November 4, 2019

UFC 244: Kevin Lee Is Taking A Riskier, Rougher Road To the Lightweight Title Race

By Raphael Garcia

The question “what’s next” is usually asked of mixed martial arts fighters in the immediate aftermath of their fights, but it is difficult to answer for any competitor, let alone one who competes in the UFC, the pinnacle of the sport. Yet after his spectacular win at UFC 244, Kevin Lee may have figured things out. On Saturday night, he became the first person to defeat Gregor Gillespie, in a fight that was dangerous for him to take. But seeking out that kind of danger could be the blueprint for Lee’s path to title contention.

Heading into Saturday’s fight, Gillespie was a heavy favorite in his lightweight battle against Lee. Gillespie was on an undefeated tear at 155 pounds, stopping all but one of his Octagon opponents. Lee was sliding in the other direction, with a two-fight losing streak and no real identity as either a lightweight or a welterweight. This was the type of fight that was poised to push Gillespie to the upper echelons of the weight class. But instead, Lee needed less than three minutes to send Gillespie slumping to the mat, creating one of the best MMA pictures of 2019.

But where does that win put Lee? In the UFC's promotional rankings, he was ranked #7 at lightweight, while Gillespie was ranked #11, and with the way the voting board frequently works, the win by Lee may not be enough to move him higher. But when asked about potential opponents after his fight, he mentioned a fighter ranked below him: Islam Makhachev.

Makhachev is just as much of a threat as anyone within the UFC lightweight division; don’t let his #15 ranking fool you. He’s riding a six-fight win streak that includes some impressive names. Many of the other top-ranked lightweights would probably avoid the idea of this high-risk fight, but this is the second time that Lee has mentioned him. That gives us insight into the track Lee intends to take to the lightweight title picture.

Understandably, top-ranked fighters in a particular division want to avoid facing the lower-ranked fighters in that division. It’s difficult to even get to a position where one can sniff a title shot in the UFC, and with that title shot comes mounds of opportunity for financial success. When fighters like Gillespie or Makhachev are surging, they pose a clear threat to the fighters ranked at the top of the weight class. And a victory over such an up and comer doesn't usually have much cachet. However, there is something to be said about being able to pile up wins against that kind of fighter. That seems to be Lee's approach at this point in his career.

And it kind of makes sense. Lee has recent losses to Tony Ferguson, Al Iaquinta, and Rafael dos Anjos, all top contenders -- or close to it -- in their respective divisions. None of them, nor anyone else ranked in the Top 5, would see a need to fight Lee now. So instead of sitting out and calling out names of fighters who won't be interested in fighting him, Lee is turning towards those who will, because they're ranked below him. Fighters who are salivating at the idea of fighting a top-ten-ranked opponent and need that win as much as Lee, when Lee calls them out, he creates an atmosphere where the UFC's matchmaking job is made easy, and he positions himself to take out a budding name in the division. All this, while the rest of the top fighters in the weight class push for fights against opponents that aren't in the cards for them. It’s a very smart strategy, one that comes with a lot of risk, but potentially a lot of reward if Lee can make it work like he did against Gillespie.

When Kevin Lee posterized Gregor Gillespie this past weekend at UFC 244, he made the moment his, reminding everyone that he’s a threat at lightweight. And while it's hard to know exactly what’s next for him, if he’s making it a point to try to cut down surging names in the division to carve out his own path to the title "mix," he really may be on to something.

UFC 244
Gregor Gillespie vs. Kevin Lee: Kevin Lee def. Gregor Gillespie via knockout (head kick) at 2:47 of Round 1.

UFC 244: Masvidal vs. Diaz took place November 2, 2019 at Madison Square Garden in New York, New York.

Click HERE for more UFC 244 Post-Fight Analysis


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