There’s a growing sense lightweight Kevin Lee could be the UFC’s next superstar-in-waiting. The superstar they need.
But there’s a problem, a hurdle he must first overcome. Its name is Tony Ferguson. Lee fights him this Saturday (October 7) and knows all claims to future superstardom will fall by the wayside, if only temporarily, should he come up short in his first shot at UFC gold (the 155lb interim title).
Win, though, and you’ll see a lot of people all of a sudden become very excited about ‘The Motown Phenom’; a star-making performance, they will call it; the one that made a future Conor McGregor opponent of a young man who once grew up in Detroit and got his big break the hard way. You see, if Kevin Lee beats Tony Ferguson this weekend he doesn’t just become UFC interim champion. He also becomes the opponent Conor McGregor has been looking for, the lightweight not named Nate Diaz who is considered worthy of the Irishman training for ten weeks to fight.
Tony Ferguson, for whatever reason, doesn’t carry that same appeal. At least not today, three days from UFC 216. Perhaps it’s because he is 33 years of age and therefore eight years Lee’s senior. Or perhaps it has more to do with Ferguson’s awkwardness, in and out of the Octagon, and the sometimes aloof and angry nature of his pre-fight patter. Certainly, he’s without Lee’s charm. He doesn’t project the smile or the twinkle in the eye or the tongue in the cheek. He is as serious a pre-fight salesman as he is a mid-fight competitor. For Ferguson, there is no let-up, no difference.
The thing is, however, if we’re talking marketability, none of that really crosses over. It’s not what the people want to see or hear. Sure, if he ends up outclassing Lee on Saturday night, which isn’t impossible, the perception of Ferguson might change and his brilliant nine-fight winning run, which would become ten with Lee’s scalp, will find new context. But, for now, Ferguson is viewed as solid rather than spectacular.
Lee is the one with the potential, they say, to become something more; something greater than solid. At 25, he is that rare thing in MMA: a young fighter in and around the elite level of competition. He is also talented, well-versed in all areas of the game, and extremely exciting to watch, regardless of whether his fights require him to strike or grapple. Lee moves at a rate of knots. He looks for the finish. He is unpredictable.
Best of all, though, and the thing that separates him from Ferguson, is his amiable demeanour away from combat. Here, in the area of the game that makes or breaks fighters in terms of earning power, Lee, with a bit of seasoning, could soon become a revelation. Relatively articulate, he can hold his own in a slanging match just as adeptly as he can recall the hardship of growing up in Detroit and then being able to introduce his family to his new pad in Las Vegas. He’s a story-teller, a fight-seller. He’s a man after Conor McGregor’s own heart. He dresses with style and walks with a strut. He makes an effort. He gets it.
“It will be on my terms,” Lee said during a pre-fight media scrum on Monday. “It will be on my timetable. I’m expecting to take this fight. I’m doing the hard work. I’m doing the heavy lifting. I’m fighting Tony. Nobody wanted to fight Tony. Conor didn’t want to fight Tony.
“It will be on my timetable. I’ll tell him when we’re going to fight.”
Like a sweet symphony cutting through elevator music, those are the words of a 24-year-old full of ambition and hubris.
“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,” Lee continued. “I like a big challenge, so he’s got to show me a little bit. He’s a small dude, too: he’s 145 (pounds). He was getting out-wrestled by a dude who’s 40 years old and a boxer. He was getting him in the clinches and out-wrestling him. I mean, he’s got to show a little bit more than that to me.
“So, after this one, maybe I might give him a shot at the title. Maybe. I don’t know. We’ll see how he reacts. Maybe he should fight Nate again and prove that he can fight me.”
See. He gets it. Already, like the best of them, he’s thinking a step or two ahead and looking to engage a renowned talker in a debate.
But not so fast. The other key difference between Ferguson and Lee is this: ‘El Cucuy’ is a little further along and has proven himself against men like Rafael dos Anjos and Edson Barboza. Lee, in contrast, scored the best win of his career last time out, in June, when submitting Michael Chiesa in the first round. A fine result on paper, and an impressive performance, Lee is nonetheless short of top-level experience and goes into Saturday’s bout an underdog in the eyes of many. He’s the one with it all to prove.
And, in the end, as important as talking is, it remains the easy part. It’s the fighting, the winning, the backing it all up that is the tough part. Even Conor McGregor, king of the craic, knows that. He has proven himself. He has talked the talk and walked the walk (in a cage rather than a boxing ring).
Now is the time for Kevin Lee to do the same. The chance has come early for him, admittedly, and against a formidable opponent, but he’s buoyed by momentum, full of self-belief and, should he win, right in line to become one of the new faces of the new-look UFC.