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Kevin Lee re-emerges as a contender in a division chock full of them

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MMA: UFC Fight Night-Barboza vs Lee
Kevin Lee strikes opponent Edson Barboza in the main event of UFC Atlantic City in Atlantic City, N.J., on Saturday.
Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It snuck up on the calendar, but in some ways the UFC’s Fight Night in Atlantic City was the last fistful of confetti being tossed up after a month-long celebration of UFC lightweights.

At UFC 223, it was Khabib Nurmagomedov against the hydra of Tony Ferguson/Conor McGregor/Al Iaquinta, with a brief cameo by the masquerading featherweight, Max Holloway. At UFC on FOX in Glendale, it was Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. On the Boardwalk, it was the suddenly emergent Dan Hooker knocking out ol’ Red Beard himself, Jim Miller, with a violent knee — then calling out the lightweight holding the mic, Paul Felder, who, incidentally, was also part of the aforementioned Nurmagomedov sweepstakes.

Then there was Kevin Lee beating Edson Barboza like a drum. The man that topped off April’s Lightweight Extravaganza was the biggest 155-pounder of them all, Kevin Lee, who weighed in at 157 pounds on Friday. People may be banishing him to the welterweight division for missing, but he looked better than he ever has.

Though Barboza nearly pulled off a Hail Mary knockout in the third round when he landed a spinning heel kick on Lee’s chin, this version of the “Motor City Phenom” wasn’t messing around. For ten straight minutes he had Barboza on the ground in various states of flailing, trying to survive an onslaught of elbows, hands, and flashbacks to the Nurmagomedov fight. It wasn’t so much a wrestling display as it was a meat tenderizer showing off against a piece of steak. When Barboza caught and staggered Lee in the third round, it became an instant AYFKM moment because it nearly erased two of the most dominant rounds ever strung together. Kudos to Barboza for that spike on the cardiograph, but it wasn’t enough to stop Lee.

He recovered and continued on with his regularly scheduled beating. The fight was called to a halt in the fifth.

Lee became the latest to throw his hat in the ring for a chance to fight Nurmagomedov, even if his beat down of Barboza came on the heels of a loss against Ferguson. In the post-fight media conference he made a case that he was the toughest challenge for the current champ, in part because Nurmagomedov wouldn’t be able to out-wrestle him. That is a fairly bold statement, yet — in retrospect — it’s almost as if both Lee and Nurmagomedov used Barboza as a pummeling dummy to prove who is the greater tyranny of the singlet.

What’s fun about Lee is that he’ll play to his opponent’s strengths for segments of a fight, just to see how he might hold up. He did that with Barboza when he opted to stand with him, which he explained to the assembled media with no small amount of giddiness.

“I can do it all, I’m pushing into every space, I want to see what his range is and… my thing is, I like a challenge,” he said. “I love everything about the game. I love a challenge. People were saying don’t stand at kicking range with him, I’m like, ‘f*ck that, let’s see what he got — throw the best that you got at me and we gonna see.’ Look, I’m still standing and he on the ground, so …”

… so, welcome back, Kevin Lee.

Has there ever been a healthier moment for matchmaking at lightweight? Even if Lee hasn’t done enough for Sean Shelby to book him against Nurmagomedov, there are options all over the place. Fellow contender Eddie Alvarez was cageside for the fights, and would make for a good dance partner for Lee. So would Poirier, who matched Gaethje blow for sadistic blow in Arizona last week. A Lee-Poirier fight would carry a good many bells and whistles with it. So would Lee versus Nate Diaz, but perhaps the less said about that one the better. Until Diaz is announced in a fight, he is nothing more than an abstract X-factor in all potential pairings.

(Still, imagine the ridiculous build-up to that fight — just imagine all that Stockton versus Detroit bravado clashing in a press conference).

Lee’s performance may carry an asterisk for his missed weight, but it’s hard not appreciate the response. He lost his interim title fight with Ferguson in October of last year, and then tragically lost his coach Robert Follis two months later. FightMetric doesn’t track the turmoil in a man’s heart, but oftentimes those intangibles are what make fights so hard to predict (not to mention so compelling to behold). Some show up diminished from emotional setbacks, while others show up more motivated than ever.

It’s a testament to Lee’s fortitude that he went in for the latter. Now he finds himself right there with the other contenders in the lightweight division — right there “in the mix,” as Dana White likes to say when he doesn’t know what to do with people. The good news is that mix in the lightweight division is a strong one.

It’s the deepest pool of contenders the UFC’s had in a long, long time.