Kevin Lee won big at UFC Fight Night 128, but his victory raises as many questions as it answered.
Atlantic City, NJ — Despite a blown weight cut and the emotional turmoil that came with it, Kevin Lee entered the octagon Saturday in Atlantic City with a look of sheer determination on his face. Claiming in advance that he was the most well-rounded fighter in the UFC’s lightweight division, Lee looked to prove just that. He stood and traded with Edson Barboza early, until a high double leg attempt he was able to finish with an inside trip. That led to some solid ground and pound for Lee, between short-lived submission attempts by Barboza off his back.
Perhaps the most surprising thing, throughout the course of the bout, was how shockingly unprepared Barboza seemed for the takedown game. It was a theme that carried over from his previous fight, with Khabib Nurmagomedov. A lot of comparisons will be made in the weeks that follow between the two bouts, and for good reason. They come off like two sides of the same coin.
The lone hiccup for Lee, a third round spinning back kick that caught him on the side of the head, wobbling the fighter. Like something out of a cartoon. Lee danced, wobbled, nearly collapsed, then grabbed Barboza’s leg and held on for dear life. Yet somehow he survived, spending some time in Barboza’s guard. When they did stand back up, Barboza tried the same trick again, with no luck. Then a flying knee attempt. Lee’s eyes screamed that he was still not all there.
Then it was Lee with the head kicks, Lee taking control back after surviving the scare. You’ll see memes and GIFs of the moment for months to come, but ultimately, it’s the end result that matters.
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Round four saw the standup war continue until Lee finally thought better of it and took the fight down. Oddly in a fight featuring a Brazilian versus an American, the crowd was particularly harsh on Lee. A “stand them up” chant roared throughout the Boardwalk Hall. Lee couldn’t buy a cheer at points.
Barboza would hit home with that spinning back kick again in round five, only this time, Lee was able to fully block it. Then came that dominant grappling, and more unanswered blows; Barboza began to look, frankly, exhausted. He refused to quit on his own, but soon enough, the ref had called in the doctor, and she made the decision for him. The end result, a TKO win for Lee.
After the bout, he faced the media, looking surprisingly fresh for a man who went the better part of five rounds. On the subject of a fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov, and why he deserved it over names like Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier, Lee was candid in his response. “[Eddie] was too fat a little while ago,” he pointed out. “If he want the work, he can get it. Dustin? If the folks want to see Dustin, then they will. But I don’t feel like he raises many questions that really need to be answered. I feel like I bring a complete style to this game.”
More importantly, “Khabib can’t out-wrestle me, can’t outwork me, can’t out-strike me. We’re going to see what’s the better fight, and what the UFC really wants, because that’s what really matters.”
Then there’s the question of weight, and whether the UFC would want to grant a title shot to a man who missed the limit in his last bout. Lee saw the blown weight cut as another test of his mental strength. “Everything in me just wanted to clam up,” he told Cageside Press. “I never missed weight before in my life. It just was a missed timing thing. I felt like if I had an extra fifteen minutes, I would have had it down.”
“But as soon as it happened, it happened,” he continued, adding “I gotta focus on the fight. I pushed forward. That just shows the mental strength.” Because, like a “true champion, you gotta keep pushing forward.”
Lee did bring up the suggestion of a 165lb weight class, saying he wished more fighters would push for it. And welterweight is a possibility, though it seems like for now, lightweight will remain his home. Lee’s win certainly raised plenty of questions Saturday. Who he meets next is no doubt the biggest in the wake of UFC Atlantic City.