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Kevin Lee: Dustin Poirier vs. Justin Gaethje didn’t seem ‘championship-level’

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Kevin Lee was as entertained as everyone else on Saturday night, seeing Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje throw down for the better part of four rounds. That UFC on FOX 29 main event clash saw Poirier come out on top via TKO and pick up his seventh win in eight bouts (excluding one no-contest) and afterwards “The Diamond” spoke about wanting a crack at lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.

On that front, Lee thinks the hype from this weekend has gone too far.

“The Motown Phenom” appeared on The MMA Hour on Monday, where he made it clear that while Poirier and Gaethje put on a fun fight, he doesn’t think they belong in the upper echelon of the 155-pound division.

“I seen it,” Lee said. “I know Poirier was calling for a title fight and all this but I don’t know, it just seems like those dudes are in a different category. Can you really look at it and say Poirier’s a championship-level fighter? I just don’t see it. He looked good. He did good versus Gaethje, it was an exciting fight, I think he should go out and look for more exciting fights, but it didn’t really seem like a championship-level fight to me to be honest.”

Lee isn’t taking anything away from Poirier’s ability to entertain. He and Gaethje won the evening’s Fight of the Night award, the fifth time Poirier has claimed that accolade. His crowd-pleasing style is clearly working, but Lee is skeptical that he has what it takes to dethrone Nurmagomedov, who recently improved to 26-0 in his pro career with a five-round unanimous decision win over Al Iaquinta that has earned him undisputed lightweight champion status as far as the UFC is concerned.

So far, nobody has managed to even take a round from Nurmagomedov, and Lee thinks Poirier would falter like everyone else.

“Speaking as a fan, what are you really looking for?” Lee said. “He’s just going to go out there and get taken down by Khabib, he’s going to fight just like anybody else will fight Khabib or fight some of these top guys. I just don’t see too much from his style except exciting fights. I think him and Eddie (Alvarez), him and Gaethje again, something like that.

“He makes exciting fights, he should go out there and keep doing that, but leave the real fighting and the real championship-level s**t to the other guys.”

UFC on FOX 29 also marked the third Octagon appearance for Gaethje, who has taken part in the Fight of the Night on every card since joining the promotion last July. Like Poirier, Gaethje is a proven crowd favorite despite losing his last two fights after starting his pro career 18-0.

While Lee can’t see himself employing that same reckless style, he won’t begrudge Gaethje for wanting to put on a show even if it’s not the best way to get ahead in the rankings.

“Both of them, they seem like they’ve got a different type of mindset,” Lee said. “(Gaethje)’s out there just putting on fun fights, which if that’s what you’re doing it’s cool - if that’s what he wants to do, it’s his brain, it’s his body, it’s his health, it’s up to him what he want to do with it. It seems like he’s just okay with just being that and just going out there and getting his brain beat in so I can’t tell a man what to do. The man is grown.”

Lee has his own business to take care of this Saturday in New Jersey when he fights Edson Barboza in the main event of UFC Atlantic City. Both men are looking to bounce back from high-profile losses, with Lee having been submitted by Tony Ferguson at UFC 216 in a bout for an interim title, and Barboza losing a lopsided decision to Nurmagomedov at UFC 219 in December.

Like Poirier, Lee expects a big win to vault him into a title shot as opposed to setting him up to fight another contender for that opportunity. He still laments the loss to Ferguson, going as far as to say that if he’d been victorious in their meeting last October then it would have saved the UFC a lot of headaches when “El Cucuy” was recently forced to bow out of his title fight with Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 due to an injury.

“I think that’s what’s gonna happen,” Lee said, when asked if he thought he’d be next for Nurmagomedov with a win on Saturday. “Even all that fiasco, everything shaking up last week with Khabib and Tony and all this, I apologized, I reached out to them and apologized to the UFC for letting that happen. If I would have shown up healthy against Tony Ferguson, that week in Brooklyn (at UFC 216) would have been completely different looking.

“So I apologize, but I’m a right my wrongs after this fight and then once I get that 12 pounds on me, I’ll right all this. I’ll clear up this whole division. It’s muddy right now and I feel like it’s my fault and I’m taking personal responsibility for it. Give me about a year’s time and it will all be etched out and they’ll know who the true king around here is.”