game plan was to force Gillespie to stand and strike. The fight saw both men exchange a series of jabs throughout the first round. After a short feeling out process, Lee unloaded with a left high kick that sent Gillespie crashing into the cage, unconscious immediately. Kevin Lee became the first man to ever defeat Gregor Gillespie, and he did so in devastating fashion. In the post-fight interview, Lee immediately credited his new training camp for playing a major part in the victory.
— UFC (@ufc) November 3, 2019
Lee and GSP share many similarities. Both are lanky, muscular wrestlers with competent striking. Moving forward, I expect Zahabi to make further adjustments to Lee’s game and transform him into a similarly dominant fighter as St. Pierre. Lee immediately reinstated himself into the lightweight title picture, and he’s surely in line for a big fight next. It also seems Lee has changed his mindset since moving to Tristar. Gone was the brash prospect and in his place was a cerebral assassin that acknowledged his opponent’s strengths yet aimed to overcome them. He recently verbally agreed to fight rising Dagestani star Islam Makhachev, even calling for the fight to take place in Russia. Given that the Gillespie fight was over in less than one round, I expect Lee to return in the first quarter of next year, and I eagerly await the new adjustments he makes to his game. Ladies and gentlemen, we may very well be entertaining an era dominated by Tristar’s Kevin Lee.
Photo via Kevin Lee The Motown Phenom (Facebook)