LAS VEGAS -- Kevin Lee is a rising phenom in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division who personifies Detroit, the hardscrabble Midwestern city where he was raised.
Lee, 23, is aggressive and confident, both inside and outside the Octagon. He is tough as nails, smart and effectively uses the scars he gained growing up in Detroit to make himself one of the top up-and-coming lightweights in the UFC. Even on crutches after a minor injury to his right knee in September while training for his UFC 194 showdown against Leonardo Santos, Lee exuded the unique confidence found in champions, saying he heals “like a wolverine” and will “whoop his ass in spectacular fashion.”
When Lee says he grew up in Detroit, he is not talking about the middle-class suburbs. He grew up poor in inner-city Detroit, right in the thick of gang wars, drug dealers and extreme poverty. He grew up fighting and telling those drug dealers no. Growing up poor also meant poor eating habits. He said he mostly ate off the dollar menu at fast-food burger joints. The “cheap s---” is how he described it.
Maybe that is why Lee proudly carries the moniker “The Motown Phenom,” because he has certainly earned the right to that name.
“I grew up in the heart of Detroit, too. I’m not one of the guys who grew up in Birmingham and are like, ‘Yeah, I’m from Detroit,’” Lee told Sherdog.com. “It was rough. I don’t even really like talking about this stuff, because there have been times when we were homeless with nothing. It gave me a different mindset growing up there, especially being light-skinned, too. A lot of people don’t understand that, but it is a big difference.
“Every place I went, every school I went to, it was all the worst kind of people you can get into,” he added. “It’s kind of hard to separate yourself from it. I didn’t grow up next to someone who went to college and was a doctor. I grew up with the dope boys. Growing up, kids would look up to that and inspire to be that because that is who they saw was successful. So, for me, I tried to do the exact opposite. Whatever I saw the kid next to me was doing, I tried to do the exact opposite.”
A Late Start
Lee’s family situation also may have helped push him into the world of combat sports. He wanted to be a basketball player growing up, but he said playing anywhere other than a backyard was out of the question because his family could not afford to buy him the necessary gear or pay for travel ball.
Lee eventually got to watch MMA and immediately knew that was what he wanted to do. He could not afford a gym membership, so he joined the wrestling team at Southfield High School.
“I’m one of the rare kind of guys. Most start wrestling, then see MMA and want to do it,” he said. “For me, I saw MMA first and I couldn’t afford to go to a gym, but they had wrestling at the school. So I gave it a shot to see what I could do, and fortunately, I got really good, really fast and that helped me a lot. I didn’t really have any technique. All I could do was double-leg the s--- out of somebody. That was it. Power double and I could stand up … that’s really all you need to be good in wrestling.”
However, Lee was not just an outstanding athlete; he was also a good student, and he was able to parlay his success in the classroom and in wrestling into an opportunity to compete in college. He eventually enrolled at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., which is about three hours from Detroit.
“It might as well have been a whole different planet. It was such a complete contrast from anything I’d ever seen,” Lee said. “If I had never went to college, I’d be probably be hitting people over the head, for real. I’d be either hitting people over the head, dead or in jail. It was one or the other.
“Wrestling and fighting was my way into [college],” he added. “They recruited me for wrestling, but I got into the school because I had good grades and kept my head on fairly straight. I’m lucky in that aspect. I wasn’t staying [in Detroit] my whole life. I’m going to be successful one way or the other, whether I have to fight my way out or whatever I got to do.”
Lee’s high school success carried over into college, where he was a NCAA Division II national qualifier. After two years of collegiate wrestling, he decided to forgo his remaining eligibility to enter the world of MMA in 2012. He took 10 amateur fights, winning all 10, before he turned pro.
“I’d say I was always a fighter,” Lee said. “I didn’t start wrestling until I was 16, which in wrestling is like a dinosaur. Mostly kids are like 3 years old or wrestling before they can walk when they get started. I think it was just something in me. Especially when I went to college, a lot of these guys were four-time state champs and they were national champions as little kids, and I would make it a point to go out there and whip their ass just for the fun of it. I think it’s something natural in me. Like I said, growing up [in Detroit], you have to learn how to fight -- especially when you are light-skinned.”
