Kevin Lee’s first foray into the world’s biggest mixed martial arts organisation wasn’t ideal. He dropped a decision to veteran banger Al Iaquinta, followed it up with a close split-decision win, then went the distance a couple more times against solid competition. For a decorated wrestler, though, that career trajectory isn’t unusual: the trick is learning to put a solid command of takedowns together with new skills like striking and grappling. Lee learned fast: he’s now one of the most prolific finishers in the lightweight division, with a string of rear naked chokes on his resume, including a recent victory against The Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa in his first main event. Now he’s on a collision course with the elite of the division – and still improving at speed. So what’s he learned along the way?
1. Learn From Everyone, And Everything
Lee started young, and got good fast. The key, he says, is to constantly move forward. ‘I think I’m a little smarter than some of the other guys,’ says Lee. ‘I try and surround myself with the people who have already been world champions and have already been at the highest level so they can show me the right things to do. I try and be as well-rounded as possible. If something works I take it, if something doesn’t, then I leave it. It’s as simple as that. For me that goes for any style of fighting regardless of whether it’s taekwondo, kickboxing or wrestling and I think I’m one of those guys who brings it all together better than most other fighters. I try and stay consistent and I understand that getting that experience whether it’s from a win or a defeat is the most important thing.’
2. Your Brain Is A Muscle
Lee’s famed for his trash talk, and – arguably – was inside Chiesa’s head before their fight even started. It’s something he consciously works on. ‘The mental game is something that comes a little more natural for me than most guys. It’s something you have to study though and work at. When I talk about being a well-rounded fighter, it’s more than just being able to box or to wrestle or being able to strike, it’s also about learning that mental side of fighting. So that’s understanding whether the guy opposite you is a great competitor, whether he is a brave fighter, whether he likes to street fight or whether he is a great athlete who just likes to fight. It’s about understanding and knowing what your opponent is capable of before stepping into the Octagon. It takes a long time and a lot of study but I’m a student of the game, so that’s work I work with, and every day I’m getting better.’
‘Floyd has such a massive advantage over McGregor, not only because he is a better boxer but because he’s a better championship fighter’
3. Champions Think Different Too
Lee frequently trains at Floyd Mayweather’s gym in Vegas, and the 49-0 champ’s team reportedly reached out to him even before the Conor McGregor fight was finalised. ‘I haven’t helped him yet but I’ve watched a couple of his training camps already,’ says Lee. ‘He asked me to train with him about a month ago but I had to take care of the fight with Chiesa first. I would help him because I offer something a little bit different to what he usually gets in the ring. Floyd is smart and he understands that there is a mental side to the game as well.
‘As MMA fighters, we move a little bit different to boxers, our clinch is different and even the timing of our punches are different. You can say it’s better or worse but regardless it’s different and I think that’s what separates Floyd from other boxers, he understands that. You’re talking about a world champion, somebody who already has that unrivalled experience; he won’t overlook someone like Conor, even though he might feel as though he won’t be able to box with him. Sometimes you do lose to a guy who is less built than you so you have to prepare for it all. Floyd has such a massive advantage in this fight, not only because he is a better boxer but because he’s a better championship fighter.’
4. A Modern Mindset Is Important
‘In MMA, we approach every aspect in a more scientific way than in boxing,’ says Lee. ‘Boxing is still stuck in that old school mentality about breaking the body down. They also don’t tend to cut weight either. As MMA fighters, we have to pay more attention to that and be careful about what we eat. Boxers can get away with eating junk food but MMA fighters can’t. There’s also a time element involved, which means that we approach training differently. I train between four gyms; I train my Jiu Jitsu at Robert Drysdale, I train my wrestling at Strict Detroit, and I train my kickboxing at One Kicks, so even that time to travel between those different gyms and getting all that different expertise takes time. In boxing it’s all about repetition, repetition, repetition and doing the same thing over and over again. MMA is more fun because you get to learn all these different styles of fighting.’
‘You can do everything for one second – so you can do it for another second too’
5. You Can Do Anything For The Next 10 Seconds
‘My coach in wrestling said to me you can do everything for one second, so if you can do anything for one second, you can do it for another second. If you can do it for another second, you can do it for five seconds, 10 seconds, 30 seconds. You can do it for a minute. You can then keep doing it for five minutes and so on. I just try and remind myself of that all the time. That’s something that has really stuck with me. If you’re getting choked during a fight and you want to quit but you say to yourself “I can hold this for one second” and then you hold it for another second and then another second, you can always get your way out of it.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Lee’s mauling of Chiesa by signing up to UFC Fight Pass – your first week’s free, which should give you long enough to enjoy his back catalogue.