Last weekend, Kevin Lee got back in the win column in spectacular fashion. In his return to the lightweight division at UFC 244, “The Motown Phenom” scored a first-round knockout of Gregor Gillespie when he landed a head kick that sent the rising star crashing to the canvas.
Let’s rewind to 2017. Lee was riding high off a five-fight winning streak going into an interim lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson. Before the bout, he struggled to make the championship weight of 155 pounds, in part due to a staph infection. He hit the mark, though — he even checked in a full half a pound below the limit. However, Ferguson ended up winning via triangle choke against a visibly drained Lee.
It was Lee’s first loss in two years. Unfortunately for him, it would not be the biggest. On Dec. 17, 2017, Lee’s head coach Robert Follis took his own life. The effects were seen in the cage.
After dominating in his fight against Edson Barbosa, Lee narrowly escaped with a victory. He was even nearly knocked out by the Brazilian in the third round. A year later — and just two days before the anniversary of Follis’s passing — Lee suffered a shocking loss to Al Iaquinta on the scorecards. Finally, there was the brutal defeat to Rafael dos Anjos at welterweight.
Lee mentioned the confidence his former coach instilled in him during an appearance on MMA Junkie Radio. After hitting career highs, Lee suffered a devastating fall from grace. The man that changed his game was gone. He needed to regroup, and he needed someone similar to the match made in heaven that he and Follis had been.
Lee traveled north of the border, far from the dry, sandy, neon-lit Las Vegas to a cold city similar to his home of Detroit. He went to Montreal, Quebec, Canada and the famous Tristar Gym, home to legendary coach Firas Zahabi.
At first glance, Lee is actually very reminiscent of Zahabi’s former star pupil Georges St-Pierre. Lee stands 5-foot-9, with a 77-inch reach; GSP check in at 5-foot-10, with a 76-inch reach. Both men are faster and freakishly stronger than the competition. Then there’s their main skill set. Although it wasn’t GSP’s base, his wrestling and grappling was always feared. The same goes for Lee, who is a slick submission artist with smothering top control and life-changing ground-and-pound.
All this lends itself to the same style many successful Tristar fighters have implemented. Zahabi added subtle footwork, a bludgeoning jab, and structure to the games of GSP, John Makdessi and Rory MacDonald. MacDonald, who before Zahabi’s teachings was a bit wild at times, brought to the dance his ferocity. The same can be said for Lee.
All the technical aspects aside, it’s just a fantastic pairing, with an all-time-great coach and a fighter with all-time-great potential. With the help of Zahabi, Lee delivered more than just a 2019 “Knockout of the Year” candidate. He delivered to us a story of resurgence, a story of hope, and a story of remarkable recovery.
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