Kevin Lee (Dan Kuhl/Combat Press)

Can Kevin Lee Build Momentum at UFC on ESPN 30?

Kevin Lee makes his return from injury to face Daniel Rodriguez on this Saturday’s UFC Fight Night card.

Lee will be stepping foot in the Octagon for the first time in 17 months after tearing both of his ACLs in 2020. He will be moving back up to welterweight after missing weight in his last bout. Can this change of direction help Lee build momentum in his career?

Lee made his professional debut at just 19 years of age and had a strong start to his career. He won his first seven bouts in small promotions before signing with the UFC in 2014. Despite losing his UFC debut, the 28-year-old went on to build an impressive resume. He won nine of his next 10 bouts, showcasing his excellent wrestling ability, crisp striking and athleticism. This earned him an interim title fight against Tony Ferguson in October 2017.


Lee took Ferguson down in the first round but had to defend submission attempts from the California-born fighter. After this, he mounted Ferguson and reigned down heavy blows, appearing to be on the verge of getting a finish. Ferguson displayed his durability and found a way to survive. Lee seemed to have expended all of his energy in this sequence and began to slow down.

He became static and allowed Ferguson to connect regularly with his jabs. He attempted a takedown in the second round but his intentions seemed obvious and this was easily stuffed by Ferguson. Lee managed to get “El Cucuy” down early in the third frame, but Ferguson soon got back to his feet. He started to walk Lee down and despite getting taken down, he was the man that was delivering the offense.

Ferguson put Lee in an armbar which the Detroit native escaped from. Ferguson then landed a series of elbows from the bottom. Shortly afterwards, Ferguson locked in a triangle choke which Lee made little attempt to defend and tapped out. A fight that began so well for Lee ended in an extremely disappointing manner.

Lee rebounded from this loss with a win over Edson Barboza but missed weight for the bout. As a result of his continued issues with his weight, Lee moved up to welterweight. He faced former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. He was submitted in the fourth round and appeared to be at a crossroads in his career.

The 28-year-old made some changes to his training structure and began training with acclaimed coach Firas Zahabi at the TriStar gym in Montreal. He returned to lightweight and delivered a highlight-reel head-kick knockout of Gregor Gillespie in the first round of their fight at UFC 244. This looked like it would be the turning point in Lee’s career. However, this would prove to be yet another false dawn in what was becoming a difficult period in his career.

Lee was then scheduled to fight the rising Charles Oliveira in the main event of a fight night card in Brazil in March 2020. Lee missed weight for this contest, coming in at 158.5 pounds. This weight miss contributed to a sloppy performance from Lee. He was out-struck and out-grappled for the majority of the bout and was submitted in the third round by a guillotine choke after he attempted a takedown.

The fight happened during the outbreak of COVID-19. It was the first UFC event to be affected by the pandemic and following speculation over whether it would actually take place, the card went ahead in front of no fans. While Lee could not have anticipated the pandemic disrupting his fight week, it was his subpar preparation that contributed to his problems.

He revealed in an interview days afterwards that he didn’t have a nutritionist for this fight. He said that he had wrongly assumed that the UFC would accommodate him in this area, like they had done during his camp for the Gillespie bout. This lack of foresight was alarming for an athlete competing at the highest level.

A lack of discipline has hindered Lee throughout his career. He has missed weight on a scarcely believable four occasions, with two of those being in the UFC. Lee should not have such issues at welterweight, but must still master this aspect of the sport. It is not feasible for a fighter to thrive at the elite level with this issue and is a sign of a lack of professionalism. The UFC is not likely to tolerate it on many more occasions.

Lee has some excellent physical and technical attributes, but his poor decision making both inside and outside the Octagon could contribute to him failing to build on the potential he once showed. Difficult weight cuts have caused Lee to fatigue in most of his losses. However, this is not the only reason why he has been defeated in these instances.

His tendency to shoot for takedowns when he is exhausted has often ended with him getting submitted. Wrestling is his strongest skillset, so it is understandable that he reverts to this when under pressure. But his failure to learn from this tendency has played a part in his stagnation as a fighter.

Lee announced his intention to make a permanent move to welterweight upon his return from injury this year. He was scheduled to fight Sean Brady at UFC 264, but the bout was rescheduled due to an injury suffered by Lee. It was then due to happen this weekend, but this time Brady withdrew after he had a foot infection. Brady was subsequently replaced by Daniel Rodriguez.

Lee is coming off not one, but two torn ACLs and the subsequent surgeries that were required to fix them. On paper, Rodriguez has the tools to present a difficult challenge for Lee. He is a big welterweight who has won five of his six Octagon appearances. He is an accurate, technical striker who possesses knockout power. Rodriguez is a physically imposing individual and will certainly be able to test Lee’s mobility and ability to take a punch.

However, Rodriguez did show some deficiencies in his takedown defense in his fight against Mike Perry. Lee will know that if a fighter who is less technically skilled like Perry can have success on the ground against Rodriguez, then he can too.

This Saturday is a chance for Lee to reverse the recent decline in his career. Rodriguez is a tough opponent, but is the type of fighter that Lee should overcome. If he is successful, he will be able to turn a corner in his career and open up a path towards a title in a new weight class. But if Lee comes up short once more, then his window of opportunity could very well close.