HEYDORN’S TAKE: Kevin Lee set for a rocket ride to the next level with a win at UFC 216

BY ZACK HEYDORN, MMATorch Contributor

Let’s start with a prediction. My glowing crystal ball tells me that Kevin Lee will defeat Tony Ferguson at UFC 216 and become the Interim Lightweight World Champion in the UFC. In reality, he’ll become a lot more than that. With a win this weekend, Kevin Lee’s rocket launches off as he’ll become the next big shiny toy in UFC’s emptying toy chest. Why? It’s simple. Dana White’s most consistent and marketable draws of the past have gone dry. Ronda Rousey appears to be headed to the world of pro wrestling, Jon Jones to the unemployment line, and his golden goose, Conor McGregor, has essentially outgrown the UFC by pricing himself out of being a consistent fighter with the company. The old toys just aren’t working like they used to. The roster holes need to be filled and the opportunity is as ripe as ever for fighters to make their jump to the next level. Starting on Saturday, that line starts behind Kevin Lee.

In the business of fighting, personality is almost as important as skill. In big money fights, the fighters need to promote the fight in bombastic fashion to get the most eyes on the product. Personality is how that promotion happens.  Kevin Lee’s personality lends itself perfectly for that role in UFC. He’s brash, unapologetically confident, and can talk his way into building up fights. Just this week Lee made headlines by calling out UFC Lightweight Champion and prize fighter, Conor McGregor, saying “As far as I’m concerned the man has lost three of his last four fights. I don’t even think he beat Nate Diaz the second time. I like a big challenge, so he’s gotta show me a little bit.” Lee then continued by saying in regards to McGregor, “So after this one, maybe I might give him a shot at the title. Maybe, I don’t know. We’ll see how he kind of reacts. Maybe he should fight Nate again and prove that he can fight me.”

Yes, we all know Lee certainly isn’t turning down a McGregor payday. But, see what he did there? He creatively promoted Saturday’s fight and simultaneously got the attention of the biggest fighter in the game. With these comments, he’s promoting two fights at once. Look, Conor McGregor has proved time and time again that he is unbeatable when it comes to psychological warfare before a fight. Lee’s strategy could easily come back to haunt him. That isn’t the point though. The point is he’s comfortable in this role. He believes in himself and that confidence attracts attention. In turn, the UFC is attracted to him. Kevin Lee is a young fighter with a plethora of professional experience in the game. At 25, he still has many walks to the octagon to make and with his 16-2 record, he is a veteran that understands the ins and outs including promotion, marketing, and branding. That is prime real estate for a company like UFC.

Kevin Lee has a massive chip on his shoulder and something to prove to himself and to his company as well. Lee has been critical of other fighters and the MMA media for focusing attention on unproven talent. Earlier this year, Lee ranted on the MMA Hour about how Mickey Gall unfairly got a head start up the UFC mountain by saying, “Mickey Gall has never fought a professional fight. Sage was the first real fighter that he ever fought and even Sage don’t deserve to be there, so he ain’t fought no pro fights. Why give him the airtime over guys that already got like eight, nine, ten UFC fights, and they’re real fights against real fighters that don’t get as much airtime? You’ve just got these big fights and just because people hear his name, they think (he’s really good). It’s bullshit, you know?” Gall was picked out of obscurity to face former WWE World Champion, CM Punk, in his UFC debut back in November of 2016. Kevin Lee obviously feels that he hasn’t received opportunities that he and his record say he deserved. This chip on his shoulder feeds his passion. Because of it, he prospers as does the UFC. Top performers in any business utilize a similar chip to drive their work and success. It’s a telltale sign of a superstar.

We can’t forget that Kevin Lee is also an incredibly talented fighter. He’s won his last five fights, four of which by submission or TKO. In two of those, he won Performance of the Night honors. Tony Ferguson is on a nice roll, but Lee clearly is as well. Lee is dangerous on the mat and while he typically doesn’t finish opponents via a knockout punch, his striking is good enough to setup the takedowns and submissions that he favors. Lee’s skills counter Ferguson’s well which makes their bout that much more intriguing. To be a main attraction in the UFC, you need to win first and foremost. Lee has done that and is looking at the biggest win of his career come Saturday night.

Folks, that’s a complete package. Kevin Lee has a unique “it” factor and a chipped shoulder that is primed to carry UFC’s load into the future. He’s young, talented, passionate, and has his first real platform on Saturday at UFC 216. The story of PPV buys for the UFC in 2017 is a bleak one. They need talented and charismatic fighters to draw money and more buys when the calendar turns to 2018. This weekend, Lee has a chance to prove to himself as that fighter. If he does, it’s time for liftoff. Conor McGregor and the biggest payday possible will loom and the fight world will be his oyster. All he needs to do is win.

The fight game is a business. There’s more to it than just fighting. That simple fact is why some of the best fighters in the world don’t make the most money and don’t get the most attention. Its why some fighters get the UFC rocket strapped to them and why others don’t. The rocket is already strapped to Kevin Lee. With a win on Saturday at UFC 216, the fuse gets lit.

NOW CHECK OUT HEYDORN’S PREVIOUS TAKE: Daniel Cormier deserves all the attention from fight fans during the Jon Jones steroid saga



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