If you self-imposed a 10-minute limit on your MMA main-event viewing, you would be forgiven if you had concluded sometime in the last year or so that Kevin Lee was one of the best fighters on earth. For about two rounds — sometimes just a shade less — Lee is a hurtling asteroid. He throws heat, he speeds along at supersonic limits, he threatens to vaporize most everything in his path. It’s intense power, from bell to bell. Clearly, this is a man giving every bit of energy in pursuit of victory. As a fan, you cannot ask for more.
Yet suddenly, as he’s reached top-level opposition, his results no longer match his exertion. Because Lee, two-round wonder that he is, has suddenly lost three of his last four bouts. Rafael dos Anjos became the latest veteran to outlast the early bombardment, eventually stopping Lee with a fourth-round arm-triangle choke submission.
By the time dos Anjos squeezed the door shut on Lee’s hopes, things had already been trending in the wrong direction for the 26-year-old. The early pop on his strikes had faded. His head movement had come to a standstill. The explosiveness on his takedown entries had fizzled. In the third round, he landed only two strikes.
It was one last, failed attempt that doomed him, Lee shooting but dos Anjos stuffing it and spinning away. Lee, grasping at RDA’s legs, fell forward, nearly face-first into the mat, probably in equal parts frustration and exhaustion, before dos Anjos spun to his back, took full mount and sunk in the choke.
The thing about it is, Lee gave a tremendous effort. No one can say otherwise. But if that is an objective truth, then so is this: some of the defeat was self-inflicted. Lee begins the fight at such a furious pace, it’s no wonder why he often has little left for a fight’s final minutes.
Again, he is 26 years old. This is a problem that can be corrected. Most of the sport’s top players understand that fighting at a redline pace is a risk/reward play that often works against lesser opposition but stops paying dividends against the elite. Lee probably knows it as well. To get past this hump, he needs to put it into practice.
That’s the big takeaway from UFC Rochester, far past whether or not Lee is fighting in the correct weight class. This was his debut performance at 170, and frankly, he performed comparably and admirably compared to his lightweight past. Lee didn’t lose because he was depleted from a weight cut, or because he’s in the wrong division, or even because he was the lesser mixed martial artist. He lost because of how he rations his energy.
This is not to say he would have won if he fought at a slower pace. It is only to say that he put himself at a significant disadvantage for a crafty veteran to capitalize upon. In the first two rounds, Lee tried nine takedowns and fired off 67 mostly full-power strikes. You can see the effort in everything he does. And you can see the slowdown as he goes along.
Contrast that to dos Anjos, who manages a smooth and controlled tempo throughout his fights, and it’s easy to see the difference. The Brazilian is a decorated veteran and represented a chance for Lee to collect his first win over a former UFC champion. He is just too experienced and too good to offer a handicap.
The good news is that Lee remains both young and talented. No fighters in the lightweight or welterweight class walk away from viewing his fights and thinking he will be a quick or easy win. Lee has skills and heart and time.
The bad news is that none of those guarantee him anything. The worse news is that he has to find a way to fix this issue on the fly. The UFC isn’t likely to give him a few easy fights to help his progression. He’ll continue to face a murderer’s row not too dissimilar to his last quartet. Dos Anjos, Al Iaquinta, Edson Barboza and Tony Ferguson; that’s not just a group of studs, there’s an actual bogeyman in the mix!
It was always going to be a tall order to jump up a weight class and beat the division’s No. 3-ranked contender. For a few minutes, Lee was doing that. And that is something. That is meaningful. But to get to where he wants to go, to take a step forward, Lee has to do something counterintuitive: he has to slow down.