In comparing UFC lightweight Kevin Lee's past to his present, a success story forms.
To the casual observer, it's the type of tale with some finality. A city-born minority kid rose above the menacing streets of Detroit, propelled himself to Las Vegas with his fists and shins, signed on the dotted line with the UFC, won a few fights and got married, all while transplanting his immediate family to Sin City so they could watch narrative unfold.
To Lee, however, we're not even breaking for intermission just yet.
"The journey is only complete when everybody makes it," Lee told MMA Fighting. "It's not just when I make it. I have a whole family that's still back in Detroit. It's when everybody makes it – that's when I'll be able to sit back and be like, 'Wow, I made it. I did it.'
"My grandma had 10 kids, man. I still have aunts, uncles, who are out in Detroit struggling."
At 4-1 inside the UFC Octagon and 11-1 overall, the 23-year-old fighter from Joy and Evergreen boasts a resume comparable to any of the promotion's young stars. When you add in the training he receives on a daily basis – at Xtreme Couture, Robert Drysdale Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Roy Jones Jr. Fight Academy and Mayweather Boxing Club – Lee's devotion to shaping and honing his MMA skill set in all areas becomes clear.
"I don't think you can settle into one particular style," Lee said. "You look at Jon Jones, and he's a guy whose fight style has changed so much, even between fights. That's what keeps him at the top. Once you become static and you stay the same way and you don't adapt, that's when you start to lose. That's when you're finished. And once that happens to me, that's when I'll be finished. That's when I'll move on to something else. I'll never become static and still be able to compete at this high of a level."
Currently, Lee's work paid off in the form of a four-fight winning streak, the latest of which was a first-round rear-naked choke of taekwondo expert James Moontasri at UFC Fight Night 71 in July. It was Lee's first finish in the UFC, and while he admits there's no disappointment in a tidy, three-minute victory, he didn't quite meet the goal he had set for himself leading into the fight.
"I wanted to get the knockout versus James, but I feel that I got to showcase a lot of my standup in that fight and out-kick him, even though I still think he's one of the best strikers in the division (when he comes back down to 155)," Lee said. "So I think I got to show I can out-kick him. I wanted the knockout, but I didn't get it. It just boosted my confidence even more because now I see that's there for the taking. And it's a lot easier than fighting a 15-minute brawl. I like getting in there and getting my money quick."
Now facing Leonardo Santos – a third-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu – Dec. 12 at UFC 194, Lee once again embraces the opportunity to test his foe at his strengths. Out-kicking the taekwondo practitioner earned him a fancy feather for his cap in his last outing. This time, hanging with – and besting – Santos on the mats will bring another.
"Most fights hit the mat. We all understand that," Lee said. "At some point, the fight's going to hit the mat, and when it does, I'm going to outclass him [Santos] there. But my standup is light-years ahead of his. I think he's too slow, too easy to hit and I'm going to beat him up. I'm going to look for that knockout. I think he's too slow and too easy to hit to not take advantage of that first and foremost.
"It's just like, I still have a lot of respect for James' standup, but when we went out there, I made it a point to show him his A-game wasn't good enough. I'll take the fight wherever. I can hang with anybody in any facet of the fight. If it was Anthony Pettis out there and we were throwing kicks to the body, I feel like I'd take him."
While many fighters refuse to look past an opponent, parroting the fact that they're focused on one fighter and one fighter only during pre-fight interviews, Lee takes a different route. Santos deserves his respect, sure – and he has it. But Lee's final destination cannot be fulfilled at UFC 194. There's more waiting down the road, and Lee has already mapped his route.
"I think [UFC lightweight title challenger Donald] Cerrone's going to beat up on [UFC lightweight champion Rafael] dos Anjos a week later [at UFC on Fox 17], and I'm looking to fight [Al] Iaquinta in New York, when they come to New York at Madison Square Garden," Lee said. "Right after that, it's a number-one contender's fight, then I'll fight Cerrone for the belt. I'll box circles around him and take the belt home.
"That's the timeline I'm looking at. I'm not looking past him [Santos], I'm looking through him."
Should Lee fulfill his prophecy, it'd represent the type of story that'd have any major film producer scrambling for the checkbook and pen.
An inner-city teenager finds out about the sport of MMA in 2009 courtesy of a Georges St-Pierre vs. B.J. Penn UFC: Primetime special. He dedicates himself to the sport two years later, and by 2014, at the age of 21 and undefeated at 7-0, he joins the UFC's lightweight roster.
You could throw in the fact that his parents' house was foreclosed when he was a teenager and he and his family had to pack it in and shack up with a relative until they landed back on their feet. You could talk about the allure of the streets – drugs traded for money, money traded for respect and a sense of self-worth – that loomed every time things got hard. You could talk about the five childhood friends – two dead, one in jail, the other two just gone – who remind Lee where he's from and what he's overcome.
Or, you could focus on the present and outline a plan of attack that ends in gold.
It's the latter mentality that consumes Lee today. He won't shy away from discussing his upbringing and his past, but he damn sure won't let it dictate where he's going today, either. He lives in a different time, in a different place, surrounded by a different cast and crew, and the mission is simple: keep grinding, keep improving, keep winning.
"I'm still in that young, 'Go, go, go!' mode, so it's hard for me to sit back and just look where I've been and where I've gone," Lee said. "And I don't think that I've made it yet. I still have a ways to go. I think even when I beat Cerrone for that title, I still won't sit back and be like, 'Oh, we're done now. Look at where we're at.' I think I'll still be pushing it. It won't matter.
"You hear about some of the greats, like Floyd Mayweather and those guys, who made all the money in the world – you run out of things to buy because you've made so much money. What keeps them motivated? It's a self-motivation. I fight for the money right now, but at some point I will have enough money. I've accepted that. My will is to get better and keep adapting – there's always more to learn from everybody – so that'll make the difference."