Becoming a Pro
Lee’s career trajectory started to take off after his second professional fight -- a unanimous decision over Mansour Barnaoui at an Instinct MMA event in Montreal. It was there that Lee was discovered by Stéphane Patry, his current manager and the promoter of the show. Barnaoui was 7-0 at the time and being scouted by the UFC. Lee was 1-0 as a pro after posting a 10-0 amateur record.
“He gave me a tough fight, and I realized I had the heart to go through it and come out with a W,” Lee said. “He was at a point in his career where he was being looked at by the UFC, but I went out there and smoked him. I was like, ‘Maybe I could really do this.’ I was too inexperienced at the time for the UFC -- I was only 19 -- but it did connect me with my manager, who was the promoter of the show. He was French-Canadian and really high on the French guy, and for me to go out there and whip his ass … it was the best decision I ever made was to make him my manager.”
All the while Lee was compiling a 6-0 record as a professional MMA fighter, he was also attending classes at Grand Valley, eventually graduating with a degree in biomedical sciences. Then the Ultimate Fighting Championship called with an offer to fight Al Iaquinta at UFC 169.
“I was in disbelief at first,” Lee said. “I was still in college and it was right after finals. I was already feeling good: No more finals, no more school and I was getting ready for the next semester. Then I got the call, and it still didn’t really hit me until I got into the cage.”
Unfortunately for Lee, there was no fairy-tale ending that night, as he suffered the only defeat of his career -- a unanimous decision loss to Iaquinta. Lee did put on an impressive showing, as he came close to ending the fight early in the second round after nearly cinching in a rear-naked choke on Iaquinta. However, Iaquinta escaped Lee’s clutches and earned the decision.
“I didn’t really train hard for the fight,” Lee said. “Up until that point, everything was easy. I’d go out and train two to three weeks beforehand and then go out and whip the guy’s ass. I tried to do the same thing for my UFC debut, but it really hit me what level I was at once I got into it.”
Lee’s tough upbringing helped him overcome the disappointment of that loss, and it made him rethink his approach. He moved to Las Vegas to get serious about training, and he now undergoes a full eight-week training camp before a fight. He is also committed to taking care of his body and takes every opponent seriously. Moreover, Lee credits the defeat to Iaquinta with helping him get his career going in the right direction.
“The loss really grounded me, and it was good, in hindsight,” Lee said. “At the time, I didn’t want to fight anymore -- I was pissed -- but in hindsight, looking back on it, I see everything I did wrong. You can look at my last fight as compared to that first fight, and I’m a totally different person. My demeanor and everything about me before a fight is completely different.
“If I had won that fight -- and I came close to getting that choke -- there’d be no way I’d be in the position I am right now,” he added. “My head would have blown up 20 times the size it was if I had gone out there and won a fight with barely any training. I probably would have ruined myself had I won that fight.”
Since that loss to Iaquinta, Lee has gone on a four-fight winning streak in the UFC. He won a split decision over Jesse Ronson and two unanimous decisions over Jon Tuck and Michel Richard Cunha dos Prazeres before ending his last fight with a rear-naked choke submission of James Moontasri. The win over Moontasri may have been the fight that opened up everyone’s eyes, as Lee submitted a taekwondo fighter known for his dynamic kicks.
“My standup is already there,” said Lee, disputing critics who think all he can do is wrestle. “If you go back and watch my fights, I’m outstriking those guys, too. Moontasri was considered one of the best strikers in the world, especially at 155 [pounds], but if you go back and watch our fight, I completely outstruck him. Every fight you watch, you’ll see that my standup is already there. It’s just a matter of timing and a matter of chances.
“[Criticism] doesn’t affect me at all,” he added. “People will say what they say regardless. I could have 20 knockouts on my record and people will be like, ‘Now you have no ground game.’ You cannot please everybody. You just have to roll with the punches.”
