Kevin Lee re-watched his 2014 meeting with Al Iaquinta when discussions first arose for the two lightweight contenders to rematch at UFC on FOX 31. Lee was just 21 years old back in that UFC 169 fight, which marked the beginning of Lee’s Octagon run, and the luckless debut served as an abrupt realization for the Detroit product that there are levels to this game. Iaquinta handed the still-green prospect the first defeat of his mixed martial arts career, besting Lee via unanimous decision in a closely contested contest.
Lee has gone on since to defy any expectations for his career. Now 26 years old, “The Motown Phenom” has become a bonafide UFC lightweight title contender. He has won 10 of 12 outings since his rude awakening against Iaquinta and established himself as one of the best in the world at 155 pounds, a run highlighted by recent stoppage wins over Edson Barboza, Michael Chiesa, and Francisco Trinaldo. And now Lee will get a chance to test his growth against the same man who started him down this path when he meets Iaquinta for a second time on Dec. 15 in Milwaukee to close out the last-ever UFC on FOX show.
“I just feel like I’m a completely different fighter from that [2014 fight], and I think anybody who watches that and then goes back and watches me in my recent years, you can just tell I’m a different man than that,” Lee said Monday on The MMA Hour.
“That was the first time that I made a big jump up. I was fighting in front of country bars and I didn’t come from another organization like a Bellator or a ONE FC or whatever. I [went from fighting] like in front of 500 people to the Prudential Center, and to be honest, Al was really the first really tough guy that I fought. Everybody before then, they just didn’t give me much challenge. So it was a big learning experience for me. At the time, it was the toughest fight, but I’ve had 12 fights since then, all at a higher level. I’ve fought much tougher guys, and you’re just learning, you learn through that experience. And yeah, maybe my striking defense has gotten a whole lot better, but my offense got a lot better too, so that’s what he’s going to see on Saturday. I’m worried about that offense — I’m gonna put that on him.”
Much has changed for Lee (17-3) since his 2014 debut against Iaquinta. Back then, Lee was still splitting his days between training MMA part-time and studying part-time as a college student in search of a biomedical sciences degree. Martial arts were only half of his focus, and Lee’s limited routine with his former coach Sean Dizay was worlds away from how he is preparing these days in Las Vegas.
“It was really just me and [Dizay] just doing it,” Lee said. “I didn’t really have many training partners at all. I was still at college at the time when they gave me that fight, and since then, as soon as that fight was over, I knew I had to make some changes and really start to train like a professional, just because I wasn’t getting in the training that I should. I would train like halfway once a day and then I’d go and do a bunch of other things. So, right after that fight is when I moved to Las Vegas and really got behind a good coach.”
Lee connected with Robert Follis following the Iaquinta loss, a highly respected head coach who tragically passed away in late 2017. Follis helped mold Lee into a world-class lightweight and guided him to his first title opportunity against Tony Ferguson. Lee has continued to train in Las Vegas in the year since the death of his coach, splitting his team between Team Quest, the UFC Performance Institute, and a variety of other trainers. His dominant April victory over Barboza marked the first step for Lee in his post-Follis world, cementing his growth in the minds of many and his rise from prospect to title contender.
Iaquinta, on the other hand, has not been nearly as active since UFC 169. Between injuries and a long-running feud with promotion officials, Iaquinta has fought just twice since mid-2015, knocking out Diego Sanchez with a first-round assault then dropping a decision in a last-second title challenge opposite Khabib Nurmagomedov. And when Lee assesses his upcoming foe, he sees a man who hasn’t made nearly many improvements to his game as he has to his own since that first meeting back in 2014.
“I think it’s more he has just changed with time,” Lee said of Iaquinta. “He’s gotten a little bit older. But I’ve had 12 fights since our fight, and he’s only had [seven], and he’s taken years off in there and he’s a real estate agent now. He’s going around, he’s worried about other things. He’s the one that’s doing something else. When we fought the first time, he had so much more experience over me. He had been through The Ultimate Fighter, he had already had three or four fights in the UFC, and now the tables have flipped a little bit. This is what I do full-time and I think that’s what’s really going to show through, is the evolution.
“He’s got some things that I’ve got to watch out for,” Lee continued. “Al’s a tough guy, I’m not going to take it away from him. I don’t really like him, but I’m going to respect his style and I’m going to respect his skills. He could show up and he’s never going to go away, and it’s going to make for a damn good fight, so I’ve made this training camp the hardest that it could possibly be because I know he’s going to give me a good fight.”
Lee said he hopes a victory over Iaquinta on Saturday leads to a shot against Nurmagomedov, the undefeated lightweight titleholder who Lee has been calling out for years, even long before the Dagestani fighter was champion.
As for Iaquinta, Lee expressed his respect for the Long Island native but indicated that UFC on FOX 31 could mark the end of Iaquinta’s title hopes.
“He’s got some good qualities probably, but we just are two different types of people,” Lee said. “We’ve crossed paths a couple times in these last years, and we’re just two different [people]. He’s that Jersey boy that’s going to get drunk and f*ck up a hotel room, and I just don’t think there’s a — his voice shouldn’t be no bigger than it already is, so I feel like it’s my personal duty to get him up out of there and put him back on the prelims.”