It’s no secret that the lightweight division, while still being the best and most talent-rich weight class in all of mixed martial arts, is also a bit of a mess. It has been for a while.
UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is suspended for his UFC 229 post-fight melee and will likely be sidelined until late 2019. The division’s rightful No. 1 contender, Tony Ferguson, is sidelined indefinitely due to personal issues. The division’s former champion and biggest star, Conor McGregor, is effectively sidelined indefinitely of his own volition, or at least until he decides he wants to fight again. Likewise for Nate Diaz.
All of that uncertainty has led to a crippling logjam atop the UFC’s 155-pound roster, which will only get further complicated once Dustin Poirier and featherweight champion Max Holloway battle for an interim lightweight title at UFC 236.
So without a clear and intelligible path to get to where he wants to be in the lightweight title picture, top contender Kevin Lee figured that now is as good of a time as any to try his hand out in the welterweight division, which is what he’ll do when he makes his 170-pound debut against Rafael dos Anjos on May 18 in the main event of UFC Rochester.
“A lot of [the lightweight division] kinda went stagnant, which is a real shame,” Lee said Monday on The MMA Hour. “I mean, it’s always been one of the best divisions in the UFC. There’s just so many ups and so many questions. And part of me was like, this is where I said I wanted to be, and this is where I started and where I’m gonna finish, especially with fighting Khabib. But when I looked at it, like, okay, I’m not going to sit around and wait.
“It’s too many politics going on. Like you said, Max is now fighting Dustin, Tony’s sitting out — which, I’m sad about that whole situation — and all these other things, and nobody wants to fight, and guys only want these certain fights just to push them up, and Conor’s kinda calling the shots still. And I’m like, you know what, f*ck all of this. I’m mostly worried about me anyway. To me, I’m the top dog. So it’s what’s best for my career and going forward.
“Those fights are still going to be out there,” continued Lee. “I still am 100 percent confident I can make 155 again, but we’ll see after. I prefer this fight at 170; 155, they need to get their shit together. That’s all. I think it’ll come together towards the end of this year, but I wasn’t about to sit around and wait for them.”
The move to welterweight makes sense for Lee. As he gets older, the 26-year-old Michigan native has increasingly struggled to make the 155-pound lightweight limit. He outright missed weight last year for his victory over Edson Barboza and has long been an advocate for the creation of a 165-pound division.
But the timing also makes sense as well. Whether it’s Robert Whittaker becoming a UFC champion at 185 pounds, or former middleweights Thiago Santos and Anthony Smith making title runs at 205 pounds, the trend of fighters finding success by moving up a division and fighting closer to their natural weight has never been more prevalent. For more relatable examples, Lee needs to look no further than Anthony Pettis and Jorge Masvidal, two longtime lightweights who suddenly find themselves in the thick of things at 170 pounds after recently knocking out former welterweight title challengers.
“I’m about 181 (pounds). I used to get much heavier, but I’ve been about 180, 181 since really the past year or year-and-a-half,” Lee said.
“When I look at other guys, maybe [I’ll be on the smaller end of welterweight], but Pettis just showed too, this last Saturday, sometimes that size really doesn’t matter, especially when you’re talking about speed and durability. ... I feel like I can out-technique a lot of these guys. When I see even a lot of their wrestling at 170, a lot of it is very basic. So I feel like technique, speed, and durability will outlast their strength. I’ll let you know after May 18th how it all goes down. I’m kinda figuring sh*t out with you.”
Lee said his move to 170 pounds isn’t permanent. He is still holding the door open for a potential return to the lightweight division once the title picture figures itself out, but he also isn’t ruling out a run toward the UFC’s welterweight championship if things go well against dos Anjos. For now, every option is in play, which is an exciting possibility for Lee and one that he said has put a new “pep in his step” ahead of UFC Rochester.
“We’ll have to see how it shakes up,” Lee said. “Like you said, Pettis looked great, Masvidal looked great, you’ve still got (Ben) Askren out there, you’ve got (Santiago) Ponzinibbio, you’ve got Leon Edwards. And like I said, (Kamaru) Usman’s now the champ, so Mama Woodley warned him — I’m here, I’m coming for him. So I don’t know, we’ll see. It’s been nothing but respect between me and Usman, and I kinda want to still honor that. But as a competitor, I’m probably going to be on his heels. We’ll see. We’ll see after the fight.”