The Sky’s the Limit
To improve Lee’s timing and chances, he hired some of the best coaches in the business to help him become a contender for the lightweight title. Robert Follis works with Lee on his ground game, while Dewey Cooper and Ray Sefo are helping Lee get better with his striking. Lee also trains at the Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Roy Jones Jr. gyms, where he says he is “outworking the top boxers in the world.”
Follis, who trains Lee at Xtreme Couture, enjoys working with the fast-rising prospect because his focus is on becoming a champion, not the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip.
“One is he’s only 23, and when you are 23 years old in the UFC on a four-fight win streak against some very legit opponents, there is something special about that,” Follis said. “He is one of the youngest UFC guys out there. He has a great look, and he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind. He’s a very nice young man, but he’s not afraid to get out there and say he wants to move up. He’s a consummate professional. That dude is in training, not out partying on the Strip.
“Kevin is always working on getting better, and that is the difference between people who want to be a professional fighter and people who say, ‘I’m willing to do whatever it takes to be a champion,’” he added. “Part of what makes Kevin special is he doesn’t just say it; he walks that walk.”
Follis and Cooper meet regularly to discuss Lee’s progress. Follis said the two trainers have a similar vision about what Lee needs to do to become a UFC champion. Both trainers are also impressed with the progress Lee has made since they started working with him. Follis has worked with Lee on his past four fights, while Cooper has been his striking coach for the past three.
“I started working with Kevin during his second fight in the UFC, and he’s developed tremendously in the last eight months,” Cooper said. “It’s night and day. You wouldn’t believe the difference. He’s really stepped his game up in all aspects of his striking. He has more power, more accuracy. His kicks are much harder because his shins are getting developed. He’s just a better fighter and has improved in all different areas and improved with the different techniques.”
Big Fight on Super Card
As far as the fight against Santos at UFC 194 on Saturday goes, Lee is excited about the opportunity to prove his abilities to the millions of UFC fans around the world who will be watching one of the biggest cards of the year. The audience for the Lee-Santos fight might be even larger, as they are fighting on the free undercard on Fox Sports 1, not the pay-per-view.
“I talked to the UFC about this a while back, and they are building me as a challenger,” Lee said. “I represent a demographic in the UFC they don’t have yet. If they are going to be a mainstream sport here in America, you have to have the black community behind you, especially the young blacks. I’m someone they are really looking to push, and putting me on a card where there will be so much media and so many opportunities for me to get out and interact with the fans will help.”
Follis is also impressed with how much the UFC thinks of Lee and his potential. He said the promotion is doing everything right for Lee, from his push on the UFC 194 card to giving him good fights.
“I expect to see him rise and continue to do very well,” Follis said. “It helps that the UFC likes him and they don’t want to give him easy fights but good, developmentally correct fights -- fights tough enough that if he does the wrong thing, he can be whipped on by guys. He’s fought some guys with legit records who could have been big problems for him had he messed up. He’s gone out and adjusted from each fight, grown and moved forward.”
As far as the Santos fight is concerned, Cooper remains confident Lee will not be overwhelmed by the stage and will come out with his fifth straight victory.
“He needs to follow the game plan -- don’t get careless, don’t make youthful-bliss-type mistakes, stay mentally sharp like he did in his last fight -- and he’ll be successful,” Cooper said. “This is a big, high-pressure show, but if he does what he does every day in the gym, he’ll be OK.”
However, Lee could not help but let his Detroit background show when discussing the fight with Santos, the stage UFC 194 provides and the opportunity to win a post-fight bonus. He even broke down how he thinks the payouts will go.
“It will make it harder to win a bonus, I will say that,” Lee said. “I’ve gotten close with a bunch of bonuses in a couple of fights, but this one will be hard. They’ll give it to Conor [McGregor], and Chris [Weidman] and Luke [Rockhold] will go out and win ‘Fight of the Night.’ So I’m going to have to go out there and knock the kid out with a spinning somersault kick in like three minutes. That’s the goal I’m looking for.”